Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Citizens Untied: Parody in the Age of Corporate Media

For 20 years now I’ve been locked in a test of wills with corporate publishing, trying to produce books that are just as funny as TV and movies. That should be possible, right? One would think. Sometimes I win (international bestseller), sometimes they do (they commission books, then don’t pay me). I tell myself it’s David versus Goliath…but it’s probably just Joe Versus the Volcano.

Comedy being 90% confidence, there’s often a rough equivalence between a media’s swag, and the quality of comedy found in it. But weakness and decay can yield fruit as well — Garrison Keillor on the radio, for example, or The Onion rising from the ashes of college humor. So you can get great stuff when a medium is frisky, or when it’s a backwater and no one is paying attention.

The reason there are so few funny books today is that we’re stuck in the middle: publishing’s still lucrative enough to be corporate, but weak enough to be afraid. They particularly fear comedy, and parody most of all. Corporate lawyers react to parody like Dracula does to garlic.

Why then, have I chosen to spend the cream of my years producing affectionate, unauthorized, book-length parodies like Barry Trotter and now Downturn Abbey? There are lots of reasons, and my therapist says I am making good progress. The only question now is, will I get well-adjusted enough to quit, or will corporate publishing go tits-up first?

* * *

I grew up in the 1970s, during a comic revolution. Though there’s more good stuff now — the baseline is much higher — I think the high points, things like Life of Brian and the first five years of National Lampoon, have not been equaled. My obsession is simply to apply Seventies-style techniques to our current culture.

Which means I’m probably screwed already. Back then there was a lot less choice; compared to today, Seventies pop culture was practically monolithic, with a clearly defined aboveground and underground. Second, technology and distribution had been stable for 50 years. Third, there was a massive number of young adults looking to laugh.

Like rock before it, comedy was experienced on a generational scale. The thrill of recognition, so much of the success of the 1964 High School Yearbook, Animal House, and SNL, depended on precise parody plus a rough homogeneity of experience across the entire (white, middle class) Baby Boomer generation. Seventies comedy relied on, then helped reinforce, a whole generation’s self-awareness, which had been created, then reinforced, by advertising.

American society is much more diverse today, which is why there isn’t comedy of that scale anymore. Ironically, it was those mass comedies of the Seventies which helped give us the only thing we do have in common today: media. Mass parody must be built out of mass references, and today those references only come from media.

Unfortunately, that content is owned by corporations, and corporations are crazy. It’s been said many times before, but always bears repeating that corporations often behave — in fact are designed to behave — in compulsive, anti-social ways. Compulsive behavior is alarming whenever you see it, whether it’s a fast food company or FOX News or your hoarding grandmother (who eats fast food and watches FOX). So corporations have to reassure us constantly, and we want to be reassured. This is why the modern corporation is obsessed with messaging, spinning, hiding.

Modern corporations rely almost entirely on perception, which is why satire in general, and parody in particular, drives ‘em nuts. Parody’s very nature encourages audiences to be resistant, skeptical. Corporations spend billions wedging something into the mass consciousness — and then some person comes along and changes how everyone thinks about it? How is that fair? It must be illegal!

Parodies are the reverse of Citizens United. That’s why they get sued. That is, in our media-saturated, media-savvy age, the only reason to sue them.

* * *

Having spent a decade loving parody but suddenly finding themselves adults, since 1980 the Boomers have tried to attenuate parody by stripping out the satire, making Authority seem like it’s in on the joke. This is why old ads strike us as so flat-footed. But corporations can’t be funny, anymore than they can be sad, or excited. They cannot be self-aware, because there is no self.

Doing a parody at the behest of a big publisher is like throwing a walnut at the head of a nail. It must be funny enough to sell, but not too funny. It mustn’t really mock, or look too accurate, or go too far, or do anything that might keep us from bidding on a tie-in. It mustn’t give someone an uncomfortable moment at The Waverly Inn. What readers want doesn’t really enter into it…which is why something like Go The F*ck To Sleep always takes everybody by surprise. “How’d that get through? It’s actually funny.”

It’s a lot better in TV and movies (more swag), and pretty good if you’re your own boss like The Onion. Even then, corporate comedy must give the reader a good buzz, but not get them so anarchic that…wrong thoughts emerge. What do I mean by wrong thoughts? Here’s one: this whole eternal growth, mindless consumption thing we’re doing — the organizing principle of well, everything — certainly can’t last, probably won’t end well, and maybe soon. That’s a tough truth for any contemporary satirist to avoid, especially if they’re supported by ads.

The Onion is the most successful — perhaps the only successful — solution to the problem of how to do truly top-notch parody inside a corporate media structure. Their breakthrough (presaged by National Lampoon’s 1978 Sunday Newspaper Parody) was not narrowing the boundaries as a big media corporation would’ve, but widening them. Gentle or scathing, the object of The Onion’s mockery is life itself; and if life is fecockte, corporations acting stupid can be forgiven. After all, they’re only people.

The Onion is formally brilliant, beautifully written, and I’m more than a little pissed off I didn’t think of it myself. So factor that into what I’m about to say. But there are a couple of problems with this “parody everything” mindset. Critique, leveraged by form, is parody’s judo. If everything’s equally fucked, why correct anything? My friend Sean Kelly calls this “the now, this” problem. “Britney Spears…The Pope…Cholera…now, this…and this…and this.” After 20 years, what is The Onion suggesting we do, besides read The Onion?

Parody can — should — have a complex relationship to its target; the point of The Onion isn’t a better USA Today. Though I satirize Downton’s every specific, Downturn Abbey is, to me, as much about the modern vision of the past, especially as it comes to us through drama. Our tendency to make them so much smaller than we are, so much less complicated, so ignorant of all the things we know. This is self-serving balderdash, and in my view an uncommon point well worth making, because it’s our self-regard that often prevents us from solving contemporary problems.

General parody can devolve into a formalistic exercise, and while that can be quite funny, it feels a bit hollow. You see this a lot these days; hilarious (and exquisitely crafted) shows like The Daily Show which spend 30 minutes a day savagely, mercilessly pointing out the flaws of existence, then hold a rally not to correct any of those flaws, but to increase the civility of discourse.

Wha-? That’s the psychology of a group of brilliant but conflicted people — conflicted because they know their satirical parody news is created and broadcast by corporations, and supported by advertising, the two biggest, fattest, most deserving, most important satirical targets of our era. But just like in books, the ground rules of corporate team-written ad-supported satire are impossible to reconcile, and the more committed one is to satire, the more pressure and distress that creates. (George Meyer has spoken about this.)

Let’s be clear: I’m not judging anybody. I couldn’t do better. I’m making this point only because I’ve never seen it made — though many comedy writers have expressed it to me privately. There’s something guilty about it, like we’re betraying our Prime Directive. I think this conflict is where much of the angst modern comedy writers are known for comes from. There needs to be a rough equivalency between problem and solution; on the one side, a PBS series, on the other, a funny little spoof for fans. Satire feels good, but isn’t always the right sized tool for the job. Applying parody news to the world’s problems cannot help but make everyone feel powerless — even if we are not.

Satire, even multiplied by precise parody, is not equal to the job of changing society — hence Peter Cook’s facetious comment about German cabarets preventing the rise of Hitler — and people who turn to it for genuine relief are playing a dangerous game. There is no such thing as ironic activism, and for every Bill Hicks (who I believe was much more than just funny), there’s twenty Lewis Blacks or Sam Kinisons, where outrage is part of the act.

So, Downturn Abbey: fun TV show, amiably skewered by a fun parody. The right sized tool, a slice of Seventies humor for a 2013 world. No delusions of grandeur, no claims of Utopia. You want Utopia, comedy won’t get you there — as Mark Twain said, “There’s no laughter in Heaven.”

Or in corporate book publishing. But there, I’m afraid, is where the resemblance ends.

Michael Gerber’s parodies and novels have sold over 1.25 million copies in 20 languages. His latest is Downturn Abbey, available everywhere. He is currently developing a new national humor magazine with Brian McConnachie.

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  • http://twitter.com/zenodotus zenodotus

    Great piece! Almost…consequential.

    • http://www.facebook.com/themikegerber Michael Gerber

      You're being too kind, @twitter-16029441:disqus, thank you. There's a lot of (bitter, and sweet) experience) in it. At 43 I feel a bit of an alter kocker, but I hope it will help people coming up now, so they can work the commercial/corporate side of comedy more skillfully and with less starving and frustration than I did.

  • http://twitter.com/arafatkazi Arafat Kazi

    Thank you for a fantastic read.

    • http://www.facebook.com/themikegerber Michael Gerber

      You are very welcome! So much more to say, so much behind all this stuff.

  • Elleachaudaucul

    Nice piece. But don't give your friend the credit for "now, this" — it's straight out of Neil Postman's 1985 classic "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

    • David Roel

      Similar phenomenon, but not the same.

    • http://www.facebook.com/themikegerber Michael Gerber

      By God, @Elleachaudaucul:disqus, you're right; I just looked at my Postman from college. Surely my error not Sean's–he and I were speaking specifically about Weekend Update jokes, which I was writing at the time. I mentioned how the form really diminishes everything you talk about. He agreed, saying that not only does it diminish, it also creates a false equivalency. The key point to me is our relationship to the form: back in 1975, there was widespread mistrust of and dislike for TV among comedy cognoscenti; today, there is the exact opposite sense, a belief that a funnier Daily Show genuinely makes a better world. I'm not so sure–not because the writing isn't great, it is; but because there are structural limitations to the form of the kind I mentioned.

      • Elleachaudaucul

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply; it's interesting how the consensus has changed since the 70s. I definitely share your concerns about the limitations of the medium.

        • http://www.facebook.com/themikegerber Michael Gerber

          Hill and Winograd's book about SNL has John Belushi coming in for his first interview: "'TV sucks!' he yelled several times. He said he'd owned only one TV set in his life, a grubby old black-and-white set, and that it was covered with spit."

  • Jasper J

    Very well written piece, however there are still new, funny books being written by new, funny authors, some in a satirical vein (which is also an endangered beast and is what I believe The Onion is as much as it is parody). The novel, The Greatest Living Englishman springs to mind.

    • http://www.facebook.com/themikegerber Michael Gerber

      Parody's a form, satire's an intent, so I'd call The Onion a satirical parody newspaper. I've met Jim Yoakum, and you'll get no argument about talent–I think there are more talented comedy writers doing better work now than ever before. The problem is that funny print is nearly impossible to sell, which is as much about how Big Print works, as it is about audience preference. What makes the decay of print comedy particularly "consequential" (totally using that now) is that the same things that weakened print from 1975 on, are coming for TV and movies, and unless we're mindful, visual comedy might suffer the same fate. In 1975, MAD sold 2 million paid copies off the newsstand every month, and today it sells 1/8th of that, in a country with 100 million more people in it. The kind of comedy we adore today–from 30 Rock to The Hangover–could become a hobby, too, if fans aren't intentional about keeping it strong.

      • Jasper J

        I agree that parody is a form/satire's intent, and I only mentioned Yoakum's book to say that funny books – at least books/novels/etc written in a wry/funny way – are still being written. I don't think Yoakum is doing parody, or even satire as such. It's a shame that print is going the way of the buffalo – but a question, if what you say is true then why are you starting a national humor mag? Just asking. Hope it comes off.

        • http://www.facebook.com/themikegerber Michael Gerber

          Because there are ways to publish magazines other than the Big Print way; humor magazines fit poorly in the American ad-supported, big-rate-base, print-at-a-loss, newsstand model, so they were the first to weaken and die. But we'll see magazines in more stable niches continue to fall, too; witness Newsweek.

          This will continue until print embraces a model that fits with its strengths, and stops trying to compete against insurmountable production and distribution advantages.

          Print's secret weapons are how it builds affinity, and that people will pay for a physical object. Digital piracy (among many other things) comes from the audience's intuitive sense, reinforced by TV's ad-supported model, that if I can't hold it, it doesn't exist, and if it doesn't exist, I shouldn't have to pay for it. The physicality of books and magazines are actually its biggest advantage, if you publish the right way.

  • http://twitter.com/megh_wright Megh Wright

    Great article, thank you for the insight! I might need to read this a few more times.

    Also, Sean Kelly is awesome.

    • http://www.facebook.com/themikegerber Michael Gerber

      You bet, @megh_wright:disqus. So glad you found it interesting. And yes, Sean is awesome. I have been trying to get him to write his memoirs for the last ten years, with no success (that he's told me about).

      • http://twitter.com/megh_wright Megh Wright

        Please don't give up! I took his Children's Lit class in college, a tiny bit to learn about children's lit but mostly just to hear him tell stories about the Lampoon and writing for TV (which thankfully, he did a lot of). Would love to have it all again in book form someday.

  • http://twitter.com/Justin_Geldz Justin Geldzahler

    Great article. Also, your wife's Amazon review of Downturn is adorable.

    • http://www.facebook.com/themikegerber Michael Gerber

      Not as adorable as listening to her hem and haw about doing it.
      Kate: "I really HAVE read it 20 times and think it's funnier every time…But because I'm your wife, people won't believe my opinion…And if I don't SAY I'm your wife, people will find out and think this is some sort of put-up job…Screw it, I'm just gonna say it!"
      Mike: "Ride the whirlwind, sweetheart."

      It's like that here a lot. :-)