Thursday, November 12, 2009

Comedy's Charcoal Age

American satirists, if that's the right word, are usually driven by what they perceive as patriotism. They care so much for Old Glory and Sam that they'll mock what they admire, hopefully improving their beloved nation state. Many believe that U.S. criminal behavior is largely an aberration, which is why they laid off Obama, poised to restore American decency and honor that Bush/Cheney sullied and strangled into submission.

Now that Obama has shown what some of us suspected all along, comedy patriots feel a little freer to fire away, though in most cases it's bottle caps bouncing off concrete. Thank god there's Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs to spoof, 'else the whole parody biz would be in trouble, Jay Leno notwithstanding.

This was probably always so. One can offer earlier, sharper examples of comedic dissent, but even there you'll find flag waving behind the sneers, fists unclenched and placed over hearts. The younger me was certainly like this, eager to expose the lies and hypocrisy that clouded America's inner light. As harsh as my material might've seemed, it sprang from a softer place. I sometimes miss that arrangement, which is and should be the province of the young. Feeling like that today would require a major disconnect -- a complete mind sweep, actually. This may explain that vacant look on the faces of graying liberals, Jay Leno notwithstanding.

All this came to mind recently while submerged in Fridays. There's now a slew of sketches online (thanks to a devoted fan out west), some of which I remembered pretty accurately, many others I'd completely forgotten. While Fridays was known for its eclectic humor and style, willing to experiment and fail, it was their political material that inspired my early efforts. SNL was cautious, SCTV focused on showbiz overkill. Only Fridays directly satirized the hot topics of its time, preachy in spots, but clearly engaged with what was going on.

El Salvador was a recurring topic. Cuba's ongoing example mortified and angered American elites; Nicaragua's recent revolution drove many around the bend. Jimmy Carter pumped the Salvadoran military with munitions, but it wasn't until Reagan arrived in '81 that the repression and mass slaughter accelerated. Secretary of State Al Haig hinted that U.S. troops might be needed to stem the Red tide, and this helped stir serious domestic opposition to any deployment. "El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam" read a popular bumper sticker at the time. With the Vietnam war still fresh in the national mind, Haig's bluster backfired, at least initially.

Fridays dealt with El Salvador a lot. In retrospect, it's pretty amazing, especially when contrasted against later attempts at political/social satire. Imagine pitching an idea set in a bombed out Afghan village or a CIA torture site, and trying to realize such material on contemporary TV. That's what it felt like watching Fridays tackle the Central American wars.

This piece will give you a taste. Written by Larry Charles and Bruce Kirschbaum, "The Road To El Salvador" used familiar American figures to criticize Reagan's policy. John Roarke's Bob Hope wasn't as precise as Dave Thomas' SCTV version, but Roarke gave off a weirder Hope vibe, reptilian eyes seeking acknowledgement or approval. That Hope was in real life an ardent right winger and Reaganite was apparently overlooked for the sake of the premise.

Larry David's Bing Crosby is wonderful. Tom Kramer told me that David spent the week leading up this sketch polishing his Crosby around the offices, which is something you'd see him do on Curb Your Enthusiasm: finding a peculiar voice or tone, and repeating it to everyone he encounters. The supporting players' broad Spanish accents fit the "Road" picture theme, as does the closing musical number. But the lines, "Could the U.S. economy use another war?" and "We don't want another Vietnam" are not jokes. From the sketch's lightest moment come more serious concerns.

The religious right was at its rancid peak during Fridays' run, and they received their share of scorn as well. Thing is, not many comics seriously went after the likes of Falwell and Robertson at that time, and certainly not on national TV. The threat of sponsor boycotts and defamation suits helped to blunt that approach.

You see it in this next piece, "The Moral Majority Comedy Variety Hour." Here Falwell is called Jerry Farback, a Mad magazine-type name that belies the aggression Fridays unleashed on Falwell's flock. Seeing how he's portrayed as a racist, fascist demagogue who promotes book burnings, I'm certain that ABC's lawyers advised the writers (again Charles and Kirschbaum, though given the sketch's length, other staffers doubtless added to the mix) to not directly implicate Falwell, played nicely by Bruce Mahler. It's easily a trade off worth making.

There are many elements I admire in this piece. I love "Celebrity Faith Healing," and the born again Plasmatics anticipate the advent of Christian rock. But for me the highlight is the right wing comedy sketch about "typical" American liberals. Brother Buck says this is what Fox attempted with their dreadful Daily Show knock off. Jim nailed it, as did Fridays, over a quarter century before.

STILL TO COME: Fridays and the PLO.