Monday, October 19, 2015

"Truth Tellers Make Terrible TV Panelists"

Flipping around the channels a couple of weeks ago, notwithstanding my aforementioned commitment – not in this post, I just started it, but recently, possibly yesterday – wherein I vowed to avoid all political jabber-jabber, I came to rest at HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, not because of the show itself, but because of my enthusiasm for one of the evening’s guest panelists…

John Cleese. 

Of Monty Python renown.  (Now old, though only six years older than I am.)

Real Time covers the week’s prominent news events, Maher peppering the proceedings with wry comments and comedic smack-downs beloved by his studio audience whose ecstatic responses suggest they may possibly be on Maher’s payroll.

The centerpiece of the program involves Maher’s conversationally engaging with three panelists, representing various positions on the political spectrum.  On this occasion, the guests are Ron Reagan (the former president’s son) – liberal, commentator C.J. Cupp – conservative, and, for me, the centerpiece of the program, the revered and remarkable John Cleese –

Truth teller.

Unfortunately, Cleese did not fare happily in that arena. 

In fact at one point, John Cleese “mock exited” the show, his near-departure seeming less “mock” than “mock” normally suggests.

Cleese began well, coasting on his respected reputation.  He was funny.  Charming.  Accurate in his observations.

But then Cleese’s views veered towards the less comfortable areas of “accurate.”  That’s when things started to unravel.  (Treating, me at least, to some riveting television.)  

Conclusion:  (In case you do not want to read this whole thing)

You can be a truth teller on an American talk show. 

But only if you’re positive.

Random Cleeseian pronoucements:  (Virtually verbatim, because I wrote them down during my On Demand re-watching of the program.)  (“Virtually” because they talked fast, and nobody’s perfect.)

On the current political situation:

“I think the whole point is that democracy has failed.  {Democracy’s} dependent on a fairly intelligent electorate who are fairly well informed.  Well, we don’t have one.”

Solid laugh from the audience.

When, sensing ideological bias, conservative Cupp asks him to clarify if his low opinion refers to all the electorate or just the Republicans, Cleese immediately shoots back,

“Oh, no, no, no.  I don’t think anyone’s informed anymore.  This is not any more a serious country.  It’s all about entertainment.  There are shows like this when they should have serious, important shows on the air.”

(Cleese’s nuance is enigmatically ambiguous.  The audience’s reaction, detectably unsupportive.) 

Cleese then poses the inevitable following question:

“What do we have now that democracy is finished?”

With the show teetering towards chaos, Maher defensively mumbles “Democracy’s not finished”, then goes on to offer a joke – probably from his act – echoing Cleese’s position that it is.

Turning next to the predicament of lying – the liberal Reagan offering an example of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum lying recently on Real Time about the percentage of scientists that say that humans are not causing global warming, followed by Maher’s referencing Volkswagen’s blatant lying about their cars’ emission standards – Cleese world-wearily opines,

“Bill, it’s only lying now.  You know what I mean?  It’s appalling.  But you must have noticed that everyone lies.  All the time.  About everything.  It’s hopeless.  Is my point.”

When the studio audience, progressively uneasy about Cleese, retreats into murmuring discomfort, the ironically smiling conservative Ms. Cupp jumps into the “dead spot”, observing, “We should just go home.”

That’s when Cleese announces that he’s fine with that, rising from his seat, and beginning his exit – “mock” or otherwise – Maher finally inviting him to return.

Rejoining the panel, Cleese makes a capping Vesuvial pronouncement:

“It’s just hopeless.  I’m wanting everyone to understand.  There is.  No.  Hope.”

Having finally had enough, Maher nails Cleese with what in the current context, is the ultimate “freeze-out.”

“Isn’t he great, the last time he’s on?”

Big laugh from the audience, Cleese good-naturedly laughing along,  (His piercing eyes, however, revealing an alternate narrative.) 

Cleese has incurred Maher’s baronial displeasure by committing the greatest sin you can commit on a talk show:

Telling the truth.

The kind that will stop Maher’s TV show dead in its tracks. 

Because if things, as Cleese asserts, are in fact hopeless…

What exactly is there to talk about?

How do I know what he said was the truth?

The august John Cleese believes it.

And, closing the deal-io…

So do I.

(On Second Thought:  It is possible that, for comedic purposes, Mr. Cleese was merely adopting a curmudgeonly persona.  Uh-oh.  Where does that leave me?)


Wendy M. Grossman said...

It leaves you where you were: not British. Only the English can perfectly decode each other.


Tobi (Pidge) said...

He's not kidding! And your instincts are correct.
Viewed from here, it seems as though the American Experiment is floundering in its death throes. And in case you think I'm being smug from a distance, here in your original home and native land, we are celebrating an election day, rife with race- baiting, polarized wealth and social class, blindness by many to environmental issues, inadequate infrastructure and a deteriorating health care system, which wasn't even discussed on TV debates. Our homes are being sold off to offshore investors. Our PM decided to employ the 'attack ad' in his approach, so 'un-Canadian', perfected in the States, so we've also been treated to weeks of slimy personal attacks on his competitors until we can't even watch the weather channel in peace. He brags about keeping our economy safe during the 'troubles' of 2008, but the reality is he tried to deregulate our banks, too, but he had strong opposition, so we were spared the agony of the rest of the world. He seems to think he can take credit for it, but that's only because, as Mr. Cleese so graciously put it, 'people are uninformed'. I'd say they are dumb as bricks and can't even be bothered to remember what went on a few years ago!
I know whereof I speak. I am a retired teacher. When I go in to supply now, I am astounded at the lack of information available to the students. Everything's been dumbed down...except the marks. The teachers are also rather 'uninformed', to put it mildly. Nobody can think for themselves.
It would shock you to discover how little many people know..... Or care.

And for Wendy, whose comments I always treasure, Earl (and I) may not be technically British, but we were schooled in a remote colonial outpost in the dying days of the Empire, so we may be more in tune with the British sensibility than Americans.

Alan said...

Trust you to see that moment and get its significance.
It was, as you said, a Moment of Truth. It may have also been the inaugural moment of a New Comedy: The Comedy of Despair.
When two of the top laugh-makers in the English language agree that “It’s hopeless!”, well, that’s pretty big.