Friday, October 24, 2008

When Bippy Meant Something

Merciful Zeus, please end this election, if only so Tina Fey can shelve her annoying Sarah Palin impression. Every age gets the satire it deserves, and from the looks of things, we are in a cheap, plasticine era. Can't be avoided, I suppose. With attention spans at an all time low, and shrinking further as I type this, only the broadest, shallowest bits will resonate, at least between texting and shuffling iPod playlists. Fey's resemblance to Palin is essentially the joke, since Palin herself is a self-parody. Actually, Fey's impression would've been perfect for the original "Laugh-In" -- "You betcha!" replacing "Sock it to me!" as the reigning catchphrase. Plus, Fey could dance as Palin in a star spangled bikini, with right wing talking points written all over her body. Clearly, Fey was born too late to realize her full comic/go-go potential.

Being a craggy old fuck, I've been watching comedy from earlier election years, including "Laugh-In" from 1968. The satire, if it can be called that, is pretty surface oriented, with plenty of George Wallace jokes, the Sarah Palin of his day. Vietnam is mentioned as well, hard to avoid given the ferociousness of that period, yet it's lightly joked about, lost in a blizzard of sex and pot jokes. "Laugh-In's" material runs from corny to bizarre, and flies by so fast, you can't really get a hold of any one gag. But it is pretty to look at -- all those groovy day-glo colors and mod mod clothes. Also, Lorne Michaels was a writer for "Laugh-In," so there's somewhat of a connection between that show and Tina Fey, at least in my dizzy mind. What else am I supposed to think about: the election?

Compared to "Laugh-In," "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" was Haskell Wexler channeling Laurel and Hardy. Michaels has said that he wanted to write for the Smothers Brothers rather than "Laugh-In," and I can see why. It's a much deeper show, the comedy very much of its moment, some of it quite edgy for a prime time slot. I've received a DVD box set of the best of the Smothers' third season, 1968-69, their final year before getting yanked by CBS suits. It's a real tonic for sad suckers like me, and I'll write a full review of it very soon. Some of the material is obviously dated, but when watched in context, these shows remind you what is possible satirically, and given some of the bits that aired, it's no surprise that the Smothers' got so much heat from political and network forces. The television landscape of that time wasn't as cluttered as it is now, so the Smothers Brothers stood out even more. They made themselves ripe targets for reaction, but at least they went down performing material they believed in.

Naturally, I've gone through my "Fridays" bootlegs, rewatching their take on the 1980 election. John Roarke played Ronald Reagan and John Anderson, while writer Fred Raker played Jimmy Carter. (That same year on SNL, no one played Carter. Dan Aykroyd left the show, and instead of replacing him, they went with Laraine Newman as wife Rosalynn, who campaigned for her husband while he barricaded himself in the White House, obsessed with the Iran hostage crisis.) "Fridays" skewered all three candidates -- Reagan as a clueless militarist, Anderson as a wide-eyed nagging nerd, and Carter as a smooth con man, always smiling no matter how dirty his tactics. Perhaps the best bit takes place in a men's room, where Reagan and Carter accidentally meet while campaigning, then get into a nasty debate, using urinals as podiums while people wander in and out, disgusted by both. "Fridays" went into more political depth than SNL even pretends to plumb today. Some of the material on recent shows has been incredibly inane and pointless, like John McCain challenging Obama to a pie eating contest. Have SNL's writers stopped doing drugs? Or is this merely Vicodin comedy?

It'll be interesting to see how present-day parodists deal with the Obama administration. So far, they've given us really nothing. Fred Armisen's impression on SNL is not only bad, the writers have found no satirical hook. You'd think that a fiftysomething Repub like Jim Downey might have some angle on Obama, out of partisan hatred if nothing else. Liberals are too swoony at the moment to write any decent attacks on the next imperial manager, a condition I'm sure will continue well past Obama's coronation.

Here's an example of what SNL and other shows are missing. This sketch, from Richard Pryor's short-lived NBC show in 1977, depicts Pryor as the first African-American president giving a press conference. Pryor's show was co-produced and directed by John Moffitt, who went on to produce "Fridays," so the political tone is similar. Also note then-unknowns Sandra Bernhard as "Snow White," and Robin Williams as an extra in the back. A rare instance when Bernhard isn't sassy, and Williams doesn't chew all the scenery.

Perhaps the funniest election-oriented bit I've seen so far is this trailer for "Billy Jack Goes To Washington." The film was never released, which is too bad, if these scenes are any indication of the whole thing. And I like how Jean, the pacifist hippie scold played by Tom Laughlin's wife Delores Taylor, gives up nonviolence and kicks some ass for a change. Hey, that's what happens you enter the machine, as Obama will prove soon enough.

Reportedly, Laughlin has been planning a new Billy Jack movie, originally titled, "Billy Jack's Crusade To End The War In Iraq And Restore America To Its Moral Purpose." And no, I didn't make that up. Sometimes the best comedy comes from kung fu half-breed snake dancers with short tempers.