1:14 pm Apr. 30, 2012
On Saturday night, the White House Correspondents dinner offered a practical exercise in politics and comedy. Earlier that evening, the New School took an academic approach to such matters: a panel discussion, convened in honor of the spring issue of Social Research: An International Quarterly and featuring what moderator Marvin Kitman called “the most prestigious group discussing this subject on the west side of Manhattan today.”
It included "Daily Show" head writer Tim Carvell, CBS News contributor Nancy Giles, and former editor of The Nation Victor Navasky.
Social Research editor Arien Mack told the audience that her publication was making an exception to its usual procedure—they “rarely” launched issues with an event, much less one focused on humor.
“Levity is hardly the word that would normally come to mind when you’re thinking about Social Research,” she said.
New School president David Van Zandt said that this was, to his knowledge, the first time since its 1934 inception that the journal had featured a cartoon on its cover: in this case Uncle Sam, drawn by Bob Grossman, as a wild-eyed circus clown.
Kitman, a media critic and author of The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O’Reilly, began by declaring “one ground rule” for Saturday’s proceedings: no laughing. The audience broke this rule almost immediately, when Kitman described Rick Santorum as “the only candidate to have a Latin name.” The New School’s Center for Public Scholarship reported “overwhelming” interest in the event, and audience members had begun claiming seats in John Tishman Auditorium an hour before the panel’s 5 p.m. start time. A significant portion of the crowd was white haired—old-school “Village intelligentsia” and Navasky fans, in the assessment of one guest. The proverbial young people who get their news from The Daily Show were more a rhetorical specter than an actual presence in the auditorium.
“Tim, how do you feel about the way people think if they stay up to watch The Daily Show?” asked Kitman in his opening question to Carvell. “Are they informed?”
Carvell said that the idea of being relied upon for news made his staff apprehensive.
“We’re an augment, a garnish,” he said. “Parsley, if you will.”
Giles, meanwhile, took The Daily Show to task for not conveying a clearer activist message at 2010’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”—only Tony Bennett, she said, actually urged viewers to vote. Carvell again voiced ambivalence.
“If someone wasn’t going to vote until we told them to that day,” he said, “I don’t want them voting.”
Kitman apologized for “grilling” Carvell, then asked about The Daily Show’s uses of clips and editing—wasn’t that comparable to the Fox News tendency to pull sound bites out of context? Here Carvell took exception, pointing to the show’s researchers’ hard work to make sure nothing is misrepresented.
“It’s not funny if it’s not true,” Carvell said.
Navasky responded with a different perspective. Currently at work on a book about political cartoons, he noted that caricatures are “by definition unfair” and yet more powerful for their inaccuracy, perhaps because viewers fear that their exaggerations approach the truth. The only time his staff at The Nation rebelled, Navasky said, was over a caricature: a New York Review of Books-rejected David Levine cartoon that depicted Henry Kissinger “screwing the world”—as represented by a woman with a globe for a face—beneath an American-flag bed sheet. Of course, in that case the big concern was sexism, but still: art is powerful.
“I wish that you would be unfair in the interest of truth,” Navasky told Carvell.
The panelists were friendly (Giles kept fixing Navasky’s wily microphone) but the audience was winningly cranky. “Ask a question,” someone shouted when one Q&A orator went on too long.
Comedy’s seriousness tends to elude analysis, especially analysis in the form of long-winded discussion. Carvell recalled his Daily Show colleagues’ bafflement at Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
“Who talks like that?” he said of the show’s many self-important discourses on comedy writing. “Who would ever talk that way?”
But despite the difficulty of getting at humor’s power by talking about it, the panelists made a game effort. If nothing else, the event was a reminder that satirists have been staging political performances since long before Stephen Colbert launched his super PAC: Kitman reminisced at length about his run for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, a race in which he positioned himself as “the Lincoln candidate” (tagline: “More reactionary than Goldwater!”). Navasky had served as Kitman’s campaign manager.
“I blamed him for my defeat,” Kitman said.
“He is a very sore loser,” Navasky said.
Finally, the real question: does talking about being funny kill the joke?
“Yes,” said Navasky, sipping a Diet Sprite at the post-panel reception.
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