Month: March 2015

Trevor Noah, The Daily Show and Hypocritical, Talentless Scolds

A couple of months ago, Jon Stewart announced that he was stepping down from The Daily Show, a program he rescued from the doldrums of unfulfilled possibility.  Over the course of the following decade-plus, The Daily Show became an institution, a go-to source for news about and analysis of our ailing society.  After much debate, both inside and outside of Comedy Central, 31-year-old Trevor Noah was named Stewart’s successor.

This should be the most thrilling and most professionally daunting time of Mr. Noah’s life.  After years in the comedy world, he has somehow reached the arguable pinnacle of American humor.

Nope.  Instead, Mr. Noah is dealing with backlash from hypocritical, talentless scolds who don’t like jokes that he made in the past.  These people are outraged that Mr. Noah has directed jokes at virtually all ethnic groups and genders.  These people are labeling Mr. Noah, a comedian, an “anti-Semite” and worse because of jokes that he made on Twitter.

Why is this manufactured outrage an outrage in itself?  The first and perhaps least important reason is an emotional one.  These scolds, most of whom have never accomplished anything of meaning in their lives, are being, well, offensive jerks.  Think about the accomplishment of which you are proudest.  Now imagine that thousands of people are trying to ruin that good feeling, all because of the ease with which they can pump out 140 characters before not returning to creative activity.  It’s not as though Mr. Noah killed anyone.  On a personal level, why not ease off of the guy?

This faux-outrage is also silly because Mr. Noah is a comedian.  It’s his job and his sacred duty to make jokes.  Jokes are inherently offensive to someone, particularly when heard by people who are hell-bent on being offended.  Comedians are the truth-tellers in our society.  They’re the ones who help us think about our culture and our world in new and challenging ways.  Comedians simply can’t exist if keyboard commandos shut them down because they’re offended.

I can hear some of you saying, “Hey, Ken!  There are many comedians who aren’t offensive!   Punch up, not down and all of those other rules I’m trying to use to remove human nature from the creative realm!”  Here’s an adorable and hilarious ten-year-old comedian named Carly.

Here’s the normal response we should have to the very tight routine:

What a precocious young lady!  She’s so funny!  Good for her!  I see big things from her in the future!

Okay, now let’s put on the They Live insanity glasses:

Carly talked about Spam without even offering a trigger warning.  I get hives on my palms when I think about the animal Holocaust that happens every day in this world.  She even started out by dehumanizing valley girls and appropriating their culture-specific dialect.  She just said “everyone in Hawaii is family!”  What is that supposed to mean?  She must be stopped.

This faux outrage is silly because it’s sucking up far too much oxygen in our culture.  I know that it’s easy to click “Like” when your Facebook friend points out a racist statement made by a Republican.  News flash: we are all going to die.  We have a finite amount of time on this planet.  Shall we spend it engaged in the pursuit of happiness and performing acts that feed our metaphorical souls or simply spitting and repeating pointless venom.

Trevor Noah’s comedy has never caused a single person to go to the hospital.  No joke he has made ever caused tangible harm.  We need to focus on real problems instead of trying to ruin a man or to censor his creativity.

Look at this graph from The Century Foundation:

incomeinequality

Why don’t we spend our time fighting this very real problem that actually does cause tangible harm?  I know, I know, it’s easier to retweet bile or to click on a change.org petition to hand the reins of The Daily Show over to a comedian who has never told a joke that has offended anyone.

I suppose one of the things that bothers me the most about such stories is that creative people already face near-constant rejection.  Publishers will only buy so many books.  Comedy clubs can only fit so many comics onstage in one night.  Many of us, even if we’re good, will be left behind for reasons primarily out of our control.  Trevor Noah’s job is to make people laugh.  He has done so consistently for a long enough period of time that Comedy Central entrusted him with the big chair of a very profitable television program.  A person who is truly part of the brotherhood and sisterhood of creativity is likely to have much more empathy for Mr. Noah.

Unfortunately, being offended has become a cottage industry in our culture.  The people who are tweeting viciousness at Mr. Noah are under the impression that the simple fact that they were offended actually means something.  Taking offense, particularly at a joke from a comedian, is not a badge of honor.  It’s an indication that the person is under the impression that their feelings are more important than the unfettered creative expression that is the trademark of Enlightenment ideals.

Why not engage in a simple experiment.  Find a random Tweeter who is angry with Mr. Noah for telling jokes.  Look through their Twitter feed.  Guess what?  Those complainers have said offensive things, too. Whenever I am offended, which is often, I remember the wise words of comedian Stephen Fry:

fry

I began this piece by pointing out that Jon Stewart announced a couple months ago that he would depart The Daily Show.  Something else happened a couple months ago.  Gunmen burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine dedicated to using satire to bring Western society closer to Enlightenment ideals.  Twelve human beings lost their lives because several failures decided that THEY had the right to dictate which jokes were acceptable and which were not.  Creative people are in the ground and rotting away because brainwashed dogmatists wanted to protect the feelings of people who cannot handle ideas that conflict with their own.  For a brief, shining moment, most of us were united under a single banner: Je Suis Charlie.

And now we’re back to exerting pressure (in this case social) to police the speech of comedians and ultimately all creativity in the public sphere.  Those who criticize Noah would be ashamed if they had any shame to begin with.

GWS.OMG! Duck Dynasty Guy Fantasized About Violence Against Atheists! Mary Breaks Down Charlize Theron’s Vanity!

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The Duck Dynasty guy doesn’t like atheists.  Whaaaaaaaaa?
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GWS.OMG Thanx HLN! BruJo Gets New House and a Fish Looks Like a Star Wars Character!

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HLN is knockin it out da park today with all of the important news!  Did you know that Bruce Jenner bought a new house?  And that a fish looks like a Star Wars dude?
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GWS.OMG! Fox News Pointed Out That Eva Mendes Said Something that Could Be Construed as Sexist! J-Law and Bra-Coo 2-get-her! Mr. Darcy a Jerk!

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Seriously.  This is so craycray.  Eva Mendes joked that sweatpants are, like, a big cause of divorce.
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GWS.OMG! Idina Menzel Dyed Her Hair Blonde! Just Like Elsa! And Someone on Fox News Said Something that Could Be Construed As Racist!

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Not even kidding.  Idina Menzel dyed her hair blonde.  Now she looks just like Elsa from Frozen.  Which makes sense.  Because she sang the song from Frozen.
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GWS.OMG! Kylie Jenner’s Cray Cray Exercise Clothes and Someone on Fox News Said Something that Could Be Construed as Racist

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No.  Way.  Can you believe that Kylie Jenner wore a workout outfit or something?  Yahoo!’s Taryn Ryder reports that Kylie knelt on a balcony. Continue Reading

Community’s “Ladders” and Constant Creativity

You thought Community was dead, didn’t you?  The show has been written off several times because it requires a little more of the audience than just staring at a screen.  You  never need to worry about Kardashians going away:

See?  You don’t even have to move your eyeballs!  You don’t learn anything!  Your mind and soul can remain asleep while you watch.

Community has been in danger since it premiered because the show invites you to move your eyeballs and to process what is happening in the show.  The program also offers you something in return for a little bit of attention.  The same can’t be said of the Kardashians.  After five seasons on NBC (one of them without the brilliant creator Dan Harmon), Community has moved to Yahoo! Screen and has made a change or two.

“Ladders” establishes the new new new new new normal at Greendale.  Writers Harmon and Chris McKenna have a bunch of exposition to drop for us.  As is the case with many previous episodes, the writers begin with a voice over from the Dean: the audience is reminded of which characters remain on the show and are refreshed with respect to character.  (Winger is still a bit selfish; he parks in an electric-only spot and just throws the charger in the window.)  Britta is homeless, Abed is still creating, having written the Dean’s announcement.  The inciting incident of the episode (and the bringer of change to Greendale) is Annie’s failure to address the mountain of Frisbees on the roof.  One more disc makes the roof collapse, forcing the Dean to bring in a humorless penny-pinching manager.  “Frankie” has as much trouble adjusting to Greendale as the study group has adjusting to her.  She takes the booze out of the teacher’s lounge and makes a million other awful changes.

Abed, perhaps jarred by all of the change around him, begins to question his meta-entertainment-centric worldview.  Winger, Annie and Britta start a speakeasy in the basement in response to Frankie’s rules.  As you can imagine, she discovers the incredibly illegal bar and leaves, believing she doesn’t fit in at Greendale.  As you can further imagine, removing all boundaries from Greendale results in big problems, not the least of which is combining alcohol and “a class called ‘Ladders.'”

After the predictable ladder accident, the gang brings Frankie back, changing what it means to be part of the family at Greendale.

See?  The summary demonstrates that Community is a little bit complicated; the show is certainly “harder to get into” than many other pop culture creations.  Everybody Loves Raymond is very easy to understand; that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The husband is dumb, the wife is mean, the in-laws are a pain.  Got it.  (And the creators got hundreds of millions of dollars…)  I’m not just talking about TV shows; it’s very easy to engage the outrage du jour.  (OMG.  Lindsay Lohan called her friends Kanye and Kim the “n-word” in a friend way.  Why don’t I write a 100-word post about it and tack on several ads instead of wasting my time writing a meaningful essay?)  It’s much harder, on the other hand, to create real art.

Dan Harmon and Community exemplify what I love about my favorite creative people.  Harmon and those around him push themselves to try new things, no matter how hard or annoying they are.  I’m sure that the paintball episodes of Community were a massive logistical pain in the behind for everyone involved.  Instead of simply planting actors on the stage, the cast and crew covered the set–and each other–in paintballs and had to have everything back to normal for the next episode.  It was likely a huge, costly inconvenience to find the artists and resources necessary to make the animated episodes of the show.  Can you comprehend how many hours went into composing and choreographing songs for the musical episode?

I suppose this point cuts to the quick of what bums me out about some writing that least engages me.  People are welcome to write whatever they like, but what’s the point of writing the same story a thousand times?  With the same exact characters?  In the same exact setting?  We become writers to explore people and ideas, not to repeat ourselves a thousand times, right?  At least, that’s the way I approach art.

As a further example, I’ll use Alison Brie, the very talented actress who portrays Annie in Community.  Annie is bright and bubbly and vulnerable.  Ms. Brie also plays Trudy Campbell on Mad Men, a character who is (increasingly) the opposite of Annie.  See?

Ms. Brie is a stellar actress and clearly understands a wide range of complicated characters and their emotions.  Writers get to create and inhabit all of the characters they want…and they don’t even have to sit through hair and make-up.  Why deprive yourself of any creative opportunity?

“Ladders,” like many episodes of Community, is interesting for the way it interacts with the real world.  That whole “meta” thing.  The audience is (likely) aware that the show has gone through some changes; Mr. Harmon and Mr. McKenna address these changes in the context of the show.  Abed, the narrative-obsessed character, describes the changes in the characters and in Community itself:

I’m worried you’re not distinctive enough from Annie both in terms of physicality and purpose.  I can’t determine if you have any specific flaw, quirk or point of view that makes you a creative addition to the group.  My umbrella concern is that you as a character represent the end of what I used to call “our show,” which was once an unlikely family of misfit students and it is now a pretty loose-knit group of students and teachers, none of whom are taking a class together at a school which, as of your arrival, is becoming increasingly grounded, asking questions like “how do any of us get our money,” “When will we get our degrees?” and “What happened to that girl I was dating?”  instead of the questions I consider more important like, “What is real?” “What is sanity?”  “Is there a god?” “Where’s that Pierce hologram?”…

Abed is referring to the changes happening around his character and he’s also guiding the audience through the transition the show is making.  What’s the primary point to take from Abed’s thoughts in this episode?  Writers must evolve as a result of external and internal factors.  Do we get better with every paragraph we put down?  Sure.  Do our skills improve each time we read a classic book or think about a classic film?  Of course.  We must also challenge ourselves in order to honor our gifts.  Dan Harmon and his team must deal with a million external challenges: changing budgets, network changes, contractual availability of actors…it must be a nightmare.  Mr. Harmon and his team turn these challenges into opportunities as often as they can; many thanks to Yahoo! for bringing Community ever closer to #sixseasonsandamovie.

GWS Advocatus Diaboli: Is the Writing Community Now in its Purge Phase?

We’ve all read Ryan Boudinot’s cri de coeur in The Stranger.  We’ve all read or participated in Facebook discussions about the piece.

There

have

been

many

responses.

I don’t agree with everything the gentleman said, but I’ve been a little surprised by the homogeneity of the response.  (Salon‘s Laura Miller offered a guarded defense of Boudinot’s thoughts.)  Most readerwriters are angry with Mr. Boudinot and few folks have found anything of value in his essay.  (A disturbing number of commenters have made his perceived gender and race part of their analyses…)

One of the reasons that I do GWS is that I wanted to have some very small role in contributing to the community of writers.  We are all different in many ways, to be sure, but aren’t we united in the fact that we’re all writers?  We all know the terror of the blinking cursor and the blank page.  We’re all acquainted with the frustration and sting of inevitable rejection.  We work in different genres and forms, but share many of the same dreams.

Are we really at the point where we must begin purging fellow writers with whom we disagree?  Check out ryanboudinot.com.  No, it’s not a site run by Mr. Boudinot to publicize his works or to communicate with readers and fellow writers.  ryanboudinot.com was, so far as one can gather, registered by someone who wishes to get Mr. Boudinot fired from his job and to discredit him so severely that no one will do business with him.

What other conclusion can one draw?  The creator (or creators) of the site invite readers to contact his employer:

boudinot1

They make the case that his opinions and telling generalized stories about his teaching represent Mr. Boudinot as one who betrays his “colleagues, students and friends.”

The creators imply that Mr. Boudinot a racist, saying that he has a “token” friend who happens not to be white.  They speak disparagingly of his “shrinking pale male demographic” and the “blinding whiteness” of his worldview:

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The creators label Mr. Boudinot as “increasingly unhinged.”  (Because of one editorial?)  They encourage people to contact another of his employers.

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Those who created the site seem to be mischaracterizing Mr. Boudinot’s quote about child abuse victims.  He is not “mocking victims of child abuse.”  He is criticizing the writing of “victims of child abuse.”  Maybe Mr. Boudinot’s quote is not the most tender or loving thing anyone has ever said, but a person’s insensitivity is no excuse to mischaracterize their words.

The creator(s) use sexually charged innuendo to unfairly imply that Mr. Boudinot thinks less of female writers and/or students:

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How did we get to this place?  Criticism based upon race and gender are now acceptable instead of criticism based upon one’s writing?  It’s now permissible for writers to turn on each other and to try and get them fired for…expression?  Isn’t that what makes us writers in the first place: our need to share our ideas and selves with others?

I certainly don’t agree with everything Mr. Boudinot said, but I take exception to what seems to be a further push toward ideological purity in the writing community.  It doesn’t strike anyone else as a problem that we should attack someone’s livelihood if we disagree with them or think they’re a jerk?

I have had the honor and challenge of studying in three college writing programs.  On several occasions, my writing was criticized in manners I felt (and still feel) were unfair.  On a few occasions, colleagues and instructors criticized me instead of my writing in ways that pained (and still pain) me deeply.  Have I made the call for any of these people to be fired or purged?  Of course not.

One of the problems the site creator(s) have with Mr. Boudinot is that he could have pushed a student away from wanting to write.  Friends, I have had many dark midnights of the soul that were inspired by teachers.  Some of these crises were absolutely normal.  I’ve been writing seriously since I was thirteen and no one on the planet has a lower opinion of me or my work than I do.  The absolutely normal and necessary feedback I have received from colleagues and teachers has, at times, depressed me greatly.

“Why didn’t I see that this story idea was stupid?”

“Why did I allow such a clunker of a sentence into the story?”

“Why did I choose this subject matter in the first place?”

“Why do I bother writing at all?”

Even though I’ve been writing since before I experienced puberty, none of the novels I’ve written have been published.  I have several stories that I think are actually good, but have not yet found the kind of home of which I think they are worthy.  (These stories will likely never find those homes.)  Many of my dear friends in writing are experiencing fantastic success, basking in the deserved glow of their skill and hard work.  Me?  I’m very grateful to those who have published my work and I think that I have shared a bit of myself with the world, that I’ve manifested some small fraction of the impulse that led me to plug in my father’s Smith Corona typewriter and to plunk out a story in the first place.  But I haven’t achieved a small fraction of the goals I’ve had for decades.

To some extent, teachers and writers simply can’t avoid “doing harm” to each other.  They can’t avoid making a writer (particularly one who has a weak support system) question his or her abilities.  That’s a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think those who have made me feel this way based upon normal criticism did the wrong thing.  You’ll notice that Great Writers Steal is 100% positive (aside from Twilight).  Is this the case because I love every piece of writing I’ve ever read?  No.  I am positive and I try to be generous because writing is a helluva tough racket.

There’s another side of the coin, however.  I have had teachers and colleagues treat me in some of the same ways that Mr. Boudinot treated unnamed students.  These talented and kind people from three different writing communities have committed some of the same “sins” of which Mr. Boudinot is being accused.  These brilliant and caring people have, on rare occasion, treated me with the same lack of understanding with which some of Mr. Boudinot’s critics are treating him.

You’ll note that I don’t offer specifics.  I am not calling for these people to be shamed or psychologically harmed in any way.  Why not?

Every writer and every human being falls short of the perfection to which they aspire.  We are all callous and unpleasant at times.  We have each used our words and our actions to treat others with disrespect.  We have all, at times, had and expressed thoughts that could easily be characterized as racist or sexist.  Do we all deserve to lose our jobs?  Do we all deserve to be purged from what should be a loving community as a result of our lack of ideological purity?  Do we want a community in which expressing unpopular and unpleasant thoughts results in a protracted public shame campaign?  At times, I wonder if I’ve made the wrong choice in being extremely positive on GWS; after all, look how much attention one can get if one feeds the drama monster that has become our contemporary media climate.

Here are some of the charges leveled at Mr. Boudinot by the anonymous creator(s) who registered the site by proxy:

  • He’s racist because he misspelled the name of a friend who happens to be a woman of color.
  • He told unnamed victims of child abuse that their writing wasn’t good.
  • He used unpleasant hyperbole in describing how bad memoir makes him feel.
  • He thinks a certain way because of his (assumed) race and gender.
  • He’s a “toxic elitist.”  (Whatever that means.)
  • His mental health is in doubt.

If you deny that you are guilty of these kinds of crimes, you’re not being honest with yourself.