Thursday, January 16, 2014

"'Power (By Which I Actually Mean The Opposite) Comedy'"

In his movie The History of the World – Part One, Mel Brooks, portraying upper-tier French royalty proclaimed,

“It’s good to be the king.”

This is true.  If you want people to do your bidding, and before they chop off your head.  But if you want to be laughed at – sincerely, not the way a king instructs his subjects to laugh and then abruptly cuts the laughter off, a dead giveaway that said laughter was less than spontaneous – it is best if your power is of a seriously limited nature.

The powerful and successful have as hard a time eliciting a laugh as a neophyte comedian on “Open Mike” night.  Although not for the same reason.  The neophyte comedian either stinks or is in the earliest stages of honing their craft.  The powerful and successful have trouble eliciting (genuine) laughter because, even if they are naturally funny, their audience believes that they have been sufficiently rewarded – being powerful and successful – and invariably decide, “That’s enough.”

Mitt Romney cannot get a laugh.  (Although he apparently has no trouble procuring bets for ten thousand dollars.)  Donald Trump is generally perceived to be a joke, but, sycophants aside, I cannot imagine anything promoting laughter ever emerging from his mouth.

A High School quarterback who is handsome and a winner and can have his pick of any girl he chooses can never get a laugh.  “High School Earlo” might not even tell him what time it is, if he asked me.  Or that he had forgotten to zip up.  (I know; I’m terrible.  But those guys get everything!)

By contrast – as he belatedly arrives where he was originally intending to go – consider…

The televised Awards Show Host.

Bob Hope (hosted the Oscars eighteen times), Billy Crystal (hosted nine times), Johnny Carson (hosted five times) could none of them be considered members of the Cinematic Aristocracy (John Wayne, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn.)  Therefore, having missed the “Big Time Movie Star” brass ring (I don’t know if Johnny Carson ever appeared in a movie), they were accorded permission, while hosting the Oscars, to – court jester, consolation-prize style – poke irreverent fun at the assembled “A-Listers.”  It was the least the movie stars could do, for being better looking and more successful.

The preceding three were regarded to have been the best hosts the Oscars ever had.  And, I herewith submit, a significant reason for that – besides, and let us never forget this, the fact that they had sensational writers putting the words in their mouths – is that they were delivering those words from a position, of, at least perceived if not actual


Which brings us to the delicious recent Golden Globes hosting tandem, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. 

They were terrific, weren’t they?  I never watch awards shows (unless I’ve been nominated, in which case, on occasion, I actually go; but that was a while ago.)  I only watched this one because Tina and Amy were hosting.

Although both are comparatively wealthy and successful (It’s not like they let somebody come in off the street and host the Golden Globes), Tina and Amy are still primarily “Television People” (as opposed to “Movie People”, the two groups, apparently at the Golden Globes divided into segregated seating sections.)

A second disfavoring mark in the still existing “Status Tabulation” even in these enlightened times is that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are women.

It is not that long ago that it was believed that women were not to be heard from.  And there is still, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the diminishing but not departed perception that women are not funny.

“TV People”/slash/women?

You can say whatever you want.

To an enormously positive reception.

Scoring highest of all with remarks about the still prevailing male dominance, both in life, and in the movies.

Tina Fey describes the movie Gravity as a film about how “George Clooney would rather float off into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age.”  (A perfectly worded joke, delivered by a member of a group who continues paying that particular price.  It is hard to imagine a man delivering that joke.  It would make him sound jealous.)

Later, Tina, referring to Matthew McConaughey’s preparation for Dallas Buyers Club, announced, “He lost forty-five pounds.  Or what actresses call ‘being in a movie.’”  (Another precisely-nuanced joke underscored by coming from a member of a group often instructed to “drop a few” before appearing before the cameras.  A man venturing that joke would have to follow it up with a “Yeah, Ladies – You know what I’m talking about!”  Otherwise, it’s like, “Why did he even notice that?”

The gutsiest joke of the night, however, was not against the unequal standards between men and women, but against the most egregious example of inequality ever.  (And I am not referring to the Golden Globes’ separation of the “Movie People” from the “TV People”, which, itself, with an assist from fellow conspirator Julia Louis-Dreyfus did not escape satirical attention.)

Amy Poehler confessed that after seeing 12 Years A Slave,

“I will never look at slavery the same way again.”

That joke, too hot not to require a “saver”, which arrived with Tina Fey’s “Wait, how did you…”, and a disorienting change of subject, could only make the cut, coming from the lips of a fellow discriminatorial recipient.

Are they “getting away with murder?”  I don’t think so.

What it comes down to is this:   

Power or laughs?

Pick one.

For you can, sir or madam, certainly not enjoy both.


canda said...

Along with the Leonardo DiCaprio supermodel vagina joke, one of the things that hosts of an awards show has going for them today is that the lives of the stars are an open book, known by all who watch the entertainment info shows, and anyone who has access to the internet (which is everyone).

The idea that these stars occupy lofty, rarified space, is no longer true. Studio publicists no longer rule. We see movie and TV stars getting out of their cars, disheveled or even drunk, thanks to the paparazzi. We know who they're sleeping with, when they're cheating, or if they even have their own hair. Internet users can attack Jennifer Love Hewitt's weight, and bring her to tears.

So, the home audience now can feel like an insider, when hosts make fun of TV and movie stars dating and eating habits. Again, today's hosts tend to make fun of the stars, while Hope, Carson, and Crystal usually had fun with them.

If Carson made fun of Hollywood stars, he wasn't usually specific. Thus, one of my favorite jokes of his was, "It's nice to see all the new faces…on all the old faces". That joke could be done today, while Leonardo DiCaprio's sex life has a limited shelf life.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Earl: there's a lot of corroboration for what you've said here in the wonderful book on women in comedy, WE KILLED (which I first read about on Ken Levine's blog). Among other things, Phyllis Diller talks about having essentially worn a burlap sack and fright wig to disguise the fact that actually she was rather pretty and had a good figure because she knew she'd never get laughs if she showed up with those...I guess you'd call them "assets". And she's not the only one who talks about that.

Maybe that's an indicator of how far we've come: Tina Fey gets to look great *and* get laughs.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Oh - and if you want to see a really interesting discussion of disadvantaged comedians, you should take a look at the documentary film PHUNNY BUSINESS ( It was shown at Roger Ebert's film festival a couple of years ago, and covers the rise and fall of black comedy clubs in Chicago. The women are especially interesting, but the whole thing is amazing.


Anonymous said...

Carson used to poke fun at his one film appearance... in an early '60s Connie Francis movie.

Anonymous said...

Just to add to wg's comment, I also remember Joan Rivers saying something about female comedians and their appearance (I'm paraphrasing) - that in order to be successful you can't look like you can take someone's husband. I think some of that thinking still exists today. Even though Tina and Amy are attractive women, I think most people would agree they aren't considered to be the Hollywood bombshell type. And something about that, perhaps unfortunately, may make people feel comfortable enough to laugh at their jokes.