Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Die Laughing

Despite breaks from the American narrative during the late-60s/early-70s, romantic views of our national past survived and remain. Unavoidable, and not unique among nations; but the American version enjoys a stylistic advantage born of Hollywood trappings. Our fictions look prettier, possess more zing. They're certainly preferable to the real story, elements of which seep in for color or "authenticity," yet are drowned out by rousing scenarios and booming, uplifting scores.

This was certainly the case with "John Adams," the HBO miniseries where Paul Giamatti's crotchety Calvinist butted wigs with power mad Alexander Hamilton while Thomas Jefferson stared off into space, Declarations floating through his head. I loved the portrayal of Ben Franklin as Founding Hedonist, even though the real Franklin showed a more conservative side to the Publick. (An early SNL parody of historical TV dramas nailed it: "Some half truths and lies have been added to make it entertaining.") In the end, after war, struggle, squalor, diplomatic maneuvering and political betrayal, "John Adams" comes to the unsurprising conclusion that the American experiment was well worth it. And it was, right fellow consumers?

Of course, no drama about our nation's birth would be complete without scenes of the founders arguing over the Constitution, our most hallowed, most violated/ignored set of political commandments. No one really knows what went on in that colonial writers' room, though I'm sure that halitosis and body odor helped set the mood.

In Fridays' version, 18th century racism and sexism is conveyed through 20th century lingo. It's also an overt example of liberal propaganda. Which is fine. Unlike most other sketch comedy shows, Fridays never pretended to be evenhanded. The writers' left/liberal sensibilities were always on display. Too bad this bit wasn't aired in today's political environment. Imagine the reactionary howls after seeing Larry David, a Jewish atheist, cast as the Constitution's conscience.

The gun control theme takes a somber turn in this sketch, aired the same week as John Hinckley's attempt to assassinate Reagan. It's an odd, quiet piece where the audience doesn't seem to know where to laugh. It also touches on a topic I wrote about recently, the close, emotional ties Americans are supposed to have with presidents, politicians, and other well-known figures.

I remember the day Reagan was shot. I was in the Army, working at a foreign officers' school when my boss Frank Harris (retired Army officer) came in and said all hell had broken loose. He turned on the TV and we watched the wall-to-wall coverage. Thing is, I don't recall feeling much of anything about the shooting. I despised Reagan's politics, which were slowly radicalizing me. But I wasn't happy, sad, or outraged. It all seemed like a weird movie. Had Reagan died, who knows how I would've reacted. But he survived to oversee some mass killing of his own.

I saw this next piece when it first aired, then not again until recently. My memory of it was pretty exact, though the context in which it was conceived flew past me back then. I knew next to nothing about Palestine and Israel, much less about Zionism and Arab nationalism. What I did know was what Americans were constantly told: the Israelis were noble warriors forced to defend themselves from filthy Palestinian terrorists. The PLO was portrayed as a gang of genocidal lunatics, destruction and mayhem part of their collective DNA. They were Bond villains, with Yasser Arafat as Dr. No.

This is what makes this sketch so interesting. Fridays could have followed the established script, and most viewers wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. Instead, they took some Palestinian claims seriously, and played around with that perception. There's plenty of word play and obvious jokes, yet you don't get the sense that the PLO was crazier than anyone else fighting for a cause -- certainly no crazier than the Zionist militias that preceded them. Far from being international gangsters, these Palestinians, played by George Carlin and Bruce Mahler, are hunkered down, hoping to survive another Israeli onslaught.

When this bit aired in January 1981, Israel was routinely shelling and strafing Palestinian targets in Lebanon, killing hundreds, while the PLO sporadically responded. This was during a period when the mainstream of Fatah made several offers for a two-state settlement with Israel, which were violently rejected. A few months after this, a ceasefire brokered by Philip Habib took effect, although Israel soon violated it, hoping to elicit a PLO response that would justify an invasion of Lebanon that Israeli planners had already mapped out, and which arrived in the summer of 1982, bringing with it some 17,000 Palestinian and Lebanese dead, and the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

These guys have no idea what's about to hit them.