The Assault on Chris Redd: Who’s on the Hook?

For comedians, getting attacked onstage on occasion when things get charged is something many can relate to. But getting attacked offstage and outside performance venues seems like a different beast altogether. Sadly, though, it happens: just ask Saturday Night Live (SNL) alum Chris Redd who was recently assaulted by an unknown male assailant outside the famed Comedy Cellar in New York City as he arrived to perform at the club. In a vicious attack that left him “gushing blood,” the comedian sustained some rather serious injuries, including two fractures to his nose and one to his cheek.

While both the identity of the attacker and his possible motives remain the subject of speculation, the real-life implications of the situation are less uncertain. Reportedly, the attack happened as Redd was approaching the front door of the club; so, if we suppose that the spot where the assault occurred was under the control of the club, then some two-fold questions arise:  first, what are the options open to an injured comedian in Redd’s position and, second, what are the responsibilities of comedy venues to those who visit their venues, including performing comedians. As for Redd, it is certain that if the attacker is caught, he will be held accountable for his actions, perhaps by the district attorney’s office charging him with a crime or perhaps by Redd himself suing the attacker in civil court for damages for assault.  But what if the attacker is not caught and Redd remains aggrieved and wishes to put someone on the hook? Who can he sue and on what conditions or in what circumstances?

Given that Redd is a professional person who was booked to perform at a scheduled event, he was in the position of an “invitee” to the venue, meaning simply that his presence there at the time was anticipated. Thus, it is logical to consider whether the comedy club was possibly liable for not preventing the incident. We’re dealing here with an area of the law known as premises liability, which as the name implies concerns the responsibility of occupiers of premises to protect persons lawfully on their premises. In layperson language, the law requires occupiers of premises to take reasonable measures to keep their premises safe for the protection and benefit of their visitors and all others who may lawfully be expected to be present on the premises. Just what reasonable measures are required often depends on the circumstances of each situation and may include such things as adequate lighting, proper signage, security guards, and so on. 

Although reasonable measures may mean different things in different situations, one constant factor in deciding whether the measures taken in any situation are reasonable is what is known as “foreseeability.”  In other words, was it foreseeable that unless the measures or steps in question were taken, the damage or injury that ultimately resulted would likely have occurred? If the answer is yes, then the occupier of premises would be held liable in negligence for the damage or injury that occurred. Of course, if the answer is no, then there is no liability. Simple as that!

So, how does all this apply to Redd and the Comedy Cellar, if we suppose, of course, that the place where the attack occurred was part of the club’s premises?  Considering that, could it be said that the comedy club, as an occupier of premises, was somewhat negligent in failing to prevent the attack on Redd, its invitee?   

In other words, what reasonable measures could the club have taken to prevent the attack? To say it differently, were there any missing links in the way it managed its security operations that one could say did make the attack foreseeable?  These are vexed questions of fact and when push comes to shove in court, these are the sorts of matters that jurors (as finders of fact) wrangle over when they retire to deliberate in their jury rooms. But generally, in situations like these, if the Comedy Cellar would have provided such things as proper lighting, adequate signage and security arrangements on its premises, it is hard to see how it could he held liable for the random act of an unknown assailant who acted swiftly and varnished into thin air. It will be something of a stretch to say that such an incident was foreseeable under the circumstances. Of course, if such an incident would have happened previously, then it changes the calculus of liability: the club could then be said to have had knowledge or fair warning of the danger in question and thus had a duty to address such a situation going forward.

As of this writing, the assailant has not been caught and his dark motivations for the brutal attack remain a mystery. And so far, there is no indication of any actual or planned lawsuit against the Comedy Cellar by Redd. Yet one thing is for sure: in an age of increasing dangers to comedians, comedy venues are obliged to become even more vigilant about security issues on their premises. If this matter was not always taken seriously at event venues, well, it seems about to change.

Editor’s Note: The new book “Comedy Goes to Court: When People Stop Laughing and Start Fighting” (an Amazon bestseller) is now out and available for sale. Go grab your copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other bookstores.

Lewis Black and his Posse: Comedians at the Copyright Barricades

When it comes to the business of copyrights and its protection, one could be forgiven for thinking of comedians as downstairs people compared to musicians. To be sure, this old problem also seems to be a matter of respect as well as money. Not surprisingly, the comedy community these days is trying to do something about it and this time it’s the streaming services that are in their crosshairs for allegedly using their work without paying compensation for it by way of licensing. Enter Lewis Black: the comedian is suing the streamer Pandora in a California federal court for $10 million in copyright infringement damages, for allegedly streaming about 68 of his works without a license. The works in question are comedy recordings.

Black is only the latest comedian to file this sort of claim against Pandora, which is already being sued by comedians like Andrew Dice Clay, Ron White and others, including the estates of George Carlin and Robin Williams.  A win in these lawsuits will be a huge development both in terms of expanding the landscape of available copyright protection and of course turning on an additional money tap for comedians. The other big streamer Spotify avoided similar litigation last year by moving pre-emptively to yank some comedy recording from its platform after it couldn’t agree terms with the copyright holders. In that dispute, Black himself, in a gesture of solidarity with the aggrieved comedians demanded that his own works be taken off Spotify platforms as well. 

But what is really at issue in these cases and can Black and his brethren in fact win?

For starters, it bears explaining that when a work is protected by copyright, it means that the said work is both an “original” creation of the copyright owner as well as a thing that is affixed to a “tangible medium.” The said copyright owner could be an artist, a designer, a writer and more.

Now, though the allegation of the comedians we’re dealing with here is that the streamers are basically not paying for the recording being streamed at all, the question that must ultimately be resolved when it comes time to pay is exactly what particular elements of the comedy “work” should be paid for under a license. In other words, exactly what contents of the work are being licensed by the streamers? (The sort of copyright that comedians hold in their work is known as “spoken-word” copyrights.)  

While the streamers like Pandora and Spotify claim that a comedy recording is a single unified product that should attract only one license fee for the whole work, the comedians, for their part, claim that a comedy recording does in fact have two portions, namely, the recording itself and then the composition, or comedy writing, as separate components. To support their case, the comedians point to the situation with musical copyrights where the license purchaser, say a streaming service, buys and pays for both the musical recording itself as well as the composition of the song lyrics, as separate licenses. This argument was well foreshadowed by Black’s now famous remark that “a joke is just as powerful as a lyric of a song,” with the obvious implication that since the streamers are already paying separately for song lyrics, why not a joke as well.

Then again, one might well ask: if a musical recording and comedy recording are so analogous to each other, how come the two products have been treated so differently for so long and how come the comedians are only speaking up now?

It is worth noting how this question of timing seems to have played into the defense of the streamers as they attempt to fight off the recognition of this additional copyright, namely, comedy writing, which the comedians are seeking. In this regard, the streamers’ argument can be described as one based on tradition, something that some may well perceive as somewhat oppressive.  And it appears to relate to rather philosophical questions about the historical place of comedy in the broader society’s scheme of things and the inevitable value judgments around such questions. In this context, it is common knowledge that comedy’s existing recognition as an authentic art form or rather as “its own thing” is of rather recent vintage.  By contrast, music and the visual arts (think sculpture, painting, et cetera) have long been respected as legitimate art forms with valid claims to their own integrity and thus deserving of protection via things like copyright.      

Now fast forward to contemporary times and it is soon obvious that comedy’s fortunes have changed: with its newfound status as a legitimate art form, basking in the glow of a “golden age,” comedy no doubt has acquired a quite defensible claim to the greater protection of its integrity, just like music and the visual arts. Thus, for the comedy community, there is no better time than now to press this additional claim as part of an overall effort to protect every aspect of their art form and to benefit from it where appropriate. Quite simply, if not now, when?

So, in a manner of speaking, this brings us to a history versus law scenario: the comedy community’s good timing in launching this fight for a bigger slice of the pie is one thing, but whether the court will recognize their claim is quite another, considering the novelty of their claim. Though there is no certainty as to what the court will do, yet, if the comedians can justify their new claims under the law, then history won’t be able to stand in their way and they will win big. As already noted, such a big win will expand the contours of what elements of a work of comedy are protected from infringement and thus available for additional licensing. In this battle for more respect and money it seems like the comedians are the odds-on favorites to win, given the similarity of a joke and a song lyric in this copyright context and the sheer oddness of continuing to treat the two items differently. But, of course, the jury’s still out on the matter.  

*Book Release Notice: Well, folks, the new book “Comedy Goes to Court: When People Stop Laughing and Start Fighting,” is finally here and is scheduled for official release on September 22, 2022. Publisher: Hybrid Global Publishing. However, as of today the book is available on Amazon as an ebook for 99 cents. If you do obtain your copy at Amazon and you happen to like the book, please feel free to recommend the book to your friends/associates by simply giving the book a nice review/recommendation on Amazon. Enjoy the read and the laughs! Cheers!

Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle Attacked Onstage:  An Open Season on Comedians?

First, there was the slap heard around the world this past March when comedian Chris Rock was attached by actor Will Smith as he stood on stage during the last Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles. Then, not long after came the vicious assault on comedian Dave Chappelle by a crazed audience member at the Hollywood Bowl in May.

As one might expect, many are now wondering whether we might be entering an era where comedians have to worry about becoming victims of physical assaults by people who are unhappy with their shtick onstage. Bill Maher has described the situation as a “war on jokes” and other comedians like Kathy Griffin, Howie Mandel and more have said they won’t be going back onstage at least in the meantime. So, if there is a war on comedy, what then can be done to address the situation? Before answering this question, it may be worthwhile to try to figure out what options for redress are available to any comedian attacked onstage as Messrs. Rock and Chappelle were.

Well, the obvious person to be held legally liable here is the attacker himself (or “tortfeasor” as lawyers would say). The aggrieved comedian’s quite simple claim here is one for damages for battery, which is a claim asserted against someone who has made an unlawful physical contact with somebody else without any lawful excuse. Now, how about the venues responsible for hosting both the comedians and their attackers? Here, most ordinary people would think the comedian should be able to sue the event venue and thus make them liable for not taking steps to prevent the attack on the comedian. But, alas, it doesn’t work that way in the law and this expectation will likely be disappointed. For starters, the law generally won’t hold one person liable for the “intentional” act of another person, unless, for instance, a special sort of relationship exists between them.

Typically, such relationships include, say, a master-servant situation or employer-employee situation where one person can be said to control the way and manner that another individual performs their job. These situations are often referred to as “vicarious liability” situations. But does that apply in this situation? Can one validly say that a vicarious liability situation exists between, say, the hosts of the Oscar ceremony and the actor Will Smith or for that matter any of the so many celebrities and other guests at the ceremony?

The all-too-predictable answer here is no. Because Will Smith and the other guests are merely “invitees” (albeit lawful ones) to the ceremony. They are no more related to the event hosts than someone who attends a show at a comedy club and while therein decides on their own to beat up another patron of the comedy club. Liability for such “intentional” acts falls upon the person who did the act, rather than the venue. Unless of course the event hosts had reason to know or should have known that such a danger existed and yet did nothing to prevent it. In such situations, the event hosts would be liable to any injured “invitees” who become victims of any particular dangers that were foreseeable and therefore preventable.  Long story short, comedians who get injured in situations like the ones here, like Rock and Chappelle, can generally only go after the guy who attacked them and not the venue. And if the attacker is a man of straw who can’t even pay his own rent, or is otherwise a loser, then tough luck.  (Of course, the district attorney could bring charges, but that’s a different thing altogether.)

So, when it comes to preventing attacks upon comedians for doing their jobs, there, sadly, seems to be no effective way of making that happen, given that there isn’t much that can be done to the event venues where such incidents happen. Nor in fairness can one say that the venues are in a position to prevent such occurrences anyway.

Well, so are we now in a new era where it is open season on comedians who offend people by their material? The good news is no: for all the buzz surrounding recent events involving Rock and Chappelle, there doesn’t appear to be some sort of noticeable trend of attacks on comedians to a degree that is out of the norm for their line of work. The new aggressiveness is more of a society-wide problem. There seems to be a new climate of incivility and extreme behavior from members of the public that is manifesting itself to the detriment of working people or staffers in public-facing jobs, whether they be airline employees, restaurant workers, transit workers, and yes, comedians, too. One explanation is that thanks to the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, people seem to have been cooped up for too long and thus to have gotten just a bit more on edge than usual and, naturally, appear to be acting out more. Perhaps social scientists can tell us the expected trajectory of the extreme behaviors that we have been witnessing lately, but it is doubtful that they will become a “new normal” and, for what it is worth, comedians seem to be in no greater danger from hyper- agitated members of the public than other working people in public-facing jobs.

Speaking of the world of comedians, it is certain that getting confronted by offended people for what they have said onstage is an old problem that goes with the territory of standup comedy: sometimes the confrontation happens onstage, sometimes off stage. As far back as the 1970s New York comedy scene, for example, Joe Piscopo infamously had his nose broken by mobsters at the Improv, with a chipped tooth and black eye to boot, while a few weeks later Jimmy Brogan got confronted and “was scared to death” by a fearsome mobster after he got offstage at Catch A Rising Star and was forced by his would-be assailant to admit that “he wasn’t funny”. (“I apologized like a madman,” Brogan reportedly said.) So, between the cancel culture activists and those actually rushing the stage at them or confronting them afterwards, comedians are no strangers to folks who want them to shut the heck up. But the show must go on, even if the circumstances be different. There’s no canceling comedy. This too shall pass.

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*Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. There are two “categories” of articles: “Comedy Legal” and “Other Controversies.” You can find all of them at the “Categories” box on the sidebar. Please keep reading!

Joke Theft? SNL’s Michael Che in the Cross Hairs

Well, there we go again with the joke stealing thing: another accusation, another comedy star, another lawsuit. This time Michael Che’s number is up in the plagiarism altercations of the internet age. In case you missed it, the Saturday Night Live funnyman has been accused of purloining (okay, stealing) jokes from a TikTok video performer and now both Che and his partner HBO Max have been dragged to court. And the TikToker is asking for more than just money.  

But first, here’s the story: Kelly Manno is a TikTok performer who posts videos on the said platform covering various everyday situations like taking a home tour, grabbing fast food with kids in the car, carpools by moms and more. Last year around August and September, she released two TikTok videos which she claimed garnered many hundreds of thousands of views. The videos titled the “Homegirl Hotline” involved a fictional service which allows people to request a so-called “homegirl” to help them take care of personal problems in their lives. (In one of the TikTok skits, after being called in to help an upset woman get even with a cheating boyfriend, the assisting “homegirl” threw out the bad guy’s clothing from the woman’s upstairs window, then drops a label that reads “free shit” over the clothes strewn on the lawn downstairs before proceeding to puncture the tires of the guy’s SUV truck that was packed downstairs.)  Typically, after the “homegirl” deal is struck, the customer would express their gratitude by saying “Thank You, Homegirl”.  

Now enter Michael Che and his HBO Max comedy series titled That Damn Michael Che. One of the episodes of the series contains a sketch entitled “Homegrrl.”  There, a father’s young son is attacked at a building lobby by an agitated woman who claims that the boy had stolen something from her and was hiding it in his diaper. During the attack, another woman intervenes and punches out the woman who had lunged at the kid and then apologizes to the kid’s flustered father who then replies, “Thanks, Homegrrl!”.  It is this very line uttered by this father character in Che’s sketch that Manno claims infringes her copyright in the phrase “Thank You, Homegirl Hotline” which was uttered by the characters in her own video.  So, in her lawsuit, Manno is alleging that Che has willfully infringed her copyright in the video and is seeking serious money damages plus a court order (or injunction) stopping Che and HBO from continuing to use their sketch.      

Now let’s consider what the copyright law says about all this. For starters, one cannot obtain copyright in a work unless the said work is an “original” work that has been affixed to a “tangible” medium. Obviously then, Manno’s work here, whatever one might say of its quality, is “original” in nature (assuming, of course, that she didn’t lift the stuff from somebody else). Plus, TikTok as a platform qualifies as a “tangible” medium where works being presented for copyright protection can be situated. Therefore, at first blush, Manno’s “Homegirl Hotline” skit passes the copyright test and will be recognized as a “work” in which her copyright exists.

So, now that she’s sitting pretty as a copyright holder, how about Che? Did he, in fact, infringe her copyright? Well, not if he came up with his own work entirely on his own, in which case we will be dealing with a mere coincidence (which is okay) rather than a willful appropriation, which is not allowed. And of course, if we’re talking about willful infringement, we must assume that Che indeed had “access” to Manno’s work. (For folks in Manno’s position, one of the blessings of the Internet age is that proving “access” of this kind is a cakewalk because, hey, we all suppose that anyone can access anything posted for public consumption on a platform like TikTok.)

  Setting aside the question of coincidence, could the two works each enjoy copyright protection despite their apparent similarity?  Well, yeah: one cannot copyright an idea but rather only the particular (think original) way that the person has expressed the said idea. When we’re dealing with words, as in this case, what is or can be protected, incidentally, is the very way the words have been used rather than the all-too-familiar idea of expressing gratitude to someone (whether Homegirl or anybody else) who has done the speaker a favor. Translation: Even if someone in Che’s position saw the thing on the Internet, he can still avoid the copyright problem by simply using different words to express the same good-manners idea of gratitude. (Again, remember, no one can copyright an idea.) So, in the complicated world of copyright law, just proving that the second person had “access” to the first person’s work isn’t even enough.  Between the issues of coincidence, access and similarity of the works in question, the jury in these sorts of cases is dealing with and weighing up a lot of factors, which all makes for potentially expensive litigation and an oftentimes hard-to- predict outcome. 

This case brings to mind another copyright situation from across the pond in Britain, a case that just like the Che’s case, involves a lesser-known person going after someone with a higher public profile, as well as the same issues of coincidence; access, and the use of similar ideas and expressions. Only this time the dispute is between two actual working standup comedians, and funny enough, the dispute has led not to a copyright violation suit by the complaining comedian but rather a defamation lawsuit by the comedian who allegedly stole the other guy’s joke. (Feel free to call it the “smart fridge case”, if you like.)

In the British case, both comedians are making a joke about not wanting to buy a smart fridge, out of fear that said fridge would actually bother them with messages when then they’re away from home hanging out with their friends. One comedian (Darius Davies) claimed he first made the joke on the comedy club circuit prior to the second comedian (Kae Kurd) making the same joke on national TV.  Kurd, whose time on TV with the joke seemed to have garnered him newfound celebrity status (a prestigious talent agency rep plus a national tour) did sue Davies for defamation for essentially calling him a joke thief in a viral post that aired the accusation.

Although Davies has not filed a countersuit for copyright infringement against Kurd, the circumstances that existed between them before Kurd went to court present the same old copyright issues of coincidence, access and similarity of ideas/expression that we see in Che’s case. Indeed, they’d already argued over these issues (without any resolution) prior to the matter landing in court. At the moment, the parties are reportedly taking the traditional path of trying to resolve matters out of court. Makes sense in the circumstances.

 Returning to Michael Che’s case, it seems that the British situation offers clues as to the likely path out of the dispute: an out of court settlement. For a comedy star like Che, it may not be the best use of time and money to be wrangling about possible joke theft with a lesser-known quantity like Manno. There’s probably no path to a happy win for Che nor for HBO Max. If one were to take a bet, the odds are better than even that they’ll choose to just settle this pesky matter out of court and be done with it. But we’ll see how it all ends.  

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. There are two “categories” of articles: “Comedy Legal” and “Other Controversies.” You can find all of them at the “Categories” box on the sidebar. Please keep reading!

Understanding the Politics and Rise of Right-Wing Comedy: The Missing Links

One remarkable development in our current cultural moment is the growing emergence of conservative comedy as a powerful force in our social conversation. Contrary to other explanations so far offered for it, this essay attributes the rise of right-wing comedy to the intense polarization that has occurred in our politics and culture over the recent decades.

At the forefront of this conservative counterpoise to the more dominant liberal comedy is TV host Greg Gutfeld courtesy of his eponymous show Gutfeld! on Fox. According to Nielsen data, Gutfeld has bested the left’s leader Stephen Colbert in viewership numbers in the late-night comedy space in the most recent period.This despite the significant fact that Gutfeld’s show runs on cable rather than the more available network TV channels.

In their article on the subject, professors Nick Marx and Matt Sienkiewicz suggested that the growth of conservative comedy was due to “shifts in media industry economics and political ideologies.” (“How a Conservative Comic Greg Gutfeld Overtook Stephen Colbert in Ratings to Became the Most Popular Late-Night TV Host”, September 24, 2021, The Conversation.) 

However, the evidence rather suggests that comedy did not become “ideological” until the last two or so decades, with the overall polarization of our politics and cultureIndeed, it was largely the ideological tenor of latter-day comedy that seemingly transformed the so-called “media industry economics”. 

For his part, comedian Bill Maher rightfully explained that “comedy goes where the funny is, and there is funny on the left now, as well as the right”. (See Real Time with Bill Maher, August 27, 2021)

However, it is a fact that both the Left and the Right have had their share of scandals and absurdities over the last half century and yet no conservative comedian (think Dennis Miller and others), regardless of their talent, had managed to break through to comedic recognition and applause like Gutfeld has done. And it’s not because conservatives don’t know how to do comedy, as Maher further claimed. They actually do.

And so, the question lingers, why now?

Well, fact is, America itself changed, materially. Over the past two decades, the political branch of comedy has tended to dominate the practice of comedy, bringing with it the introduction of ideology and advocacy to the work of comedians. This new sort of comedy has been aptly termed “muckraking comedy”, courtesy of an August 2018 article in Medium co-authored by the Paley Center’s senior curator Ron Simon and this writer, titled “The Brave New World of Muckraking Comedy.” In explaining muckraking comedy, the article stated, “Once facts were facts and jokes were jokes. But the two have merged with comedians now wanting to change hearts and minds and not just release a guffaw. Funny now investigates and persuades, with the hopes of knowing laughter too.”  Comedian Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show on Comedy Central is considered by many to have birthed this new (muckraking) era in comedy.

Once upon a time in American society, say the 1960s and 1970s, comedians simply stayed in their lanes and rendered the jokes to entertain their audiences and mostly kept their politics to themselves. And that was in keeping with the country’s mores at the time. Even a political scandal as big as Nixon’s Watergate was not perceived by most comedians of that era as offering comedy gold; nor did most Americans see it as that much of a laughing matter, as confirmed by a 1973 article in The New York Times which noted that “Watergate just isn’t a laughing matter for most of the nation’s standup comedians”. (Watergate Comics Find the Joke Is on Them,” by Roy Reed, September 8, 1973).  “When they subpoenaed the President, that’s not comedy,” said Ken Barry, a comedian from that time.

To understand the “new normal” in American comedy, try imagining the probable reactions of leftwing comics if, Donald Trump, say, were to have faced a political scandal so huge as to force his resignation from office. Given recent suggestions in some quarters of a “national divorce” between Red and Blue America, it is hardly surprising that Americans now seem to have trouble being able to laugh at the same jokes. It is this sort of polarized environment that has created the golden opportunity for conservative comedy to answer the needs of people on the political right who hunger to “own the libs” and to laugh heartily at their expense. Accordingly, right-wing comedy of the muckraking variety has simply joined the fray, not so much to displace left-wing comedy as to stand in opposition to it in the service of its own political constituency. Gutfeld’s operation has seemingly emerged as the flagship of this movement, one that appears poised to wax even stronger in our current political and cultural moment. 

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. There are two “categories” of articles: “Comedy Legal” and “Other Controversies.” You can find all of them at the “Categories” box on the sidebar. Please keep reading!

Confronting Trump and Nixon: Comedy’s Changing Perspectives

In the wake of the January 6 Capitol attack few would dispute the assertion that Donald Trump is the most controversial president of our lifetime. Surely, he seems to bring out the very worst in his detractors: the mainstream media loathes him and he in turn famously berates them as “the enemy” of the American people. The comedy community makes a feast of trump jokes and, as some comedians have noted, the Trump jokes are literally writing themselves. To say the least, these jokes can be pretty tough stuff and are clearly intended to hurt mightily.

It is worth stating at this point that despite Trump’s departure from power, the current moment can still be fairly regarded as the Trump era, thanks to the continuing impact of the phenomenon of Trumpism in our cultural life.

The controversy of the Trump era recalls another president in America’s modern history: Richard Nixon. Aside from his frosty, adversarial relationship with the media, Nixon, in fact, created a so-called “enemies list” of people to be hunted down by the government; predictably, the list included not a few members of the media. Former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein calls the Nixon’s presidency a “criminal presidency.” Ultimately, Nixon was forced to resign the presidency in disgrace. Yet, it seems rather noteworthy that the comedy community of Nixon’s time did not go after him with anything resembling the venom and virulence with which Trump is assailed by comedians of his era. Question is, what accounts for the different reactions of the comedy community to the two uniquely controversial presidents?

America in the Nixon Era

As comedy legend Dick Cavett noted, the comedian [in that era] simply set out to think about an event and try to find some humor in it. A classic example can be seen in one of Cavett’s jokes about Watergate. In it, he cracked that the White House “plumbers” in trying to do their job of plugging leaks instead opened a Watergate. Speaking of his experience with Watergate, Cavett said, “I set out to do an entertaining talk show, never dreaming that I’ll get up to my neck in a national scandal.”

Cavett’s comments aptly capture the way comedy was done in the period before the contemporary era. Back then, comedy saw itself in a different role in society: it stayed in its own lane where the whole act was about making people laugh with whatever subjects would do the trick, whether the subjects were drawn from the political arena or elsewhere. Thus, comedians did not directly venture into the politics of the day to take sides in the political controversies of the moment. (Despite its apparent ideological bent, even the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which many would consider the outlier in that era, hewed closely to the goal of provoking laughter albeit at Nixon’s expense. The show neither wore its politics on its sleeves nor betrayed a burning desire to help the political opposition.)

Perhaps there was a good reason that comedians opted for that approach: their audiences, somehow, seemed to want it that way. Consider, for instance, the Watergate scandal, the biggest disaster of the Nixon presidency. According to a 1973 article in The New York Times (“Watergate Comics Find the Joke Is on Them,” by Roy Reed, September 8, 1973), most comedy audiences across the country, with the exception of a few isolated spots like New York, did not find Watergate jokes all that funny. “Watergate just isn’t a laughing matter for most of the nation’s standup comedians,” began the article, which went on to note that, “even scarcer than anti-Nixon Watergate jokes at the clubs are pro-Nixon jokes. Indeed, an informal nightclub survey didn’t turn up one of them.” From all indications, it was indeed a different time in the culture: “When they subpoenaed the President, that’s not comedy,” said Ken Barry, a comedian from that time.

Enter Trump and the Muckrakers

In today’s divisive political climate, it is difficult to imagine a comedian expressing the sort of sentiment expressed above by the comedian in the Times article. The simple reason is that we now live in the era of “muckraking comedy”, an overtly political and weaponized comedy that is news-based but lacks the commitment to objectivity that news professionals feel obliged to practice. The essence of this genre of comedy, which has been growing for the past two decades, consists of holding a viewpoint and using the vehicle of comedy to advance that viewpoint. As comedian Bill Maher rightly observed about today’s comedy audiences, “they’re there more to clap for the opinion they already believe in than to laugh. That’s what changed,” he said, adding, “It became more important to cheer for your team than to actually have a laugh.”

To be sure, the old laughter-based comedy of Cavett’s generation of comedians still exists today. However, in contemporary pop culture and the political climate that surrounds it, such comedy, clearly, has taken a back seat to the far dominant and more appealing genre of muckraking comedy, which is what reels in the all-important ratings. Given Trump’s outsized impact on the news cycle and the intense loathing of the man by those on the left, any left-leaning comedian of any significance today can only ignore anti-Trump muckraking at his or her own career peril. For instance, during Trump’s time in power, NBC’s Jimmy Fallon was forced to confront this new reality in his late-night competition with CBS’s Stephen Colbert: thanks to anti-Trump muckraking, Colbert the new-kid-on-the block in late-night comedy did seize the late-night ratings crown from Fallon, for at least three consecutive seasons through 2018-2019, when Colbert snagged a hefty 3.82 million nightly viewers compared to 2.44 million for Fallon and 2.04 million for Kimmel, according to Nielsen data.

Fallon’s troubles began in September 2016 when he famously mussed Trump’s hair during the latter’s appearance on his show, a gesture interpreted by angry audiences as him “normalizing” Trump. Over the three – year period since then, Fallon’s audience numbers have plunged whereas Colbert’s have spiked. Needless to say, Fallon has since learned his lesson and dutifully joined the anti-Trump muckraking party as a matter of sheer self-preservation. Samantha Bee is another leading comedian of the muckraking era who has reaped the benefits of anti-Trump advocacy. Acknowledging the role of outrage in her comedy, Bee noted in an interview with Canadian TV journalist Rosemary Barton that in her comedy world she found that “people care about the world” and aren’t so interested in jokes about celebrity antics anymore.

Under the prevailing circumstances, hardly any left-leaning muckraking comedian today particularly cares to either hide the political undertones of their act or the fact that they’d be glad to take down the Trump presidency if they could. And sometimes, it can get downright personal, to boot. Case in point: Bill Maher’s New Rules segment about Trump’s supposed narcissism (See Real Time with Bill Maher episode of September 21, 2018). In the six-minute span of the segment, Maher lamented how narcissism has rendered the president a stupid person who considers himself infallible and is therefore unteachable and can never be corrected. He likened Trump’s brain to a cell phone with a full mailbox where one can call but cannot leave a message.

Though more noticeable on the political left, muckraking comedy, by its nature, is a phenomenon that also exists on the right of the political spectrum. Thus, the muckraking comedy era isn’t all anti-Trump. To the contrary, the former president does indeed have some powerful muckrakers in his corner. Fox’s Gutfeld! a classic muckraking show, which according to Nielsen data is the current late-night ratings king, is a case in point.

In a nutshell, Greg Gutfeld, the show’s eponymous host, is the political right’s answer to what happens on the political left, complete with both his unabashed defense of Trump and the (correspondingly) brutal sarcasm he heaps on Joe Biden’s person and presidency. He joined the late-night fray this past April.

Making sense of what may not seem to add up

If the foregoing makes anything clear, it is that comedy’s reaction to the Nixon and Trump presidencies is a tale of two eras in comedy, which at bottom reflect a change in cultural attitudes. This cultural shift, coinciding with the transition from traditional to muckraking comedy, explains why Nixon and Trump, both right leaning and uber-controversial politicians could have been treated so dramatically differently. Whereas the audiences of one era preferred that comedians not take partisan political positions, the audiences of the other era rather wanted to be entertained with jokes that espouse an ideological point of view and would reward comedians who play the part. In this scenario, one can see that Nixon avoided the assaults of muckraking comedy simply by having existed in an era when the phenomenon did not yet exist. Trump’s presidency, however, was quite literally born into the era of muckraking comedy and he simply couldn’t avoid its harsh spotlight if he tried.

Therefore, to those who wonder about the disparate treatment of two personalities-of-a kind by the comedy community, one simple observation should suffice: Were Nixon were in power today, it’s a safe bet that he’d probably be treated with as much hostility as Trump is facing. Not least because Nixon remains the only person ever to resign the presidency, thanks to the worst political scandal of modern America.

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. There are two “categories” of articles: “Comedy Legal” and “Other Controversies.” You can find all of them at the “Categories” box on the sidebar. Please keep reading!

Promoting Comedy in the Public Forum: Learning the Tricky Ropes

As democracies go, America is a haven for the practice of comedy thanks to the First Amendment which protects the right of free speech. And, in this area, public forums are very important, especially those venues provided by the government, which are often the venues with the largest audiences for many a speaker. Yet, access to those venues is neither as free nor as guaranteed by law as the right to free speech itself. Indeed, often times people erroneously assume that easy access to a public forum is something of a matter of course. Wrong

On closer examination, a lot of folks, comedians included, have been surprised to find that there are quite a bit of rules or regulations (principles, if you will) that govern someone’s right of access to speak at a public forum.

By the way, comedians might be interested to note here that “speech” in this context includes not just things that are said at an actual show but also things that are written or said in the process of advertising a show or event, say, on billboards or posters.

As a general rule, what one can say on a particular public forum depends on what sort of forum the place is, namely, whether it is a traditional public forum or a “designated” or limited public forum. With traditional public forums, such as public parks and street corners, life is easy and you can think of those places as free speech highways where all manner of speech is allowed, both political and ideological and non-political speech, which includes commercial speech like advertising and the like. In these forums, the government cannot restrict or deny or speech based on the “content” of that speech, meaning, for instance, that it cannot decide to allow commercial speech but ban religious speech. Nope!

In order for the government to do so, it must show not only that it had a “compelling” interest or reason restricting or denying speech but also that it had no other means available to it to achieve the same result in a manner that would have had less impact on the speech in question. Lawyers call this the “strict scrutiny” rule, the whole point of which is to make it very difficult for the government to mess around with any of the “protected” rights under the constitution.

(Note that although the government isn’t allowed to ban or restrict any constitutionally “protected” speech it is nevertheless allowed to regulate the time, place and manner of exercising the right.)

Then there are the “designated” or limited public forums, such as subways and buses, which are places where the government can choose what sort of speech to allow and which ones to prohibit. Government can choose, for instance, to ban political speech while allowing commercial speech. But as long as it has opted to allow commercial speech, it cannot then start to discriminate between commercial speeches on the basis of “viewpoint.”  In other words, the government’s actions in restricting or denying speech in such situations must be “viewpoint- neutral and reasonable,” meaning that it cannot, for example, treat similar speeches differently.

For comedians and other entertainers who frequently need to publicize their shows in the public forum, the limited public forums are the ones that appear to raise the trickiest questions.

In the ordinary case, an ad by, say, a computer store on a city bus is a straightforward business promotion and often goes off without a hitch. However, problems might arise where what is said in an ad, for instance, can be perceived as “political” in nature and/ or controversial and thus banned. And this is where comedians can sometimes run into unexpected difficulties with exercising their free speech in such public forums.

Perhaps one of the more interesting cases here is the one involving some Muslim comedians who in September 2014 wanted to advertise their documentary film The Muslims Are Coming through the use of posters in the New York City subway system operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). The said movie, produced one year earlier, follows some Muslim-American comedians on their tour of American towns and cities and their interactions with the audiences.

 The various poster ads contained the link to the movie’s website as well as various comic statements, including things like “Muslims Hate Terrorists”; “They also hate”: ‘People who tell you they went to an Ivy League School within 10 seconds of meeting them;’ ‘When the deli guy doesn’t put enough schmear on the bagel;’ ‘Getting out that last bit of toothpaste from the tube.’ The ads also contained statements like “Those Terrorists are all Muslim [the word “Muslim” is crossed out] Nutjobs,” “Grown up Muslims can do more pushups than baby Muslims” and so on.  The six ads were scheduled to run over a one -month period in 144 ads across the city’s subways. But the MTA rejected the proposed ads on the grounds that the ads violated its newly adopted policy which allowed commercial speech while barring the use of its facilities for “political” speech.

However, the comedians Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad plus the ad’s producer Vaguely Qualified Productions sued the MTA and won big in federal court. In siding with the comedians, the court ruled instead that the ads were essentially “commercial” speech by a for-profit entity and that it was remained so even if the advertiser might have been trying to capitalize on the political controversy around Islamophobia to promote its business interest. (At the time in question, the right-wing activist Pamela Geller’s group the American Freedom Defense Initiative [AFDI] was reportedly running an anti-Muslim ad in the said subways, depicting a man in a headscarf plus the incendiary words “Killing Jews is Worship that Draws Us Close to Allah.” The Muslim comedians claimed they were simply trying to counter the possible cultural impact of that campaign.)

Furthermore, the court said that even if the ads could be considered as “political” speech, the MTA had engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” given that it had already allowed other ads on its platform that were arguably even more political in nature than the comedians’ ads in this case, such as cable TV station CNN’s ad about the GOP presidential debate which contained photos and quotes by the candidates.  In other words, the court found that the MTA, which offered its subways and buses as a limited public forum for speech, was treating similar things differently in violation of the principle of “viewpoint-neutrality.”

So, what are some of the lessons here? Well, for starters, the less political speech that are contained in ads for a show, the easier life will be for the comedian. Obviously, things can get tricky when the ads straddle the political and the commercial lanes of traffic: in such situations, the authorities might be tempted to use the excuse of stopping political speech to perhaps ban the ads of a rather controversial comedian they might not like. (This is arguably what the MTA was trying to do in the Muslim comedians’ case, as the court implied.)  The other thing is that when it comes to ads and free speech, life is easiest in classic public forums like public parks and streets where the test is “strict scrutiny”; things get a little hard in limited public forums like subways and buses; and even harder in nonpublic forums like public schools, public hospitals or even jail houses. With all that in mind, the good news, though, is that even in the forums that are less friendly to free speech, such as the limited or nonpublic forums, there is still the protection of the First Amendment in requiring that there be no viewpoint discrimination. In any event, ads containing statements or images that might be considered as “obscene” or statements that amount to “fighting words” or which could be viewed as “incitement to violence” are not protected under the First Amendment regardless of the forum involved.     

John Merrifield and Public Safety: Putting Satire on Trial?

Satire is a well-recognized institution in our society and culture and public safety is, well, a necessity. And they each travel in their lanes. But when these two lanes happen to cross paths how do we manage the encounter so we can allow them to continue to co-exist in our world?  This is the tricky question at the heart of the legal battle between the New York-based comedian John Merrifield and Josh Guillory, the mayor of the City of Lafayette Consolidated Government in Louisiana.  

But first here’s the story:

In summer 2020 the comedian created two fake events on his Facebook page announcing planned protests by ANTIFA (militant left-wing activists who oppose far right groups) in two Lafayette, Louisiana locations, one in the high-end community of River Ranch in July and the other at the Acadiana Mall in August. In response the city government deployed a large number of police officers, vehicles and other resources to both locations to tackle the situation. However, since the whole thing was a hoax, no protests in fact occurred at either location.

Later that summer, the city sued the comedian to recoup its purported expenses, claiming that the “hoaxes have cost the city considerable sums of money both in investigating and responding to the hoaxes.”  The city’s said expenses were tallied at less than $75, 000.

In a defiant response, the comedian refused to apologize and vowed to fight the lawsuit, claiming that his actions were merely those of a satirist and comedian who created satire events on a comedy meme page on two occasions. “Fool you once shame on me. Fool you twice shame on you,” he noted.  Merrifield, who is a Lafayette native, explained that he meant to highlight how police treat some groups differently and “fail to offer the same protections to the working poor and mentally ill people of color such as in the case of Trayford Pellerin’s execution.” (The week before the date of the second event in August, protests had taken place at the Acadiana Mall, over the police killing of Pellerin, a Black man.)        

So, what is the deal here, with what the comedian did? Is this allowable “satire” , under the First Amendment, as he claims or is it some sort of mischief intended by the comedian to cost the city some money, as the city’s lawsuit suggests?

As we commonly understand it in our society, a work of “satire” uses humor as a vehicle to critique, ridicule or scorn the actions of someone or some institution in the society; as a result, most acts of satire tend to have the purpose and effect of correcting the behavior of the person or institution that is the target of the satire.

Merrifield said that he intentionally worded the announcement in such a way that “anyone with discernment” would know it is a joke and that no reasonable person would think otherwise. The said event post invited only “card-carrying” ANTIFA members and also said things like “arms optional, legs encouraged.”

For its part, the city admitted that it knew ahead of time that the whole ANTIFA affair was a hoax but deployed the law enforcement resources anyway even though no actual protests were occurring on any of the two event days in question. The city also said that the officers who were deployed to the scenes were on their regular duties rather than any special duty connected to the planned protests. If this is all there is to all this, then it’s game over since the two sides can be said to be on the same page: the comedian intended his post to be understood as a joke and apparently the city did in fact understand it as a hoax by a comedian.

Except that the city offers some explanations for its actions; it said it was acting in response to phone calls from allegedly “concerned citizens” who believed the planned protests were real rather than fake (the city also referenced the comedian’s own mother as one of those who actually believed the planned event was real). Additionally, the city said that it chose to deploy police to the scene in order to pre-empt the actions of any counter-protesters at the planned event (here the city references the posts put out by right wing group Right Side Millennials who were threatening to oppose the planned event.)  

Given all this, the big question in this case is whether the actions of the city were “reasonable” under the circumstances, considering everything it know at the time.  If the answer to that question is yes, then the city’s odds of winning the lawsuit increases. Here’s another way to look at it: if the city had not taken the steps that it took, would the city have been considered “negligent” in not doing so. (In common parlance, “negligence” here means the city not taking proper or necessary precautions to safeguard public safety in the circumstances then existing.)  If the steps taken by the city are perceived as justified in the eyes of a “reasonable person” looking at the circumstances faced by the city at the time, then the city might have a remedy against the comedian, including, for instance, recouping its expenses from the situation.

If that is the case, it likely won’t help the comedian too much to say that his actions were intended as satire. The simple reason here is a practical one: under the law, public safety, just like public health, trumps humor. (Recall, for instance, all the lockdowns and other restrictions imposed on so-called non-essential businesses, including comedy clubs, during the Covid-19 pandemic on grounds of public health and safety.) The other possible problem for the comedian here is that his attempted satire is not your grandfather’s good old satire that stays within our traditional understanding of satire. In other words, it’s not like a cartoon or some similar critique of a person or a thing, but instead his actions were rather more aggressive with potentially practical consequences. In a manner of speaking, maybe he was somewhat more activist than critic.  

Yet the saving grace for Merrifield is that, by its own admission, the city did in fact understand his posts as a “hoax” that was not real. Plus, there were indeed no actual protests at any of the two locations of concern to the city which, by the way has admitted that the presence of its police officers and sheriffs at those locations was done as part of their regular duties rather than as a special effort to safeguard public safety in response to the situation created by the protests. Since a case like this one turns upon a balancing of the facts and circumstances of the case, it therefore seems likely that the actions of the city will not be considered as “reasonable” or “justified” under the circumstances.   The city is only allowed to do what is reasonable rather than what is overly cautious under the circumstances it faced at the time. If the city overshoots the mark in its assessment of the situation beyond what a reasonable person would do, then the comedian cannot be liable for the city’s error of judgment.

All things considered, the odds of winning in this case seem to tip clearly on the comedian’s side.  And so, one may wonder whether pursuing a lawsuit against a struggling comic who probably isn’t a deep pocket is the best use of the city’s time and resources at a time that the pandemic is still around. However, one plausible way to explain this situation is that by forcing Merrifield to spend money defending the lawsuit, Josh Guillory’s city (as the richer party) might be looking to teach the comedian a lesson not to “mess with” the city.  Such a game plan will be aiming to set up a “teachable moment” on the acceptable boundaries of satire in contemporary society. Needless to say, these are pretty interesting times in satire.  

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. There are two “categories” of articles: “Comedy Legal” and “Other Controversies.” You can find all of them at the “Categories” box on the sidebar. Please keep reading!

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The Brave New World of Muckraking Comedy

By Carl Unegbu and Ron Simon

These crazy times have demanded a new brand of comedy. With the news more insane than any joke a comedian can devise, this new comedy has partnered with journalism. Once facts were facts and jokes were jokes. But the two have merged with comedians now wanting to change hearts and minds and not just release a guffaw. This is comedy with a Pulitzer purpose, as the New York Times recently noticed. Funny is no longer funny, as Sid Caesar would say. Funny now investigates and persuades, with the hopes of knowing laughter too.

Comedy interacts with Journalism. Murrow meets Mirth. It has been developing over twenty years, but has reached its apex with Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. We like to call this new humor, muckraking comedy. Back at the turn of the twentieth century citizens were prompted to act because of so-called muckraking reporters, who scoured the filth to discover the truth for its readers. Our leading comedians now get dirty with the transgressions of politics and culture to bring some type of cleansing illumination to its audience. Laughter is the first step of the way to action and enlightenment. You might remember Upton Sinclair from school; his novels prompted legislation in Congress. Now you can see an electronic version of The Jungle nightly with such comedy muckrakers Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert.

Political Jokes Then and Now

Yes, there have political jokesters like Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. But they just wanted to release tension and basically affirm the status quo. Take this classic joke by Hope in the sixties: “President Kennedy is just winding up a nonpolitical tour of the 11 states he lost in the last election. He wanted to see how they’re getting along without federal aid.” Kennedy could be any politician. Funny to all sides, but ultimately harmless.

Oliver wants more. He posits: “Is anything about Trump funny anymore? I don’t know. Somehow the world’s most objectively laughable human has become a comedy graveyard where laughter goes to die.” Oliver recognizes that good old-fashioned inclusive humor is now hopelessly dead. The comic arrows must now be laced with some sort of poison. The world and its leaders are muck and your mission after the laughter is to change it.

Creating Muckraking Comedy

Well, this new muckraking comedy has transformed the process of creating jokes. If you are going to attack, you have to ensure that your jokes are as accurate and factual as anything in the New York Times. Comedy staffs now feature journalists and fact-checkers, reviewing every word to affirm it is true and factual, as well as funny. Lawyers also assiduously review punch lines to ascertain any possibility of defamation. The danger of muckraking comedy is that your targets will always be out to get you. Not to outwit you, just sue you.

Most people credit Jon Stewart as the trailblazer of this phenomenon in comedy thanks to his revolutionizing Comedy Central’ s The Daily Show. However, this new genre seems to have attained maturity at the hands of John Oliver in the weekly production of his own show HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Taking advantage of the weekly intervals between his shows and the absence of in-studio guests, Oliver, an alum of Daily Show and a protégé of Jon Stewart, is able to do a deep dive into an individual issue each week. Investigative reporting with savage laughs.

Oliver Takes on the Coal Industry

In this award-winning report on the coal industry, Oliver follows the journalistic principles of the muckrakers of old. He begins generally with the Trump Administration’s relationship with the coal industry. He then specially zeroes in on the safety practices of Murray Energy and the fatal collapse of the company’s mine in Utah in 2007. The piece was a smart indictment of the coal industry, worthy of Upton Sinclair, but with a large talking squirrel. His satire led to a defamation lawsuit by the company’s boss Robert Murray, which was ultimately dismissed by the court. Think how much research and comedy writing went into this piece, seamlessly intermingled.

We plan to explore ramifications of this radical muckraking comedy in future blogs. But first we want to understand the roots of the phenomenon. We had a conversation with one of its unsung heroes, Daniel Radosh. Radosh was a journalist for such publications as Spy before he became a writer for the Daily Show hosted by Jon Stewart and then Trevor Noah. Here he explains how journalism is injected into the satire, as well as the comedic differences between Stewart and Noah.

Now journalists play a very crucial role, something that Radosh considers a big legacy of Jon Stewart’s writing staff. As he puts it, “The Daily Show’s DNA” is becoming widely adopted as research and fact checking become commonplace in satirical writers’ rooms, the definition of muckraking comedy.

*This article was originally published in Medium, under Paley Matters. The co-author Ron Simon is curator of television and radio at The Paley Center for Media. Simon has been an associate adjunct professor at Columbia University and New York University, as well as a former chair of the Peabody Awards jury.

*For more interesting information about humor at large, visit Feedspot for the Top 100 Humor Blogs on the web. (https://blog.feedspot.com/humor_blogs/)

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. Please keep reading!

Spy Magazine and Today’s Brutal Political Satire: An Origin Story?

A remarkable feature of today’s political satire is what appears to be its “snark and insult” character. By most accounts, it wasn’t always this rough and mean.

Perhaps the most persuasive theory on how we started down this brutal path is that the now defunct Spy magazine from the 1980s and 1990s put us on it.  Paul O’Donnell, a writer at Mediabistro.com, reportedly declared that “We’re all Spy now.”

The obvious question that arises is whether there is anything to this legacy theory?

For starters, when Spy debuted a generation ago, during the excesses and glamor of the swaggering ‘80s, it made no secret of its ambition: to take the baton to the noggins of the rich, famous and/or powerful and of course to try to take them down a peg or two. Indeed, as if to serve clear notice (to anyone listening) about the magazine’s intended brand of journalism, its maiden edition in 1986 was captioned JERKS.  In it, the magazine proceeded to ridicule individuals that it considered the “Ten Most Embarrassing New Yorkers.” Quite interestingly, this list included Donald Trump, who the magazine would, in due course, famously describe as “a short-fingered vulgarian’. Not one to be outdone in the insult department, Trump in turn dismissed the magazine as “a piece of garbage.”

For sure, any casual observer at the time could have easily noticed the magazine’s signature style and tone in dealing with its famous subjects, with its unabashed snark and insult bent. A piece that ran in its March 1988 edition could perhaps give those unfamiliar with its work a good sense of the magazine’s modus operandi. The said piece dealt with the subject of people who doubled as managers/boyfriends to their clients and it ran under the (appropriately) provocative headline “Behind Every Great Woman is a Drunk Man (With a Wispy Mustache).” The piece was accompanied by photos of three separate couples, with matching captions to boot. The first photo was captioned “Yesteryears’ Cyndi Lauper and husband manager Dave Wolf”; the second photo’s caption was “Tina Turner and Ike, In Between Spectacular Beatings”; and the third caption read “Twiggy and Nigel “Justin de Villenueve” Davies”.

In that same piece, the writer also wondered in a separate passage why a [then] 24-year-old beauty like Jenny McCarthy would be dating her manager Ray Manzella who the writer claimed resembled “a mangled Ted Danson”.  McCarthy herself was not spared the writer’s vicious ribbing and was described as a “breast-augmented and armpit sniffing former Playboy model”

So, anyhow, that’s the sort of stuff Spy was doing back then. Now what are the political satirists doing today? Well, first, it is not hard to notice that the current practice of satire has steadily become a “no-holds-barred take no-prisoners” business that often carries with it a clear point of view reflecting an ideological slant to the debate on social issues. For instance, shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (previously Jon Stewart), Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which are arguably the dominant actors on the scene, make no secret of their left-leaning point of view. From the right flank of the ideological field, Greg Gutfeld’s eponymous new show Gutfeld!  (on the Fox network) is joining the party and his stock in this regard is rising steadily. To be sure, these are all news-based shows that hit pretty hard on the events of the day and the people involved in them.

Concerning the legacy question, what can barely escape notice is the obvious parallels that exist between Spy and today’s political satire, not least the shared attitude of critical or even snarky take on their respective subjects.  In fact, anyone who follows contemporary political satire probably won’t have much trouble recognizing the strong presence of Spy’s signature snark and insult in the work of the satirists. And for that matter, this phenomenon seems so infectious that even non-satirists are playing the game, too.

For instance, Trump himself, a favorite target both of then Spy magazine and today’s satirists, deploys this shared tactic of snark and insult in dealing with his opponents both in and outside the political arena, whether he is mocking handicapped people; belittling political opponents based on their physical stature or denigrating female enemies as fat pigs or ugly. Indeed, during the 2016 election, as James Poniewozik of the New York Times rightly observed, he habitually treated political campaigning “like a roast, “

Yet there are those who don’t exactly feel comfortable with the notion that a legacy exists between what Spy did in its day and what today’s satirists are doing: Daniel Radosh, for one.  Having worked as a reporter for Spy then and is now working as a senior writer on The Daily Show, Radosh is someone who can perhaps be described as a rare common link between the two worlds at issue.  As Radosh sees it, what Spy did and what, for instance, The Daily Show does, are different things in the sense that the former is journalism, albeit humorous journalism, whereas the latter is comedy, news-based though it may be. Perhaps a distinction without a difference?

Apparently not in the opinion of Radosh. He explains that what Spy did was genuinely based on the principles of journalism, where professionals would actually dig up facts and do a reporting of the news, albeit with an “attitude of playfulness, rebellion and irresponsibility which was what made it fun.” Thus, at all times they, as journalists, had to be responsible with the facts. On the other hand, he notes that The Daily Show as a news-based comedy show often relies on the facts already dug up and reported by the journalists and tries to make a joke from them. (Radosh, however, acknowledges the long form storytelling and reporting on John Oliver’s news-based comedy show as an exception to this journalism versus comedy dynamic.)

So, given the above, what does one make of the link between Spy and today’s satire?  Well, it’s obvious that Spy’s signature snark-and-insult tactic is practiced on both the left and the right in their work, not only against their targets but also in their ideological feuds with each other. In a perverse way, therefore, Spy can claim credit for starting us down this road in our political satire. Whether or not one chooses to use the term “legacy” to describe this phenomenon may well be a matter of perspective. Yet it is perhaps fair to say, though, that anyone looking to place the viciousness of our current political satire in its proper context might do well to take a look at what Spy magazine did in its day. Well, so there you have it!

***Editor’s Note: At the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. Please keep reading!