AfriCOBRA: Art for the People – The Q&A

Q&A with Second City faculty member Sean Cusick after a screening of episodes of the 1972-73 series Earthkeeping at the Experimental Station on October 3, 2018.

Sean Cusick (SC): A lot of times we conflate together the idea of satire and parody, and most of the time they go hand in hand. So for instance, if you guys remember Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, that was a parody of a right-wing cable talk show, and at the same time a satire of it. It’s a mockery of it, but also a parody. Parody at its core is simply copying, mimicry. So for example, I like to say that you can go to grandma and grandpa’s fiftieth wedding anniversary party, and you can do a parody of their life without mocking them and calling them stupid, or asking people to laugh at them derisively. You don’t have to satirize them, you can simply do a parody of them.

That said, satire and parody are often put together for useful purposes. Giving a familiar form of some kind to the audience cuts out a lot of the necessary backstory, and exposition, and that kind of thing. And that’s part of the reason why, when it comes to thinking about satire at least in a performative measure, up on a stage or on a screen, a lot of the satire that’s done in the United States falls under the umbrella of sketch comedy. Short, performance-oriented comedy rather than, say, longer films or books. Sure, those exist, but pound for pound, if we’re just talking the sheer number of ideas and whatnot, it tends to pop up a lot in sketch, which is what we saw in this stuff here.

So, wow, where to go with this kind of thing? Cool, let me talk first about the first one we watched, which was the “Greenbacks” one. The messaging of these documentaries is pretty clear. They are pro-ecology, pro-environment. If anything, pro-conservation, and to a certain extent, anti-capitalist in some of the ways that they’re pushing their messages. This comes across pretty clearly throughout most of the pieces. And that is one of the requirements when it comes to the idea of satire. We want our audience to clearly understand the point that you are making of things. If satire is unclear, if the message seems kind of fuddled, the piece is less successful.

So let me talk about a couple of these pieces. Let’s see here. So in the first one we had the “No Winners, Only Losers” game show, okay? And in the second one we had another television parody, which was “The Yesterday Show,” where we had a series of guests come on. A couple of thoughts on that one, the “No Winners, Only Losers.” They played the game “pass the buck,” where they started off with a representative of the public, who then blamed a politician, who then blamed unions, who then blamed management, who then circled it back around to the public. The messaging of this was pretty clear, that everybody was blaming each other the whole way across. We’re able to pick up on that one pretty quickly.

If anything, a weird criticism on this one, I suspect that most of you feel like you got it right away. Like, “Okay, cool, we get the point of this,” and then it kind of kept playing out the same sort of thing. Comedy, like any form of media that involves messaging, tends to have grown in sophistication over time. I felt, and I bet a lot of you as well, watching this documentary, not only just because of the image quality and the music, but it felt old school.

You kind of got the message pretty quickly. A lot of the moments felt almost heavy handed. Like, “Oh look, here’s another shot of a filthy river with an aggressive banjo bluegrass thing playing in the background.” That last one closed with a dead white bird on a post. I mean, that is not neutral journalism whatsoever. That is club you over the head.

We see that as well, oddly enough, with propaganda. If anyone has occasionally caught stuff that comes out of North Korea on the news, they are, by our standards, ridiculously unsophisticated in their messaging. They have shots of things fakely blowing up, and marches of weaponry and things. It feels like 1930s or 1940s commercials, you know? With a doctor walking out and being like, “Cigarettes are good for you.” We all immediately react to that as kind of heavy handed, a little bit dumb, what are you saying, I can see through this. And we feel the same way about watching this comedy. That first piece about “pass the buck,” I think we all got it the first time they went through the game, and yet they went and repeated it. The entire second half of the scene was essentially a repeat of the first half.

The other scene, which was a little bit better, at least by 2018 standards, was “The Yesterday Show,” where we had Joe Flaherty come out as—by the way, the names in all of this, both the fictional ones and the real ones, are fantastic. The characters in that were Jack Crabbe, the cowboy guy, Robert Trashman, an ecologist, C. Steel Mills, and Betty Byer. But they don’t compare to—the first guy we saw was Vester Stanley of Dalton, Georgia, V.D. Parrot, J.J. Hasda, and Dr. Brown, the microbiologist, talking about tumors growing. They’re all comedy names.

But anyway, the second one—we meet Jack Crabbe, we meet the ecologist, we meet C. Steel Mills. And each one of them comes out and they’re kind of, in a way, worse than the person who comes in before them. Now, there’s something great that I like in this one. Some of the best satirical comedy is comedy that allows audiences to draw their own conclusions. We present a situation and at the close of the piece, or throughout the piece, your brain goes, “Wait, that’s not the case,” or, “Hold on, I have another opinion on that one.” Comedy that doesn’t do that is very easily accused of soapboxing, where we’re lecturing or hectoring an audience the whole way through.

With each one of these things, it opened up with—the last one, with Jack Crabbe, with, “So I understand that you’re currently involved in a project that will preserve the beauty of our natural parks.” 

“No, I’m not.”

[Snaps] And they cut right away on that one. The conclusion in everyone’s brain is, “That’s not a good thing.” Similar moments: with C. Steel Mills, he goes through and talks about the “freedom to want.” Medical science needs to invent a better human respiratory system, and it goes with, “We all agree that you have a right to grow, expand, and profit.” And cut away, again leaving you to draw the conclusions as to what’s going on next with that one.

Now, the reason this one kind of bugs me a little bit is, again, the messaging seems a little bit odd. The first scene is very clear, okay? That first one with, “pass the buck, pass the buck, pass the buck.” Cool, we get that one. In the end of it, the public is the one who gets screwed. She gets shuffled off and sent away. The message is very clear.

The second one, however, with John Belushi’s character as Robert Trashman, it’s a bit confusing. He plays an idiot. He is the voice of ecology in the course of this thing, and he brings out a dead fish. And let’s be honest, he has a great joke, of, “No, no, the water was filthy.” 

“That killed the fish?” 

“Well, not directly. The fish crawled out of the water and got hit by a car. Had the water been clean, it would have stayed in the river.” 

Solid joke, but he’s an idiot, and he’s waving his fish around. And every time they cut over to him, he effectively undermines the position of the environmentalist in this scene. And at the end of this thing, we’re left with an oddly, I suppose, balanced approach to this thing. Like, “Okay, the capitalist and the guy in the cowboy hat are definitely jerks, but the environmentalist is a douchebag.” That’s a bit of a mixed, muddy kind of message. Yeah, thought?

Michael W. Phillips Jr. (MP): I kind of thought that in the context of the rest of the episode, it was the filmmakers telling environmentalists, “You need to work on your messages.”

SC: Fair point. 

MP: Like, if you just wave dead fish around, you’re gonna lose people.

SC: Yeah, you can’t come across as this dork and this weirdo. It begs a really interesting idea. There has been a lot of research that has gone into what are effective arguments based upon where you fall on a political spectrum. In particular what comes to mind is, they did a bunch of things in terms of images for people who self identify—or don’t self identify, but based upon their responses to things, come down as very liberal or very conservative. And show the same images, they have different reactions. 

So in context of the environment, conservatives tend to have strong reactions if you show them a picture of a trash-strewn forest. Trash and garbage, filthy rivers, that kind of thing. The idea, to distill it down, of purity being taken away tends to be an effective argument for that mindset. On the other hand, for people who are on the left of things, showing a depleted forest. Trees cut down, space, that kind of thing, an encroachment of industrial stuff into things, the idea of things being taken away. That is a much more effective argument when it comes to speaking to liberals, at least over the last couple of years.

So absolutely, on this one, the argument for balance can be made, and also the argument towards, “Hey ecologists, clean up your game, don’t look and act like John Belushi for this thing, or your message isn’t gonna get across.” Let’s see, what else did I want to talk about with this stuff?

MP: What do you teach students about political comedy?

SC: Sure. So, tricky question on that one. I’m quite outspoken in my liberal opinions and that kind of thing, but I try to take it upon myself when it comes to students that it’s not my job to tell you what to think with things. I generally believe that humor functions better when it comes from a perspective of attacking power structures, versus punching down upon victims or something like that. It’s just the way that comedy tends to operate. Comedy almost always undercuts. It takes things that are on a higher status and lowers them aggressively to get a laugh out of us. When your position is a defense of the status quo, it is very difficult for you to lower things of value.

So I start by telling them that, first things first, I’m not judging you on the humor or what you’re going after. But you want to have a clear target in mind. You want to be going after an idea of some kind, and not just a person. So for instance, we tend to criticize, say, the Kardashian family, okay? They’re a family, they’re human beings, blah blah blah, but we don’t go after them because of who they are as people. We go after them because of what they represent. We go after them because of the ideas they bring to the forefront.

Back when George W. Bush was president, there was a lot of comedy that was done about how poorly he pronounced words. “Nu-clar.” That he wasn’t good on his feet, that he couldn’t speak or think quickly. People who disagreed with him, however, did not go after him because he spoke poorly, they went after him because of the ideas he represented. So first things first, with satire, political satire or social satire, you want to be going after an idea that you can clearly identify in some way.

Secondly, it’s got to be something that is known to the audience. If your audience has no idea what you’re talking about, they will not be able to understand any jokes you make about it. A couple years ago—Second City has a branch in Toronto, and I spent a couple of weeks up in Toronto working on something, and it was a weird experience to go to their show. Did you know that Canada has their own government, and their own celebrities, and their own politicians? I had no idea. They have laws as well. And so I sat there listening to their shows. And clearly this is a setup, and then a punchline, and everyone around me would laugh. And I would have no idea who they were talking about, and a complete inability to get the joke. So if your audience doesn’t know what something is, you need to be able to inform them and/or alter your situation.

If anyone here watches John Oliver’s show on HBO, he does probably the best job these days of simultaneously mocking a target as well as educating the audience about what this thing is. A perfect episode is from his first season, where he goes after FIFA, the governing body of soccer around the world. They are notoriously corrupt. I didn’t really know why. So he spends a solid twenty-five minutes or so explaining the way FIFA works, their governing rules, the way they infiltrate a system—infiltrate, harsh word—and what they do, in order to explain and make sense of the joke as we’re going through.

After we have the idea of a clear target of some kind, nailed down to an idea, we have to realize we’re making an argument. Usually with my students, the first thing I have them write when I have them write satire is to go after one of their own beliefs. Think of something that they believe to be right, and then sit down and bone-dry pick apart why you believe that thing you do. And then once you figure out why you believe what you do, go after one of the points and try to find something ridiculous, or something that doesn’t make sense in the way the foundation of this idea is put together.

There’s a couple of different definitions of how satire works, or what it is. One of the ideas is when the few convict the many of stupidity. That’s one of my favorite lines. So we’re calling out this thing as being a stupid idea. But my favorite one, and I actually grabbed this one, is from the poet Auden, who says that, “Satire flourishes in a homogeneous society with a common conception of moral law. A satirist and an audience must agree as to how normal people can be expected to behave.”

Now that’s all cool, but nerdy, and worth unpacking. In order for satire to work, we have to have an agreement on a basic level of moral law about what is right or what is wrong. So in the case of those scenes we were seeing, the idea of garbage being thrown away and having no repercussions. We saw that in the scene with Belushi and the banana peel. Cool, that’s messaging that works for a five-year-old. “Oh, I can’t just throw things away and expect nothing to come back and get me.” In this case, some man in an ape suit who chases him through a park at, I think, LaSalle and North.

But we need to have an agreement as to what is right or what is wrong. And as Auden puts out, it works best in a homogeneous society. So in this case, the target audience of this documentary? Probably people with an environmental or ecological bent at the time would be in agreement about the humor on this thing. The problem, of course, comes up with satire when the audience doesn’t all agree. There have been a bunch of studies over the years, and they’ve found, among shocking things, that there’s a substantial portion of the population who, when Stephen Colbert was on The Colbert Report, did not know that he was playing a character. Something like 20% of the audience out there thought that he was genuinely a right-wing spokesperson making jokes at the expense of liberals. They did not believe it or did not get it.

And we’re seeing this increasingly with what’s going on in the world. America, formerly, either rightly or wrongly, was largely the same bunch of people who mostly got at least their news from the same source. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve increasingly been recognizing that we’re a collection of smaller communities, and in turn, those communities have grown more isolated, more insular, and have gotten their news and their opinions from different situations and different sources. We don’t all laugh at the same stuff. As we get split into more camps and more tribal situations, our humor is also beginning to drift us and pull us apart. Humor is one of the things we use to identify who is part of what our group is. 

So these days, one of the big running conversations not only of Second City, but a lot of friends of mine who write for shows like Colbert or write for John Oliver and that kind of thing, is: are we making things worse? For a long time the belief about comedy was at the very least, it does no harm. But in the months following the election of Donald Trump, there has been a big hanging question of—if Colbert goes too hard after Trump, and hits too hard, if an audience member doesn’t like that joke, we used to think, “Well, no big deal.” But these days the question is: do they grab the remote and flip over to Fox News? Did we just push someone into an opposite direction than we wanted to go with things? So it’s a rolling conversation in the world of comedy.

Anyway, is that a hand?

Audience Member #1: There’s a theory that comedy which is parodying without satirizing something, or parody masquerading as satirizing something, very specifically Saturday Night Live the last couple of years, not only increases [inaudible] for the current power structure, but also normalizes that power structure in a very negative way.

SC: Personal opinion on that one? Yeah, that’s something that’s happening. I am of the opinion that in retrospect, the constant appearances of Trump on SNL took his ideas and personality from someone who was dangerous into someone who was just kind of a lovable clown. If anything, and who knows, this is pure hindsight and speculation, I would be very curious if the decision had been made at the beginning of the process that—rather than, we try to ape and mimic exactly what he’s like, because let’s be honest, that dude outdoes any attempt to make a comic character out of him. If they had swung hard in the other direction, and instead presented a mild-mannered, considerate, articulate, polite, and thoughtful Donald Trump, and left the audience to make the conclusion out of it, of like, “Well, that’s not what he’s like. He’s a monster.” Would that have had a different impact on things? You know, ask us in fifty years if we’re in a wonderful utopia or a burned out hellscape. Maybe we’ll know then. But yeah, I agree. There’s a lot happening there. Sir?

MP: Those skits, my reaction was completely opposite. As you explained why “pass the buck” wasn’t as funny because it repeated itself, I realized I found it funnier because I totally agreed with it. And then it reinforced how right I was. In the second one, I’m like, “What are they saying? Is that the best spokesperson they could get for the environment?” And it really made me think about my initial reaction to it. I enjoyed the first skit a lot more, but am I the only one who felt that way?

Audience Member #2: I really liked the little asides, like the things about the sacred cow, the profit motive, and the thing at the end where she starts blaming the Jews, and the blacks, and the communists.

SC: Yeah, scapegoat.

Audience Member #2: And then it’s like, communism wouldn’t work, but only a few years ago… And maybe the repetition… I don’t know, it didn’t bother me so much. But I especially liked the asides, which seemed like they were kind of for a subset of the audience. The skit as a whole was trying to explain something to a broad audience, and then they would throw in these little asides about the sacred cow, the profit motive, for their anti-capitalist friends.

SC: I had a moment on this one where I was watching and thinking, again, a lot of this feels obvious to me, but at the same time, again, it’s a different era, and we’ve been steeped in this stuff. I was wondering how much of this, in terms of opinion, would be brand spanking new to some of the audience members. You know, how many of them would have considered profit motive, or that kind of thing? I don’t really know. Hand in hand with a lot of the imagery in this one of a polluted environment—and again, to my point earlier about that appealing to a more right-wing audience—I wondered on that one as well, do they see this as a bunch of kooky hippie kids talking stuff, or are they actually hearing these as new ideas, or older ideas? I can’t speak for the audience at the time. Other stuff? Satire, comedy, SNL, me? I’m an Aquarius. I like long walks on the beach.

Audience Member #3: Douglas Adams, in his last book, his posthumous book, commented that we laugh at everything. Quite erroneously. So we’ll laugh at music in a dentist’s office, we’ll laugh at advertising. It was twenty-three years ago when he wrote that, or twenty-five. And how that has become even worse when we laugh very specifically with populist politicians. Whereas, again, you brought up punching up and not punching down. We see it in here where we’re laughing with the worst tendencies of the people that are supposed to be speaking for us, the environmentalist, or the teamster, whatever you want to call him in that first skit. But we’re still very much laughing at all the other assholes in those skits.

SC: Yeah, we’re laughing at all of them, and we’re laughing at everything the whole way through. Again, maybe it’s just a matter of the eye of the beholder as to who I find to be the more ridiculous character, what I take away from this one. The difficulty with that one is, is this comedy making a new argument to me that is somehow compelling, or is it merely reinforcing the biases that I already had against teamsters, or against the environment?

Audience Member #3: I guess part of the question there is: are we far more prone to laugh now then we have been in the past? Are we more conditioned to laugh, and therefore accept uncritically?

SC: One of the things that is a little bit different from the way it used to be is that I think we have a greater expectation of humor in all spheres. These days, when we watch a presidential debate, we expect our candidates to be able to crack a joke, to be quick, to have a good sense of humor. Rewind back thirty years ago, there was generally no expectation that your president would be capable of being funny. That is a relatively new thing. These days we expect to see humor in television commercials almost all the time. We expect humor pretty much everywhere. As to whether or not that saturation comes from our actual desire or just the way media is being put out there, I don’t know. But it does make me think that we’re more conditioned to laugh at everything, and as a result of that, our laughs are less pointed, they’re less barbed, they’re more just a part of the experience. I don’t know if that quite satisfies your question.

Audience Member #3: Yeah, no, that was perfect. Thank you.

SC: Cool. Anything else? Awesome. Thank you.