October 6, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, October 6, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We’ll see what the turn in late-night comedy tells us about the culture, why comedy writers now want us to wince while we laugh, what art tells us about morality and why the 2017 Nobel Prize for literature matters.
Partisanship comes to late-night: What the turn in comedy tells us about the culture
There are few dimensions of American culture more revealing about worldview than America’s culture of popular entertainment. And this functions in a very telling way about worldview because it reveals the worldview of those who conceived the entertainment, eventually produce it and market it. But it also tells us a great deal about the worldview of ourselves, the worldview of the American people, who are the consumers of these products. And make no mistake, they are products. By the time you do an analysis of what Americans watch, the music to which they listen, the art shows that they attends, all of this put together, especially when it comes to the most popular forms of entertainment, commonly known as television and the movies, well we learn a great deal about what makes us think, what captivates us, what makes us laugh.
Recently there’s been attention to a significant shift in one particular sector of America’s popular entertainment, and this is the comedy shows that appear at late-night. Late-night entertainment has become something of a staple of American culture since World War II. In one sense it grew up with American television. Looking back at the early years, to take one example, of the NBC program the Tonight Show, it was very clear that even then at late-night presumably with the kids in bed the television producers and the entertainers were stretching the envelope, but that envelope was pretty innocent back in the 1950s and 60s, far less so now. The big development is the politicization of late-night comedy. This has the attention of Jim Rutenberg, the writer of the mediator column at the New York Times. He says this,Show Full Transcript
“The job of a late-night comedian was once so straightforward: Give Americans something to laugh about so they can forget about their workday worries.”
He went on to say,
“Presidents always made for comedic fodder, as did the daily headlines. But it was all in good fun. And it generally hovered on the edge of the partisan divide.”
What’s changed? Well as Rutenberg says, that partisan divide is now wider, so wide evidently that America’s late-night comedians have decided they have to take a side. And interestingly enough, they’re all on one side. Late-night television, now perhaps more than any other single dimension of America’s television entertainment, it skews significantly left. Rutenberg recognizes that the old recipe for success in late-night comedy was to run somewhat close to the border, but never to cross it, never for a comedian or entertainer to appear to be merely and predictably partisan. But as he said the rules are off, the old rules.
He cites former New York Times writer Bill Carter as describing the new situation in late-night comedy as,
“‘absolutely uncharted’ territory.”
Carter, the former writer for the New York Times, is the author of the book “The Late Shift.” It’s considered by many to be one of the most interesting books on the development of late-night entertainment. As Rutenberg tells us the book is,
“the classic yarn about the war between David Letterman and Jay Leno to get Johnny Carson’s job on the ‘Tonight’ show.”
He followed it up with another book entitled “The War for Late Night” about Conan O’Brien, and what’s described as his debacle iat NBC. But speaking about the current politicization, the leftward politicization of late-night comedy, Mr. Carter said,
“There’s no example of any kind of sustained attack like this on a politician.” He said, “There’s a horde of writers writing jokes about Donald Trump every single night.”
Furthermore, Rutenberg points out, that’s not even including weekly program, such a Saturday Night Live and the programs hosted by comedians John Oliver and Samantha Bee. There can be no question that there’s an abundance of material, political material and therefore comedic material, when it comes to today’s particularly partisan political context. But what makes this development so interesting is that it is skewing in only one direction. And what makes that a bit perplexing is that that late-night audience has to include millions of Americans who are presumably offended by this very direction of the comedy. And there are those in the industry who are worried. Evidently the situation also causes some perplexity and concern at the New York Times. Mr. Carter speaking of the past and of Jay Leno in particular said,
“Leno was the guy who was most likely to be down the middle with his commentary.” He said that during Leno’s, “22-year tenure. He was more or less following the tradition of his own predecessor, Johnny Carson, who made plenty of fun,” we are told, “of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.” But as Carter phrased it, “Carson was judicious” about his political humor and his criticism.
The clear point being made here isn’t hard to figure out. The statement here means that the current comedians on late-night television are injudicious when it comes to the fact that they are now openly political. There can be no question that the producers of America’s entertainment, the so-called cultural creative’s have always tended to be politically and morally liberal. That’s pretty well documented, but there had always been something of a pact between the producers of popular culture and the consumers of that culture, otherwise known as the American people. That compacted come down to this: comedians and other entertainers were allowed to lean left and to use just about every elected official, especially every president, as something of a comedic figure, a background in terms of political and comedic commentary. But when it comes to partisanship, well that was outside the compact. That was crossing a line that must not be crossed.
The Rutenberg column is actually even more interesting as he makes the point that the real competition right now in terms of America’s late-night entertainment is to see who can get to the furthest point left faster than everyone else, who can be even more caustic and acidic in commentary than the next comedian. The interesting thing here, the very important worldview dimension, is that what’s taking place in America’s late-night entertainment is a march to the left that is now setting up its own dynamic. It also raises the interesting question. The question that is troubling many of the television executives, as to whether or not the American people really want this? Or if these comedians are just trying to score points now over one another with little respect to the actual audience?
Dark, anxious, and realistic: Why comedians now want audiences to wince while they laugh
But next we turn to another analysis of what makes Americans laugh. This time we’re looking more at primetime entertainment, and Jason Zinoman who writes the on comedy column for the New York Times tells us of the development of a new form of American popular comedy, what he calls the cringe comedy. And here again you see a significant shift just in recent years. The rise of programs such as the reappearance of the program “Curb Your Enthusiasm” that is particularly about causing those who laugh to simultaneously grimace, transgressive comedy, the comedy of the morally and culturally obnoxious. As Zinoman points out, American comedy has always once again gone right up to the boundary. But then he writes this,
“as the 20th century has given way to the 21st, comedy has become increasingly dark, anxious and realistic, assisted by the looser rules of cable television and the rise of reality TV. Peppy punch lines,” he says, “have been replaced by comically tense situations.”
In Zinoman’s analysis, I found the greatest fascination with his use of those specific three words. He said that a new comedy is appearing that is increasingly, here are the three words: dark anxious and realistic. Concerning that first word, I think most of us can recognize a turn towards darker entertainment at least in terms of what’s being offered to us, darker dramas and yes darker comedies. Just think of the contrast between the lighthearted comedies of the 1960s, think of the Dick Van Dyke show, as contrasted of what we have now. Also note that most millennials probably wouldn’t even appreciate maybe even understand that lighthearted humor of the 1960s. The word anxious that second word maybe we can understand that too. On the left on the right and probably at every point in between, there is some level of increased social anxiety. But is this really translated into laugh lines into what Americans believed to be humorous? Previous explanations of humor have indicated that humor is an escape from that anxiety not a way of playing on the anxieties. But it’s the third word, the word realistic, that I think is most troubling because it raises the question, realistic according to what, according to whom? Presumably the word realistic here is pointing to the fact that characters on sitcoms, the dialogue of those characters, the presentation of persons and of events in terms of comedic routines would be more realistic than in the past. If that’s being contrasted with something like the set-up slapstick humor of generations ago, that makes sense. But again, we have to wonder if this actually tells us far more about the producers of this entertainment than the consumers of it.
One other line from this article also caught my attention. The writer said that in today’s comedic culture,
“every laugh these days seems married to a wince.”
But at this point, the Christian worldview would cause us to ask a very interesting question not asked at all in this article. The question is this: if something actually does make us wince should it also make us laugh? If it does, perhaps we ought to ask the question, what does that say about us and what we really do believe?
Art as a form of moral subversion: Exhibit about gender aims to upend very idea of gender
But next we shift from looking at America’s popular culture and entertainment and what that tells us about the country at large, to shifting to the more rarefied atmosphere of America’s art museums, in their own way those museums tell us a great deal about America too, not so much about popular culture, but about what the elite creatives and artists tell us about themselves and also about what they think about us and about the world. And make no mistake, these artists are seeking to send a moral message. You don’t have to wonder about that. Just speak to them, they’ll tell you. In this case, Holland Cotter reporting for the New York Times takes us to New York City’s new Museum and the exhibition entitled “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon.” He contrasts this new exhibition with one that appeared in 1982. That one was entitled “Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art.” Cotter describes that exhibition as,
“the first major American institutional survey of work by gay and lesbian artists.”
Again Cotter, contrastsd that exhibition with the new one entitled “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon.” And he says this,
“As an exhibition, its brief is to break down, through art, the binary male-female face-off that gay and lesbian often represented, to stretch the perimeters of gender to the snapping point. The goal,” he says is, “is to inject the disruptive power of not-normal back into the discussion of difference at a time when the edge of mainstream gayness has been dulled by the quest for assimilation.”
Now if you’re following me, he actually does go on and I quote,
“The difficulty is that queer, and to some extent trans, are hard to capture, institutionally. Slipperiness is built into them; they don’t sit still. Trans by definition,” he writes, “is the act of changing, going beyond the boundaries of gender (and race, and class). Those boundaries are porous, and crossings in any direction are negotiable.”
Well he goes on quite a bit further from that. The point is this here you see art in the form of an exhibition of art about gender being used quite specifically to undermine the very idea of gender in the first place. This is an exhibition as a form of moral subversion, and we need to note, quite probably so. Again Cotter says the point of the exhibits is,
“to stretch the perimeters of gender to the snapping point.”
The headline of the article is,
“Let (Gender) Confusion Reign.”
And the subhead is this,
“The New Museum shouldn’t mind some puzzled faces at the show ‘Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon.’ Thinking hard is the point.”
Well one of the points to make about this review about this particular exhibition in a less than perhaps well-known museum in New York City is the fact that the exhibition review takes up the top half of the front page of a New York Times print section and continues at considerable length inside the section. This tells us that the New York Times believes this to be a really important exhibition, morally important, politically important. We would say important in terms of shifting worldview. And in this case important because it exists by its very nature in order to subvert and establish sexual morality. Cotter also makes the very interesting point that if someone is looking for coherence and cohesion in this exhibition that person is likely to be frustrated. Why? because he says this kind of art doesn’t lend itself to cohesion. That’s pretty candid, but undeniably accurate because the one thing that unites the individual parts of this exhibition is the common goal of subverting the traditional Christian sexual morality, the morality in which male and female are understood to be recognizable categories.
But finally we shift to yet another dimension of art and culture that reveals worldview. We speak of the continuing importance of literature. And yesterday from Stockholm, Sweden, the Nobel Committee announced the 2017 Nobel Laureate in Literature. That laureate is the English novelist Kazuo Ishiguro born in Nagasaki, Japan, but who moved with his family to Great Britain at age 5. But the most important dimension of the choice of Ishiguro for this award, nonetheless than the Nobel Prize, is the fact that in recent years that prize committee has so often seemed to be motivated more by politics than by literary quality not the case this year. There is no question that Ishiguro is a novelist of unusual power, and furthermore he is not and has never been traditionally understood as political. Ishiguro is the author of several novels and numerous short stories. The most important of his novels was written in 1989, the title, “The Remains of the Day.” It was later made into a major motion picture produced by the Merchant Ivory Team.
Worldview book recommendation: “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro
Now the remains of the day is a very important novel. It begins as a novel of English manners, but it quickly turns into a great deal more. It reveals some the most seismic moral and civilizational shifts of the 20th century. As seen predominantly through the eyes of a butler in a traditional English manor house serving the man known in the novel as Lord Darlington in Darlington Hall. If Downton Abbey were to appear as high literature, it would appear in the form of “The Remains of the Day.” In this novel you see flashbacks to the period in Great Britain before World War II and then thereafter. You see a man asking the most basic questions about the meaning of his life, wondering if his code of honor would have any enduring significance or if he had wasted his life in such a civilizational moment. And there is also the subplot of why the British upper class was inclined to appeasement with Adolf Hitler. But the novel also takes us to the decades in Great Britain after World War II with Britain receding on the world scene, and with the United States emerging as the dominant world power, all of this with rather masterful prose.
In 2005, the author published yet another novel. This one known as “Never Let Me Go.” This novel takes us into a dystopian time, the period was the 1990s, and into a dystopian future in which a group of teenagers at a boarding school, an apparently normal picture turns out to be anything but as we learn that the young teenagers are actually clones being raised in order to be the donors of organs. Their lives to be cut tragically short because of the desire of others to live. It’s one of those novels that raises a host of the biomedical and technological issues that previous generations could not even have imagined but are now not just so much the real stuff of fiction, but the real stuff of contemporary biomedical debate. In any event, it’s good news for literature that the Nobel committee has chosen Kazuo Ishiguro for the 2017 Nobel Prize for literature. It is a reminder to us all that literature still matters, especially the literature that raises the most profound questions of human existence. I’ll let “The Remains of the Day” be this week’s worldview book of the week.