Brave past, timid present in TV political comedy

Wednesday, June 04, 2003 - While Alan Spencer, creator of the '80s cult-hit sitcom "Sledge Hammer!" has been preparing his series' impending DVD release, the distributors have made a modest request: that he "explain" the show's comic digs at Republicans.

"It was satire - a comedy about a psychotic police detective who speaks to his gun wouldn't get past the pitching stage today," he notes. "It's surprising to some people to see such political shots being taken, so they kind of require comment. To a new generation exposed to this material, it's, 'Wow.'"

Wow, indeed. The days of social and political content in prime-time comedy - well, now that "The West Wing" will tone down its politics, in prime-time network TV, period - are on the ropes.

Significantly, it's occurring just as America finds itself of dueling mind-sets. The last time the country found itself in a war that both many within and outside its borders found difficult to justify and featured an administration advocating wholesale spying on its own citizens, TV comedy came of age with hard-hitting social comedies.

Comics thrive on society's edges of acceptability. That's why Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce are legends and why Carrot Top is a lame punch line relegated to TV commercials. As Spencer notes, "Satire is fearless. Right now, though, with the noted exception of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," there's an element of fear, of self-preservation."

Fear is here

Tommy Smothers, one of TV's satirical pioneers, today opines, "I wish we weren't so afraid. There were not so many people afraid in the '60s. Today, if you don't agree with the majority, you're considered unpatriotic."

Comedy and America's evolving cultural climate is the subject of an ambitious, monthlong programming block on the pop-culture and arts cable network Trio dedicated to controversial comedy of the past, highlighted by a documentary airing Sunday, "Uncensored Comedy: That's Not Funny!"

Trio president Lauren Zalaznick, who conceived the project, observes, "As with (earlier comics) Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks, there's a fear of an active suppression, that you'll lose your career through political humor - and that seems to be a danger.

"While that material once had a place in prime time, the floor's not open for that kind of humor," Zalaznick continues. "You just can't be political. If you look at a horrible set of events like Bill Maher (did), you're fired. People are not allowing any dialogue, that's the scariest part."

Kurt Andersen, host of Trio's "Face Time," focusing this month on controversial comics, as well as author of the best-selling media satire "Turn of the Century" and co-founder of Spy Magazine, says, "In prime-time comedies today, it's rare that thrilling, close-to-the-edge, socially relevant stuff appears. Some network executive is missing a bet by not figuring out today's 'All in the Family.'

"You could still invent characters who could speak on outrageous, controversial issues - why isn't that around? Because network executives are wusses - it goes with the job description," Andersen adds, answering his own question. "When bad-boyism or truth-telling does so well in other parts of the media world, such as magazines and radio, it's odd that network TV decides not to go there."

Zipped lips

"It's a very sanitized world," agrees Hollywood Reporter TV critic Ray Richmond. "Everybody's scared about offending everybody. It's not even like watchdogs are around - it's become institutionalized censorship."

Robert Small, producer of "Uncensored Comedy," observes, "When (Fox News Channel commentator) Bill O'Reilly takes someone to the mat for speaking their mind, how many people can afford the No. 1 newsperson in the country beating them up as unpatriotic before there's a problem?"

In the late '60s, CBS' "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" took an aggressive anti-Vietnam War stance, battling incessantly with censors until the network did the unthinkable - canceling a hit.

"They were unbelievably cutting-edge," notes Syracuse University TV professor Robert Thompson. "Any kind of dissent seemed groundbreaking and revolutionary."

"We were an accident," Tommy Smothers says today, laughing. "We were happy doing our folk music. Then they said, don't do (Vietnam material). Never tell a comic not to do anything - that's exactly what he'll do."

In the '70s, such popular comedies as "All in the Family" and "M*A*S*H" tackled the war and other social issues with little interference, while NBC's "Saturday Night Live" became a counterculture benchmark.

A quarter-century later, "SNL" is "trying to be silly rather than edgy," Richmond opines. "They just push to get a recurring character to land a movie deal."

Thompson says, "They're no longer politically probing."

Long before George W. Bush ascended to the presidency, few network sitcoms explored social issues like Norman Lear's '70s series. "Sitcoms distilled to two forms - the wacky, loud, dysfunctional family and the workplace show with wacky dysfunction," says Spencer. "I shouldn't use the term 'wacky' - it implies actual comedy."

Politically' dead

Bill Maher's ABC late-night series "Politically Incorrect" invited celebrities from across pop culture's spectrum to comment on social issues until the host's observation about Sept. 11 - "Staying in the plane when it hits the building - say what you want about it, it's not cowardly" - was widely misinterpreted and even incurred the wrath of the White House. ABC canceled the show; Maher's HBO series, "Real Time," features more political commentators than comics.

"Ari Fleischer did what he wanted to do there, he was very successful," says Thompson of the Bush administration's squelching of comic commentary. Those who have spoken out against it - including the Dixie Chicks and Ed Gernon, executive producer of CBS' Hitler miniseries - suffered the wrath of patriotic Americans unfamiliar with the First Amendment.

After Sept. 11, President Bush, who had been a comic's punching bag, became sacrosanct. Two years later, despite a struggling economy and numerous corporate scandals - Enron, Halliburton and Bechtel - with tracks leading directly to the front door of the White House, Bush maintains an approval rating so high that Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" recently scooped all other news organizations by declaring him the winner of the 2004 presidential race.

Today, Fox's "The Simpsons" salves satirical punch lines, and "Wanda at Large" couches occasional wan social commentary within the parameters of a typical workplace sitcom. This fall, NBC's "Whoopi," starring Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg, promises ethnic humor - but no political sensibility.

Dare to be political

Only cable network Comedy Central offers social commentary. "South Park" shoehorns occasional cultural insights amid its gross-out gags. "Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn" reprises Maher's show, with Quinn japing with comedian pals, usually devolving to good-natured ethnic slurs.

Most crucially, "The Daily Show" pointedly examines not only issues but the toothless fashion in which the mainstream media covers them. All interviewed pointed to the Peabody Award-winning "Daily Show" as TV's brightest, smartest satirical series.

In Wednesday's Television Critics Association Awards nominations, "The Daily Show" received four nods - the most of any show - for Program of the Year, Outstanding Achievement in Comedy, host Jon Stewart for Outstanding Achievement in Individual Comedy and even - believe it or not - Outstanding Achievement in News and Information.

"I can't believe it exists - it's so subversive and brilliant," says Trio's Zalaznick.

"It's not only good but in this moment, it's particularly amazingly good," marvels "Face Time" host Andersen.

"'The Daily Show' is really hitting its stride now," exults Syracuse's Thompson.

Surprisingly, given the paucity of such material elsewhere, the show's comic masterminds insist they've encountered no network tampering.

"We've never felt any kind of pressure," says Stephen Colbert, who appears as one of the show's faux "correspondents." "The news format gives us a forum on which to hang our comedy - it makes our commentary recognizable. We say outrageous things, but they're grounded in reality. Our positions are defensible - we're not making this stuff up.

"We've never felt we're going to be attacked because we have an iconoclastic way of delivering our jokes," he continues. "We don't take ourselves seriously. We're not here to speak truth to power, or whatever puffed-up way to say it. We tell jokes. Jokes, by their very nature, will tear down status symbols. We express opinions and get passionate, but we distill those emotions into jokes. If entertainers do that, they're essentially unassailable. If someone does that without putting it in the context of entertainment, they're rightfully going to get boot-stomped. But if you're entertaining, you're safe."

Daily grilling

Adds head writer and co-executive producer David Javerbaum, "A joke that's funny and based on a serious point gets a more satisfying laugh. We have no illusions that satire changes anyone's mind about anything. If at any point we thought we were converting people to any point of view, we'd be dead."

Censorship "doesn't occur to us," he adds. "We don't go after things that don't have it coming - we've developed a pretty good barometer for that."

Colbert notes that the show's benchmark criticism of the war with Iraq (a line of which prefaced this story) "came from our amazement that you can't say things that are anti-government. We were amazed at how restricted the rest of the nation was to certain aspects of the war that were reasonable to criticize."

"The Daily Show" gets away with it, but few see others getting similar passes. Tommy Smothers points to this week's FCC ruling allowing media corporations to grow exponentially larger as evidence that alternative viewpoints are endangered.

"I see only doom and damnation," he says. "Freedom of speech is one thing, but maybe freedom of hearing is more important. When you limit the microphones, that's how you muzzle a society."

But Susie Essman, who narrates "Uncensored Comedy" and appears in Larry David's HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," hopes the trend is cyclical.

"Right now, renegades are few and far between," she says. "The norm tends toward the more palatable and homogenous. But remember - the court jester was the only one who could tell the king the truth. That was only one person. Maybe that's how it is now, and maybe that's how truth will prevail."

by David Kronke, Television Critic for the Pasadena Star News of June 5th, 2003