Saturday, March 08, 2003

ANATOMY OF A DUMB JOKE: There seem to be five schools of thought here:

(1) The joke was cruelly insensitive to the plight of millions of innocent French citizens who might be killed by an Act of God.

(2) The joke was unbelievable; No matter how much we disagree with the policies of the French government, America would never turn its back on the French people and refuse to provide aid and resources in time of crisis.

(3) The joke was offensive because it could be interpreted as a racist slur against the French people, whose sole offense was to inhabit France. I may as well have just called the lot of 'em "frogs" and be done with it.

(4) The joke was out-of-date. Surely by now, The White House has TiVo and no longer depends on obsolete videotape for time-shifting.

(5) The joke was wasn't scientifically grounded; a meteor that could wipe out France would pretty much take out the rest of the human race as well.

No kidding. One reader cared enough to e-mail:

"Well, I don't really care about your politics, but as a joke the poll was not even mildly amusing (and not just because I don't find wiping out France funny). By the way, I'm not a scientist, but if there were actually a meteor that wiped out France, I very much doubt that W or anyone else would be around to watch the tape.

Dunno, folks. It's not that I was planning a second career as a stand-up comedian, but I am frankly flabbergasted by the extent to which this joke has rubbed so many people the wrong way. Between the comments left by my own readers and those of Ted Barlow, sentiment is running against me by about 4 to 1.

(Even my Merry Christmas, Saddam cartoon-- which, at this moment, you can still see by scrolling down a ways -- didn't generate nearly so much vitriol, though it could conceivably have been criticized for many of the same reasons. In fact, it received only one single such comment -- from a certain troll who was simply looking for an excuse to get himself banned from my comments board.)

Look, I know these are tense times, and certainly I know we're not all going find humor from the same jokes. But, people -- really -- get a grip here. When David Letterman or Jay Leno singles out an easy target for their wisecracks, they're not revealing anything to you about their personal politics or their philosophy of life. They're just trying to entertain. Some jokes work better than others. Some wind up laying there like a lox. But I've never seen any bloggers take such grave offense at one of Dave's forgettable flopperoos that they feel compelled to rag on it obsessively.

For that matter, when the Cartoon Network airs an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, they don't run it past a scientific advisory panel to make sure that they're on solid ground when they depict the antics of a talking, floating milkshake, either.

And does anyone really imagine that Woody Allen's semi-autobiographical Annie Hall would have been funnier if it had been filmed in the style of a cinema verite documentary on his own, real-life relationship with Diane Keaton? Was it less funny because he repeatedly -- unrealistically -- stepped out of character and addressed the audience, or turned into a animated drawing of himself for a few seconds?

Comedy is a dangerous business. You only have so much time to establish your setups, execute your payoffs, and get off the stage. You simply haven't the luxury of defining your entire universe up-front. You have to assume that we share a common culture, with common culutral reference points.

When a comedian makes obervations about airline food, the jokes don't work unless we can all start from a general agreement that airline food is usually bad, and that flying coach is often an uncomfortable experience.

Sure, there's always the possibility that an airline employee will be in the audience -- and she may well become resentful over a wisecrack about those good, hard-working men and women who are just doing their jobs to the best of their ability, trying to make your flight safe and comfortable.

But if you're going to dabble in comedy, you've got to take your lumps from time to time. Jokes about lousy airline food -- likewise, jokes about French stereotypes -- may not be the zenith of humor. But there simply isn't time to proceed all jokes with an explanation of the whole political-cultural zeitgeist, or boilerplate apologies to everyone who might take offense.

Once we go down that road -- once we agree not to risk offending anyone -- then we dare not tell any jokes at all.

(Which is -- in case you didn't get it, Professor Spencer -- the oblique, unstated punchline of the Puppies & Kittens poll.)

WE GET LETTERS: Should have posted this awhile ago, but I've been preoccupied...

Date: Thu, 23 Jan 2003
Subject: Things I learn while Googling myself
From: Daniel Radosh

Apparently, like, a year ago, you pegged me as "a guy who should be blogging daily." I'm deeply flattered. And now blogging, well, two or three days a week. A very informal mix of lite politics and other nonsense, as well as self-promotional items galore, but perhaps it will suffice.

For my part, I am enjoying Mind Over...



Some readers may recall Daniel Radosh's tenure at New York Press, where he wrote the venerable "Eight Days' column for a number of years. More recently, his byline has been spotted in The New Yorker, Esquire and other A-list publications. Needless to say, I couldn't be more flattered!

Meanwhile, check out the man's blog, why don'tcha?

Friday, March 07, 2003

Well, well, -- the tip jar may be empty, but it seems I've finally won an award for my efforts here:

That's right -- it's the "Roy Blunt Inappropriate and Moronic French-Bashing Joke of the Day" Award -- given by Thomas M. Spencer, Assistant Professor of History at Northwest Missouri State University. He chastises:

"Isn't it astonishing how insensitive the pro-war crowd is to those who disagree with them? They pretend to understand the other side and then make jokes about millions of frenchmen being killed by natural disasters."

Sorry if I'm starting to get impatient with my lesser critics, but -- is there anyone else in the room who actually imagined that the language of the joke was intended to be interpreted literally?

Have you never heard of subtext, Assistant Professor Spencer? How about irony? Just deserts? Getting one's sweet comeuppance? Have you ever read a fable? Did you curse that insensitive Voltaire for wishing so much rotten luck upon Candide? And damn that Aesop for all the grief he visited upon those poor, cuddly little animals, too? It's fiction, babe. Deal with it.

And by the way -- what's with this "pro-war" crowd you're lumping me in with? If you're going to be so presumptuous as to pigeonhole a total stranger with a simplistic ideological label, I go by "pro-liberty," thank you very much.

But let me return the favor. I bestow upon you the Marshall McLuhan "You know nothing of my work...How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing" Award. And if you ask me nicely, I'll make a custom banner for your website, too.

Finally -- credit where credit is due. I blush to admit, at this late date, that I am not the actual author of the joke poll that has caused such consternation here. It was forwarded by my Mom -- depicted below -- who is obviously not part of anyone's monolithic "pro-war crowd," but nonetheless managed to find humor in the ironic punchline without spitting up hairballs all over the front porch.

Hi, Mom. Hope you're as proud of me as I am of you...

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo) is credited with this one:
Q. Do you know how many Frenchmen it takes to defend Paris?
A. It's not known. It's never been tried.

UPDATE II: Jeff Jarvis has a lot more where that came from....

UPDATE III: Asst. Prof Spencer is still trying to find an appropriate label for me. Isn't it cute how all the self-important academic types can't address anyone's arguments until they've been pigeonholed with a one-size-fits-all ideological label? Guess again, Professor. I'm a registered Democrat, and I have also thoroughly lambasted "Herr Ashcroft" on this page when it has seemed appropriate to do so. But obviously you can't be bothered to look into my blog archives or do any research before you shoot off your mouth. Research? That's hardly what academia is all about, now, is it? No -- just paint everyone with a broad brush, jump to an easy conclusion, and say whatever pops into your head. At this rate you'll have tenure in no time flat!

Dish it out but can't take it, you say?
Bring it onnnnnnnnnn!!!!!!!

CALL AND RAISE: My little joke poll seems to have ruffled a few feathers yesterday. Over at Ted Barlow's excellent blog, one of his readers took offense: risk of taking this discussion way off into la-la land, let us apply a semantic test that I saw used on Fark recently. This experiment may reveal whether our cap-wearing friend is being funny, such that we should laugh at and/or with him -- or whether he's being a bigot, such that somebody should beat him about the head and neck.


AMORAL DILEMMA: Scientists have discovered a meteor on a collision-course with Planet Earth. They have calculated that it will strike Africa in 48 hours, at approximately 2:30 A.M. Eastern Standard Time. The meteor is large enough to completely wipe niggers from the face of the earth forever.

Africa and the United Nations have requested that the United States help evacuate the niggers. That would mean diverting American ships and planes that are being used to fight the war on terror overseas.

You are George W. Bush, President of the United States. What should you do?
Watch the impact on live TV
Tape it & watch in the morning

You make the call.
Isaac in Cambridge

Okay, Isaac. I'll make the call. In fact, I'll call your bluff and raise you 20:

Surely one can draw a distinction between a satirical editorial cartoon which makes a political point with techniques such as misdirection and hyperbole -- and a racist caricature which makes no point and serves no purpose, except to offend and enrage.

The original piece, as it appears below, is in keeping with the manner of a political cartoon -- or more accurately, a short-form satirical essay in the Swiftian tradition.

Now, you don't have to agree that the French have lately behaved like shameful poseurs, less concerned with preserving the peace than with the preservation of their own oil contracts in Iraq, not to mention propping up their rapidly-diminishing status as a world class mover-and-shaker opinion-maker within the EU.

But surely you are aware that a fair percentage of thoughtful Americans believe this to be true of the French -- and not without cause. In fact, we're pretty pissed off about it. That -- in case the subtlety went over your head -- was the point of this little joke poll.

Obviously, you can rewrite the piece, insert racist language and remove it from the original context. No surprise that it then ceases to be either satirical or funny.

But then, to make the leap and infer that I actually made a thoughtless racial slur because you wrote an altered version that sounds racist on the face of it -- well, sir, there's a term for that particular logical fallacy:

The Straw Man Fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position.

Isn't that a fair description of the fallacy you're engaging in here, Isaac in Cambridge?

Now you make the call.

UPDATE: In the continuing saga of The Lame Joke That Will Not Die, another one of Ted's readers chimes in:

Substitute Israel for France then and Israelis for the French.
Still laughing?
Martin Wisse

Martin, of course we all want to live in a world of brotherhood and hamony between all nationalities, races, religions and creeds. But for the sake of peace and better understanding within the blogosphere, please reread and attempt to comprehend the meaning of the Straw Man Fallacy.

In any intellectually honest debate, one may not arbitrarily, casually propose to make these little substitutions -- as though every nationality or demographic is interchangable with any other, in every imaginable context.

There is simply no equivalence to be had here. The African nations are not attempting to bully the members of the EU into towing the African line with talk of American cowboy arrogance. Nor is Israel covertly supplying Iraq with spare parts and equipment for their fighter jets and military helicopters -- as, we learn today, a French company has apparently been doing for years.

If either Africa or Israel were aggressively subverting American security interests at every turn -- then, yes, I actually could substitute Africa or Israel in place of France with a clear conscience, and the "joke" would still be a veritable knee-slapper.

But the fact is, neither of those postulations are true, and it makes absolutely no sense to "revise" my language as if they were, or might be, true.

Satire depends wholly on context. Change the context, and it doesn't "reveal" my original sentiments as being fundamentally offensive or insensitive. It merely serves to create a brand-new, wholly offensive non sequitor.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

FREE MOVIE TICKETS! No kidding! But you have to act fast! There's a preview screening TONIGHT AT MIDNIGHT on the evening of Thursday, March 6 -- at a conveniently located theater in lower Manhattan, which I will not reveal here. The film is "Spun" -- and the stellar cast includes Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore), Mena Suvari (American Beauty), Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous), Peter Stormare (Fargo), Brittany Murphy (8 Mile), Blondie's Deborah Harry, John Leguizamo, Eric Roberts, and Mickey Rourke "in a startling, long-anticipated comeback performance."

The synopsis: When college drop-out Ross (Schwartzman) becomes local crystal-meth dealer The Cook's (Rourke) personal driver in exchange for free drugs, he has no idea what he's in for as he ricochets between the hilarious and the bizarre, descending into the insomniac, anarchic world of speed freaks. The feature-film debut of Grammy Award-winning music-video director Jonas Akerlund.

Through a promotional e-mail lottery, The Onion gave away 50 pairs of tickets to this screening -- and I was one of the lucky winners. And if the weather weren't so generally godawful today -- or if I still lived within walking distance to this theater, which I did at one time -- I'd have surely taken advantage of opportunity to see what sounds like a really fun flick. But -- sadly -- the timing and circumstances couldn't be worse.

So if anyone reading this is interested -- or if you know anyone who might be -- then contact me IMMEDIATELY at, and I'll give you the fake name under which the tickets are reserved, and the location of the theater. But hurry -- this is a limited time offer!

(UPDATE: If you read this message between 2:00 and 3:30 pm today, you may have seen the date listed alternately as Thursday midnight, and then briefly -- and incorrectly -- as Saturday, March 8. The Onion seems to be having a little trouble nailing the date, but we are now being assured that the screening is definitely THURSDAY (tonight) at midnight, NOT on Saturday.)

(FOLLOW-UP: No takers. Not a one. Sorry, but if anyone at The Onion is listening, it sure didn't help matters that you kept fluffing the date. I hope it didn't play to an empty house.)

AMORAL DILEMMA: Scientists have discovered a meteor on a collision-course with Planet Earth. They have calculated that it will strike France in 48 hours, at approximately 2:30 A.M. Eastern Standard Time. The meteor is large enough to completely wipe France from the face of the earth forever.

France and the United Nations have requested that the United States help evacuate the country. That would mean diverting American ships and planes that are being used to fight the war on terror overseas.

UPDATE: I Would you believe this silly joke poll has generated more traffic from InstaPundit than anything Glenn has ever deigned to link here?

UPDATE II: It's been SlashDotted, too!

UPDATE III: Take it easy, Ted. It's just a joke! (And besides, I wear my baseball cap forward, not backward.)

UPDATE IV: Isaac takes offense. I respond here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

IN THE FUTURE, Everyone Will Play Superman for Fifteen Minutes: As script after script has been commissioned and trashed over the past several years -- as director after director (Tim Burton, Wolfgang Petersen, McG) has been brought on board and pushed overboard -- Warner Bros. is finally preparing to relaunch its Superman film franchise with Brett Ratner directing, and a screenplay by "Alias" creator J.J. Abrams. So far, so good. But the big open question is, as always: Who will don the cape?

For years, Nicholas Cage lobbied for the role. At various times, high-profile stars like Jude Law, David Boreanaz, Josh Hartnett, Ashton Kutcher, Brendan Fraser, Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Paul Walker ("Joy Ride," "The Fast and the Furious") and soap-opera actor Matthew Bomer ("The Guiding Light," "All My Children") have all had their names bandied about. Evan "Joe Millionaire" Marriott claims to have read for the part. Hartnett, reportedly the studio's first choice, passed on a 3-picture $30 million deal.

Now, the rumor mills are starting to settle on relative unknown 30-year-old Victor Webster, nominally recognizable from the syndicated science-fiction series "Mutant X." (Of which, the kindest User Comment on IMDb is: "If you're into guys, then this show might be worth watching for the occasional shot of star Victor Webster without a shirt.")

I've somehow managed to miss Mutant X, so I've never seen Webster in action -- and that's exactly as it should be. Superman must be played by a relative unknown, someone who won't burden us with the task of disgorging his resume from our collective subconscious.

I'm old enough to recall the casting rumors that hovered around the orginal 1978 Superman, as every A-list name from Peter Falk to Robert Redford was floated in both the fan and mainstream press. Imagine, if you can, the debacle of golden-boy Redford trading quips with Lex Luthor, or Falk's anguished scream as he pulls the lifeless body of Lois Lane out of her buried car...

Well, actually, I can imagine it. I can also imagine the audience's nervous, inappropriate laughter at all the wrong moments, and a big-budget picture doing less than break-even box office. Fortunately, history took a turn for the better, and we have one great, epic Superman film to show for it. (Plus one near-great sequel, and two more lame ones, but such is life.)

The first rule of casting is: First, do no harm. The Superman franchise's relaunch will probably be successful in any case. The question is, will it do Spider-Man box-office (upwards of $400 million), or Daredevil box-office (likely, a tad over $100 mil)? Superman is about many things -- chiefly truth, justice, the American way, and tons of spectacular special-effects. With a good script, Superman V will sell itself on its own merits. No one will be lining up on opening night because Josh Hartnett can open a picture -- and in the long run, his star-quality baggage would likely do more harm than good.

I can only assume that Victor Webster is a decent, hard-working journeyman-actor -- and without knowing another blessed thing about him, I'd say it's time to settle on Webster and move on to the supporting cast, where all such stunt-casting properly belongs.

And, by the way, here's one guy who agrees:

Christopher Reeve, the movies' original Man of Steel, backs up Webster. "Probably seven or eight months ago," says Reeve, talking on the set of ABC's "The Practice," where he is doing a guest role, "I got a call from ['Superman' producer] Jon Peters. He said he had been following the course of my recovery and had seen a documentary made by my son."

"He said he felt inspired by that and decided not to do 'Superman vs. Batman,' which was in the works with Wolfgang Petersen. He said, 'Why should we have two superheroes fighting each other when the world needs heroes?'"

"As I understand it, he dropped that idea and pitched the idea of retelling the essentials of the 'Superman' legend, with Anthony Hopkins playing Jor-El. He was talking about casting, and I said, 'If you want my two cents, you should definitely cast an unknown, as Dick Donner did 25 years ago, and find a Superman for the 21st Century.

"There has always been, since 1938, a Superman for each generation that reflects the times."

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Breaking news (Via Drudge -- and therefore, subject to immediate contradiction elsewhere): France will NOT use its veto to block a U.N. Security Council resolution paving the way for war on Iraq.

Le Canard ... quoted President Jacques Chirac as telling a small private gathering on Feb. 26 that a veto would be pointless because it would not stop U.S. President George W. Bush from launching military action.

"France is doing everything it can, but the problem is that it is impossible to stop Bush from pursuing his logic of war to the end," Chirac was quoted as saying by Le Canard, a satirical newspaper that is known to have well-informed sources.

The question is -- does this "satirical newsaper," Le Canard, model itself after The Onion or Spy Magazine? The distinction makes for a monde of difference.

UPDATE: Did Le Canard offer up a canard, or did Drudge imagine the whole thing? This morning, France says non! to war. (Oh well -- to reiterate Mickey Kaus's memorable summation of Drudge's reliability: "80% True? Good Enough!")