Who Says It’s Funny?

A look at comedians and humor in the Fray.

Is it easy to be funny or not? Reacting to Ron Rosenbaum’s article on Seinfeld vs. Shapiro, “A Tale of Two Comics“, JohnLee said,  “I rant in Shapiro’s style every day, it’s as easy as pie,” whereas chance20-m  said that Shapiro’s “funnier than me, but so are most people.”  ClubhouseCancer decided to prove he was funny:

What if I went down to Rosenbaum’s office and criticized him? He’d throw me out! You know, people don’t throw each other out as much as they used to, do they? The old-fashioned throw-out? You don’t see much of that anymore. I mean, are guys grabbing other guys by the scruff of the neck and just tossing them out? Not so much, I think. By the way, do you really need “of the neck” after “scruff?” Does any other body part even have a scruff? What is a scruff? What genius came up with this concept?

VTBiker posted a thoughtful analysis of Shapiro’s take on the world:

Shapiro becomes disturbing, which, actually is in a way, beautiful and repulsive. It is beautiful to witness someone so willing, so open to communicating the demons in his head (which face it, are all in our head at some point to), and to openly discuss it with us. Perhaps it is therapy for him, which helps him deal with them. And hey, if you are going to have psychological issues, at least profit from them, no? But the other side of the coin is that you really feel that this man will never truly be happy.

Several Fraysters agreed that the best post title, from Amble, was “And you know who else sucks…Mozart!”—opening words, “Oh please, Salieri!”—while the line most in keeping with the Shapiro ethos was probably this from Rjamesyork: “I’m glad Shapiro no longer has to give sexual favors for heroin. However, he may have been more talented at that than he ever will be at comedy.” MR 10 a.m. GMT

Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2007

So you thought politics might be a hot number in Slate? You thought Fray types would be flocking to comment on candidates, spouses, and foreign policies ‘round the world?


Try food for children. Mimi Sheraton commented on Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbook, and the floodgates opened. (Although in a response to a self-proclaimed armywife2001,there did come this: “Don’t you have green beans to puree? Or a horrifying unjust and expensive (both in lives and in dollars) war to keep promoting?” from WordOfMouth.)

The arguments—which came overwhelmingly from women—covered lying to your children, whether this is comparable to pretending there is a Santa Claus, and many, many personal experiences. Many. At least two posters admitted that they could use Ms. Seinfeld’s ideas to sneak more vegetables into their husbands’ diets.

Best post title: “Peas ARE gross and you know it.” Meanwhile, Kay Hill says, “Everyone’s children are different. You know what yours will and won’t eat, and if this doesn’t work for you then forget about it.” Where’s the fun in that?

A true Frayster posts something called “So wrong, on so many levels”—doesn’t really matter which side she’s on. MR8:41 p.m. GMT

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Hollywoodland’s Kim Masters recently basked in the Tinseltown pastime of interviewing industry titans eager to explain other studios’ box-office failures. The movie at issue is Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney.

Fraysters offered up various verdicts, ranging from the bland title to Clooney himself.

The disconnect between Hollywood and its audience emerged as the most recurrent theme of discussion. Normdepalma specifically targets the critics who “live in a cocoon and reflexively consider any anti business film to be accurate, layered, sophisticated etc… On the other hand, many audience members recognized this film to be an inaccurate and sophmoric portrayal of business and law. This led to poor word of mouth.”

More to the point, the serious, politically driven movie fare currently being churned out in abundance is out of sync with the national mood. Enough with the gritty realities “we live everyday,” what about the escapism that movies traditionally provide, wonders jinkyjoy?

Papajon_s1 declares himself “done with the movies that shove a political or social or ‘causal’ message down your throat.” Alittlesense is similarly wary of ” ‘message’ pictures that have the subtlety of a concrete block dropping from 5 stories up.”

Then there is formula fatigue. “Give me a little variety and the occasional surprise, and I’ll go see the actor,” imploresChasmosaur.

Many lay the weak b.o. performance at the feet of Clooney’s “pugnacious” political activism, which fensterlips suspects deterred more than one would-be moviegoing couple from “running out and spending $50 at a theater” to see him in Clayton.

Speaking of cost, try making movies a little more affordable for families, too, adds mother of six nikitif13. Theaters might actually sell more tickets.

If you’re struggling in general with the deluge of Oscar-motivated offerings, DakotaJay’s system of triage  divides upcoming releases into three categories: “1) Hate it…2) NetFlickit…3)See it in the theater.” According to this regime, Clayton “falls squarely” into number two. For lucabrisi, this type of viewer sentiment is no accident, but anticipated by the studio in its marketing strategy:

The theatrical run of “mature entertainment” is generally designed to create a “theatrical aura” for the movie, earn first dollars and – hopefully and occasionally with the right movie – generate hit money during the theatrical release (“Sideways,” “Crash,” “Million Dollar Baby”)

And last but not least, if Clooney is looking to jump ship from CAA after the Michael Clayton disappointment, perhaps he should consult withDunbury over his next career move: Exploit your notoriety as the “sexiest man alive” and “mix it up a little with some comedy and romance.” AC2:57 p.m. EST

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Have you missed us? Though Fraywatch has been uncommonly quiet of late, developments and dialogues taking place in the Fray haven’t slowed a bit. One particularly noteworthy item should please the long-time Fray fans among you. I’m happy to announce that Moira Redmond will be joining our team here at Fraywatch. Moira served as the original Fray editor, setting the high standard we successors have strived to live up to. While we finish bringing her up to speed on all the changes in the last several years, please join us in extending Moira a hearty welcome in the Fraywatch Fray.

Meanwhile, in last Friday’s Hot Document, Bonnie Goldstein published a letter from prominent Christian evangelical Mark DeMoss announcing his support for Mitt Romney’s candidacy. In the letter, DeMoss admits to reservations about “supporting a Mormon for the office of president.” Over the last several months, any mention of Mitt’s Mormonism has prompted grave allegations in the Fray about the perils of placing a Mormon in the Oval Office. Generally, the other side of the discussion has been less well represented. I’d like to personally thank those who responded to my request for more information about what non-Mormons should make of Romney’s faith. The most thorough analysis comes from lincwright, a registered Democrat and practicing Mormon:

The church has always taken a strictly neutral political stance, the most obvious reason being it would lose its tax-exempt status. While congregations are always encouraged to vote, participate in local government, and volunteer in civic affairs, the church leadership does not endorse a particular candidate or viewpoint. The only exception that I’m aware of was in 2000 when the church president, Gordon Hinckley, urged California Mormons to vote for the referendum against same-sex marriage. But I and many other mormons disagree with Hinckley on this issue, which we are free to do without any repercussions. In church we talk a lot about being a “quiet example” to non-Mormons in our actions. Usually this involves mundane things like helping someone with a flat tire or volunteering at the library. While some of us are zealous in sharing our beliefs with others, most of us keep quiet about it. This is partly because Mormonism is so mysterious to most people, and partly because religion just isn’t discussed much in public. […]I don’t think Romney would champion social conservative issues if elected. Judging from his famously shifting views on gun control, universal healthcare, gay rights, same-sex marriage, and abortion, it seems Romney doesn’t really have strong feelings either way. He appears to be a CEO-style candidate, who will say and do what is expedient to get the job done. He appears to be first and foremost a businessman, not a Mormon beholden to Salt Lake City. […]Regarding religious issues, I think President Romney would be even less interested than Bush in “faith-based initiatives” and opening the door to the Christian right. So far he hasn’t worn his religion on his sleeve – indeed, it seems reporters bring it up, not him. Mormons today are trying to shed the insular, exclusive culture that used to exist and become more involved in our communities as ordinary citizens with individual views. I think Romney is that kind of Mormon.

For a more thorough investigation of this issue, check out RyanBell’s blog Romney Experience or the many great threads scattered throughout the FrayGA11:30 a.m. PDT

Monday, September 17, 2007

You can learn a lot about Slate’s audience by following the  Fray. Articles about professional trades, like trucking or education, draw the attention of workers in the field. Write about politics and you’ll attract dogmatic partisans like a flame gathers moths. Thoughtful coverage of culture, literature, or foreign affairs appeals to hardly anybody. And, judging from the state of the Explainer Fray, U.S. service members care deeply about the weather in Iraq.

Last week, David Sessions answered whether Iraq really gets temperatures as high as 130 degrees. The short answer? It doesn’t. However, many current and former soldiers are quick to point out that it still feels that way, and many of the environments in which they work really do hit such numbers.

It’s a stark illustration of how deeply the Internet has transformed our access to information when soldiers deployed abroad can post to chat boards at home, criticizing the news in real time. While such firsthand reports may not be completely uncensored, they’re certainly immediate. Some are probably untrue, given how popular imposture is on the internet. But, there’s not much ground to disbelieve the assertions that Iraq is really hot.

Though participation by soldiers in our forum is interesting for its own sake, what they have to say is more interesting still. Over and over and over again the charge is leveled against David Sessions that he has somehow let down our troops by reporting the official temperatures of the Middle East. There are some reasonable critiques, such as lefty warmonger’s allegation that the official numbers are rigged to whitewash routine violations of international labor regulations. But the most common complaint is a semi-coherent version of an objection best described by smoresj: that such information could undermine domestic support for our troops by conveying a false impression of an easy standard of living for the troops on the front lines.

We’re in sorry shape, indeed, if our troops are depending upon a lie of six degrees. It’s sad to see so many troops (plus their friends and family) opposed to a mere statement of truth. I don’t think they’re giving the folks back home enough credit for realizing that Iraq is hot as hell, despite debate over the exact number of degrees. Nevertheless, there’s some fascinating material, too. If you’re curious about the mundane details of the war, there’s a lot of informative posts in the Explainer Fray. Check them out. GA7:30 p.m. PDT

Saturday, September 15, 2007

In two recent “Press Box” columns (Aug. 27 and Sept. 6), Jack Shafer criticized Clark Hoyt, the New York Times public editor, for worrying aloud about the damage inaccurate stories in the paper’s Web archives could do to the reputations of their subjects. Shafer objected to the very idea that personal reputation should be considered a personal interest, describing it as something that “actually resides in the minds of others.” This may be true, but the distinction has long been irrelevant to the common law, which holds libel a cause of action precisely because of the damage that can flow from others’ bad opinions. According to Shafer, the burden of fixing old inaccuracies shouldn’t fall upon the shoulders of the New York Times but rather upon the subjects of the stories, who can use the Internet to counteract misinformation.

This stance seems unfairly dismissive of Hoyt’s concerns, and more than a little self-serving. Has Jack Shafer, Slate’s editor-at-large and a career man of the press, let his self-interest overtake his judgment? The press certainly benefits from unaccountability when publishing falsehoods. It’s much less clear, however, that this privilege provides a net benefit to the public.

The potential impact of our online profile these days is undeniable, at least if we’re cursed with anything like a distinctive name. Employers routinely Google the names of prospective hires, provoking sharp debates over the ethics of such practices. Many people routinely Google up their romantic interests in advance of the second date. A simple Web search is even a tool for keeping tabs on old friends or family we’ve lost regular contact with. Whether you like it or not, your Google profile has an increasing power to define you, for good or for ill, in the eyes of others.

Shafer’s blithe response to this worry (“Get a Web page“) hardly constitutes an adequate response. As bagelwoman points out, few people can count on receiving the link love that Shafer’s column provided to Allen Kraus, the victim of a misleading fraud allegation printed in the New York Times. An ordinary individual has little chance of beating the net’s leading periodicals in a battle of Web optimization. In the world of ordinary people, exercising ordinary judgment, the consequences of misleading press coverage are nearly inescapable and potentially severe.

Whether the issue at hand is the Valerie Plame case, the Pentagon Papers, or even the venerable New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the press is a persistent advocate of the supremacy of its privileges over competing public interests. This stance is hardly surprising, but those who must bear the costs of the nearly unfettered privilege of the press deserve a more convincing defense than simple expedience. While there are First Amendment absolutists outside the press corps, many Americans reasonably conclude that neither the Constitution nor common sense demands a free pass for the press to publish blatantly false information.

Back in July, Dahlia Lithwick brought attention to Antonin Scalia’s reported willingness to overturn the Supreme Court’s landmark libel ruling, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. When one looks at the facts of case, so ably encapsulated by slasher_14, it’s hard to raise an objection to the decision’s outcome. Though the Supreme Court’s holding frustrated a manifest injustice, getting the merits right doesn’t guarantee your rationale will make good policy. The court’s heightened libel standard of “actual malice” leaves the press unaccountable for the harms caused by most inaccurate reports, such as the false allegation of corruption against Allen Kraus. The court’s ruling shifted the burden to the subjects of the false reporting. Under our current First Amendment regime, the cost of misinformation in “the paper of record” is borne by real people, who will likely suffer real injuries.

Clark Hoyt is right to wonder whether the Internet is increasing those harms. The rise of online archives and search engines may have upset the balance struck by an earlier court between the value to individuals of their personal reputations and the interests of the public in a free and open press. A free pass to print misinformation creates a real danger to the jobs, relationships, and reputations of those with the misfortune to cross a journalist’s path.

I can’t pretend to know the best policy approach to this problem. But, it is clearly an issue primed for discussion. Those of us in the press should feel an obligation to discuss the matter seriously if we expect the public to treat our prerogatives seriously. That means, at a minimum, analyzing the dilemma with a scrupulous regard for all of the interests at stake.

Do you think the Internet has changed the rules of the game for the First Amendment? If so, how? And what, if anything, should be done about it? We want to hear your opinions in The FrayGA3:30 p.m. PDT