Thursday, March 4, 2010

Laugh That Boot Right Off Your Throat

One of the problems with American political comedy is that under the impressions and behind all the bits, reverence for the system remains deep. This is why politicians oftentimes assist in their own "skewering," because at bottom, it's about personalities and not structure, which allows the likes of Sarah Palin to join in the laughter (so long as it's not connected to Family Guy). We're all in it together. Your vote counts. Let's make America strong again, but have fun doing so. The standard pitch.

Funny Or Die's latest production is a shining example of this mindset. Past presidents, both living and dead, converge to tell Barack Obama to Do The Right Thing, in this case, confronting the banking and credit card cartels. It's an amusing comic fairy tale that has nothing to do with how corporate money controls and defines the system.

Obama, played by Fred Armisen, whose impression remains stuck in first gear, is portrayed as a decent guy who wants to do good, but can't because his predecessors and Beltway power brokers have tied his executive hands. This is the fall back liberal position on Obama: it's not him, it's everything around him. If only Obama would be who he really is and fight for democracy, freedom, and justice. That's his job, right?

The idea that Obama is hostile to corporate power, or worse, can be pushed into combating those who've bought exclusive access, is naturally ridiculous, yet helps keep the chimera alive for those who need it. Plus, part of the premise is that Obama's predecessors gleefully fucked everything up, for whatever reason, but now insist that Obama fix the mess they made. It's an incoherent satirical point, assuming the writers, Adam McKay, Al Jean, Tom Gammill and Max Pross among them, were aiming for satire. After watching this a few times, my guess is that they're trying to push a feel-good message instead, sending fantasy Obama into political battle while we help by phoning our senators and giving them a good talking to.

"Nothing annoys them more than having to do their jobs," we're told. Actually, they are doing their jobs -- working to keep the system in place, power relations included. What annoys them is having to pretend to care about average people, which some do better than others. You'd think the open class war now being waged would make that obvious. But dreams die hard if at all in American culture, and we are left with winks and nods instead of full-scale satirical assaults.

Lack of teeth aside, this bit is entertaining, at least to an old SNL geek like me. Various ex-cast members reprise their presidential personas. Darrell Hammond's Clinton is the sharpest and funniest, while Dan Aykroyd's Jimmy Carter is amorphous and off-kilter. I have a soft spot for Chevy's Gerald Ford, which has always been a non-impression. Will Ferrell's W. doubtless still delights liberals.

The most interesting addition is Jim Carrey as Ronald Reagan. Carrey auditioned for SNL but wasn't hired, so he's somewhat of an outsider among these vets. Carrey's Reagan is okay, more broad outline than precise rendition, and it's clear that Adam McKay went for celeb heat instead of comedic accuracy. The only SNL Reagans still alive are Harry Shearer, Joe Piscopo, and Randy Quaid (Charles Rocket and Phil Hartman apparently weren't available to play actual ghosts). Jim Morris voiced Reagan for Robert Smigel's "X-Presidents" cartoon on SNL, and remains the most uncanny Reagan I've ever seen. Either Morris or Shearer would've been better, but, well, that's showbiz. And politics.