Laughing Matters: The Simpsons, “We Are the Mediocre Presidents”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I enjoy reading about U.S. history, and I consider myself reasonably educated and well-read. And yet I must confess that it is a brief song in the Springfield Elementary School holiday revue that is the reason I can confidently answer any trivia questions about the person who had the shortest tenure in the highest office in the land.

Happy President’s Day, everyone!

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters — Conan Babies

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

When Late Night with Conan O’Brien made its debut, in the fall of 1993, I was probably at the peak of my devotion to comedy television that aired around midnight. As a fierce fan of David Letterman, I watched with rooting interest as NBC engaged in the longstanding tradition of botched the transition of Tonight Show hosts. (When Bill Carter’s book on the turbulent situation, The Late Shift, was published the following year, I purchased it as soon as I could and devoured it with vigor.) So I was well aware of the perplexing choice of Letterman’s successor on Late Night (after the future Kennedy Center honoree, denied the post he’d long coveted, jumped to CBS to launch The Late Show), a comedy writer alum of Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons who’d spent barely any time at all on the other side of the camera. Even the commercials promoting the introduction of Conan O’Brien as a late night joked about his amateur status. “He’s new at this,” they sheepishly admitted.

A recent college graduate, I had a lot of spare time on my hands when Late Night with Conan O’Brien was added to the NBC programming grid, and I watched from the beginning. While it wasn’t as bad as the most scathing reviews insisted, it wasn’t exactly good, either. But then, with remarkable speed, it evolved to become something downright fantastic, as innovative in its spirited absurdity and genially serrated satire as Letterman was in his showbiz-deflating irony.

Still toiling away among the tumbleweeds of basic cable, O’Brien was recently termed by The New York Times as “The Most Riveting Host in Late Night (and the Most Overlooked).” Realistically, that assessment could have been fairly applied to him from the moment he first got his sea legs on Late Night. I’m not sure if ever viewer had a comedy bit they could readily identify as the one that fully won them over to O’Brien’s Late Night, but the choice is obvious for me: “Conan Babies.”

 

Laughing Matters: MST3K, “Here Comes the Circus”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

When I was in college, videotapes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may as well have been bricks of gold. Airing on Comedy Central (including a couple years in its initial guise of Comedy Channel, ahead of a merger with rival network Ha!), the ingenious elevation of bad movie heckling into delirious art spoke to our snide, ironic sensibilities. The cable network wasn’t available on our local systems, and most us couldn’t afford the hook-up in our rundown apartments anyway. We knew of it, we read about it, and we even took a local pride in it (creator and star Joel Hodgson was born in our college town of Stevens Point and played one of his last standup gigs at the university before taking MST3K national). But we usually couldn’t watch it.

Then, in 1991, a small miracle happened. Comedy Central turned over a huge chunk of its Thanksgiving Day programming to Hodgson’s endeavor, airing a marathon of MST3K episodes. Invariably, some fellow student would go home for the holidays and return with a stack of VHS tapes, loaded down with MST3K episodes, probably recorded in some basement rec room as the rest of family gorged themselves on turkey and football upstairs.

From then on, even as the show became more readily available through a variety of means, my warmest memories of it are accompanied by thoughts of eagerly sitting before one of those screenings, with wavered tracking and the breathless insistence to maybe watch just one more before closing out the evening. It almost felt illicit, which matched perfectly with the sharpened insolence of the comedy.

The first time I saw Here Comes the Circus, it played off of one of those videotapes. Over two decades later, it’s still hysterical.

 

Laughing Matters — Jerry Seinfeld on Halloween candy

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

“What is this? What did you say? So what did you say about giving out candy? Who is giving out candy? Everyone that we know is just giving out candy?

Laughing Matter — Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, “One Leg Too Few”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I am currently in the midst of listening to Marc Maron’s interview with Tracey Ullman on his podcast, WTF. While Ullman is generous and gracious throughout, she reserves her highest praise — thus far, anyway — for Peter Cook, quickly and emphatically calling him a genius.

For most in the U.S., Cook’s reputation probably extends no further than his brief but memorable (to say the least) turn as “The Impressive Clergyman” in The Princess Bride, those in his homeland undoubtedly view him with more reverence, thanks to his work with Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, and, most notably, Dudley Moore in Beyond the Fringe. I don’t claim to be a true and proper scholar of comedy, but I am prepared to say that the sketch “One Leg Too Few,” featuring an eager actor arriving for an audition, is one of the best sketches ever delivered, practically perfect in conception and execution.

If nothing else, there are few better, smart entries in the pantheon of set-up-and-punchlines than the one that begins “I’ve got nothing against your right leg.”

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters — The Onion, ‘No Way to Prevent This’

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

onion

Today, The Onion posted a story headlined “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” accompanied by a photo of emergency response vehicles below the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Except for the details in the story’s lede, the photograph, and a couple other details, every word is the same. They have posted the repeating story on at least four prior heartbreaking occasions. It is an act of bleak comic genius and bruising social satire. It is the only exhibit needed to demonstrate the invaluable contribution The Onion makes to the discourse.

“At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as ‘helpless,'” the article concludes.

I hope The Onion never has cause to use this piece again. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.