Thursday, October 4, 2007

In My Day . . .

Back in the 70s, when American culture was not as crowded and well-lit as today but a lot more interesting, older comics appeared on Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, Carson, and occasionally Tom Snyder, to moan about the sorry state of contemporary humor. Shecky Greene, Morey Amsterdam, Marty Allen, Buddy Hackett, Totie Fields, at times fixtures like Mickey Rooney, shook their graying heads when discussing the tasteless, profane bits that younger comics found funny. How could the kids laugh at morbid topics like cancer? In their day, mothers-in-law, stupid cousins, and drunks were proper targets. No one with any class did routines about Dresden or Auschwitz. What a sick society had America become. Oh, and Merv, I'll be appearing all next week at the Sands.

One of the main sources of ire was "Saturday Night Live," particularly the first two seasons, when Michael O'Donoghue's dark influence was at its peak. Bob Schiller, visiting his son Tom Schiller, an "SNL" writer and filmmaker, blanched when watching O'Donoghue's classic "Claudine Longet Invitational" being rehearsed. The elder Schiller, who was a staff writer on "I Love Lucy," couldn't believe that Lorne Michaels would allow such filth on the air (for which "SNL" had to apologize the following week in order to avoid a lawsuit -- sigh, those were the days). He later sent a letter to Tom suggesting that O'Donoghue shoot himself, get his laugh, and move on to better material. Writing gags for Fred and Ethel hadn't prepared Schiller for the National Lampoonish era.

Well, time does its thing, calendar pages fall, hour hands spin, metabolism slows, joints ache, backs give out, and now comedy whores like me are the gray-headed scolds, looking askance at today's younger comics. If you were to listen in on me and my old writing partner Jim Buck, or former-"SNL" writer and O'Donoghue partner Nelson Lyon, or satirical mainstay Barry Crimmins, talk about contemporary humor, you'd hear the echoes of Shecky Greene, though from the opposite direction. To us, most of today's comics are too soft, too cute, too tame, too commercial. But we do share with the grayheads of yesteryear contempt for the same outlet: "SNL."

Now, it's no longer news that "SNL" has the satirical edge of a napkin, but to kids like my teen daughter, this is the comedy of their time, even though it comes via a thirty-something-year-old show run by a guy in his 60s. Still, young people watch the thing, as do I on occasion, my fading eyesight made fuzzier by the bad writing and over-acting that is on regular display there. Some of the cast have real talent, and I liked Fred Armisen's short bits on HBO before he got "SNL." But the comedy itself is pretty limp, when not predictable. And the political material is just plain bad, as the writers (including "SNL" old timer Jim Downey, I'm sorry to say) wring every last drop of cliché they can out of well-worn premises. Seth Meyers' jokes about Muslims are as complex and subtle as a Bill O'Reilly meltdown, helped along by the fact that Meyers is the show's head writer. He makes Tina Fey look like Lily Tomlin in her prime.

Of the current batch of SNLers, Andy Samberg appears to be the next break-out star. His digital shorts, co-written with Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, have become the show's regular highlight, receiving endless play on YouTube, and in the case of "Dick In A Box," receiving an Emmy as well. These shorts are an extension of what Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone produced at The Lonely Island, the comedy website where they were discovered. The trio's humor is silly, absurd, and owes a lot to trashy pop culture of the last 30 years. But no one would confuse Samberg for Mort Sahl, or even Jay Leno ("Didya see in the paper today . . ."). Politics and current events are normally not his thing, but this changed somewhat last week, when "SNL" returned for yet another year (I believe NBC has the show locked in through the 2067-68 season, when Lorne's disembodied holo-brain will still call the shots). I'm sure many of you have already seen this, but if not, here's Samberg's gay love song to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It's a cute bit, not one of Samberg's best, though Fred Armisen's Ahmadinejad is amusing. But really, what's the point of this? That Ahmadinejad hates queers, or simply denies their existence in Iran, and so a gay come-on by Samberg (who's Jewish for added punch) will take the wind out of his twisted sails? Since the intended audience for this short is American, I don't see the satirical hook here. Ahmadinejad's been pilloried, demonized, denounced, and mocked across the American spectrum, in some cases for very good reasons, in others for propagandistic purposes, but anyone paying attention to the political culture has been thoroughly exposed to anti-Ahmadinejad rants of various tones. Samberg's song has the satirical force of a fart joke. But then, maybe Samberg wasn't attempting satire. Hard to tell based on the evidence.

If Samberg truly wanted to skewer Ahmadinejad, I would've advised him to get meaner on the gay front and do something about the oppression and murder of Iranian queers. Maybe have Samberg as a young Iranian gay man with a noose around his neck, about to be hanged, when he launches into the same song, briefly melting the hearts of his executioners, Ahmadinejad among them. Soft, pastoral, fantasy images of Samberg and Ahmadinejad holding hands, laughing, kissing, nuzzling, playing lover's games, cut suddenly short by Samberg being hanged in real time, the camera zooming in on his dead face, a faint smile still evident as Samberg's voice-over whispers "I love you," then immediate black.

I bet Lorne would embrace that!

Or maybe something about the media/political freak out over Ahmadinejad's New York visit. There were plenty of ripe targets that week.

But, I'm an aging man who thinks Terry Southern is still funny.

"Terry who?"