Following Colbert's Lead and Fighting the Super PACs

So it's as bad as we thought. When the Colbert Report first began highlighting the looming threat of Super PACs last year, the rest of the country was still obsessed with the president's birth certificate and the wording of Sarah Palin's latest tweets. We are paying attention now. We see in hindsight that it was Super PAC spending, and not the Tea Party "movement," behind the 2010 elections. We have watched this year's Republican election be hijacked by three delusional millionaires, and only one of them is a candidate.

Thanks to the efforts of Stephen Colbert and a few others, we have awareness of campaign spending abuse aplenty. Now we need a cure. As we watch this disaster election unfold, we crave assurance that steps are being taken right now to stop or curtail the Citizens United decision. We ought to know what options are out there, both for normal folks and for sympathetic government officials.

In Washington and out, activists and politicians have been fighting to correct these mistakes. Here is a short list of a few of the efforts that are already underway. READ MORE


Talking to the Campaign Legal Center About the Ins and Outs of Colbert's Super PAC

We may not be at the punch line yet, but the setup keeps getting better and better. Colbert's Super PAC, now known as "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow", is now fully formed and interfering with becoming involved in the 2012 presidential campaign. And it is finally attracting the attention of the journalists and political insiders who had dismissed Colbert's bad political humor in June. Why are they taking him seriously now? I'm sure there are a whole slew of reasons, but one of them is: now he has money.

David Carr's column in yesterday's New York Times was the latest to look at the serious side of Colbert's Super PAC. It builds up to a chilling quote from an unnamed Colbert Report staffer: “Not even the actual news reporters want to cover campaign finance. We decided that we would just see how far we could go. And it turns out that, like everyone else raising money in politics, we can pretty much do what we want.”

Is that true? Can they really do whatever they want? This is where it gets tough to figure out exactly what is going on, and what's allowed. I think I stand with most Americans, many folks with law degrees, and Colbert himself, when I say: I have no idea. Campaign finance law is just too damn complicated. READ MORE


Comedy Looks Beyond the Debt Ceiling

Last Friday morning NPR host Mary Louise Kelly wrapped up a segment on the debt ceiling debate by quoting the Onion headline "Congress Continues Debate Over Whether or Not Nations Should Be Economically Ruined." It was an attempt for the news program to import some levity into their coverage of this perplexing voluntary crisis, but it was also the truest thing that's been said about the debt ceiling to date, and you could sense Ms. Kelly knew this.

The debt ceiling debate in Washington has been dragging on for a long time now. The comic reaction was measured at first — comedians were taking their time to ponder the situation and gather their reactions — but now they are piling on, and its dominance of the late night monologues is becoming newsworthy. READ MORE


The Colbert Super PAC's Real (Secret) Victory

Yesterday the Federal Election Commission in a 5-to-1 vote approved Stephen Colbert's media exemption, allowing him to turn his show into a non-stop fundraiser for some secret, but sure to be hilarious, future purpose. Yet while the FEC allowed Colbert to form his Super PAC, the decision came with some big restrictions, including the limiting of his ads to Comedy Central. Depending on your view of Colbert's goals or your preference for cliché, Colbert has either won the battle and lost the war, or pulled off one of the greatest bait-and-switches in recent comedy.

In the lead up to Thursday's hearing, political activist sites had begun turning their attention to the possible consequences of the decision, reporting that Colbert was about to go too far, and this decision could unleash havoc and chaos into the 2012 election. Liberal website Talking Points Memo wrote "Campaign reformers say Colbert's joke has gone far enough", while conservative news organ Politico declared "Stephen Colbert's running PAC shtick creates sticky mess." Colbert was out of his league, they said, and causing more trouble than he knew. Commenters to these stories rallied to his defense. They argued that Colbert was exposing a loophole in the campaign finance law created by the Citizens United decision, and if that loophole wasn't exploited for satire first, it could be used for far more sinister purposes. READ MORE


Is Anthony Weiner's Sex Scandal an Act of Conceptual Comedy?

Nothing new can be said about Anthony Weiner's political future. Either he will resign or he won't. But few people have discussed how this scandal might affect Congressman Weiner as a comedian. Will his famous comic persona ever return, or are his joke telling days over? Will he ever tweet again? And is it remotely possible that all this scandal was an Andy Kaufman-style stunt of conceptual comedy gone awry?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the past week has been the flimsiness of Anthony Weiner's political support. Over the past year Weiner has emerged as one of the most visible presences in Congress, and the media has portrayed him as a rising star and possible liberal savior, all thanks to his public antics and sense of humor. Yet since Monday, his Democratic colleagues have been falling over one another in a rush to distance themselves from him, and prominent members of his own party are calling for his resignation. No major politician has come to his side. The New York Times has run multiple stories about how isolated and unliked Weiner was on Capitol Hill, which indicates someone in the Democratic leadership wants the story framed that way. READ MORE


The Importance of Stephen Colbert's Bold and Subversive PAC

On Wednesday night Stephen Colbert took on Comedy Central's parent company Viacom, calling out their lawyers for trying to block his attempts to form a political action committee for the 2012 election. For the second time this year, he has publicly defied his corporate masters on air to try to keep his campaign going.

By promoting his Colbert Super PAC on the Colbert Report against Viacom's wishes, Colbert is crossing the comedy line yet again. He is using his cable news persona's megalomania to bring exposure to some brand new and potentially devastating realities in campaign financing, something that most voters are not even aware of, not because we aren't interested, but because these new rules are as confusing and opaque and absurd as most deliberately cryptic money things usually are. They're like the complex financial instruments behind the 2008 economic crisis or the off-the-book partnerships that brought down Enron in 2001. And we should be as scared now as we should have been then. READ MORE


A Timeline of Osama Bin Laden Comedy

We don't have to stop making jokes about him just because he's dead. It's fair to wager he'll be as big a staple in American comedy fifty years from now as Hitler jokes are today. Still, it won't be the same. The jokes comedians made about Osama bin Laden this week were jubilant, but the jokes we told each other when he was alive had edge. Back then it was laughing at the man who not only wanted to kill us, but (we thought) had the power to really do so. If it feels like we've been listening to Osama bin Laden jokes all our lives, that's because we have.

On the other hand, Osama humor hasn't been that constant a presence in our lives this whole decade. In fact, it's come in waves: after 9/11, of course, as we began to process and then laugh about what had happened; before the Iraq invasion, as the Bush administration desperately tried to establish links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein; and when Barack Obama ran for president, because their names sound alike. In between, as the man once said, we haven't been that concerned about him.

Here, in order, are some of the major moments in Osama bin Laden comedy, from our major comic voices to idiots in costumes. READ MORE


The Persistence of Birther Humor

What does Obama have in common with God? Neither has a birth certificate.

Donald Trump's recent embrace of the birther conspiracy has been a bonanza for political comedians. He even received a hearty thank you at the top of Conan's monologue last night. Though Trump is getting notoriety for bringing the controversy back into the spotlight after repeated and thorough debunkings last year, the birther issue never really went away. When not being discussed as a serious question for debate, it has persisted in the form of birther jokes.

The birther joke is particularly popular among Republican leaders, and not just the local email forwarders. With a year and a half still to go before the election, birther jokes have already been told by almost all the major Republican Presidential candidates. Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty's joke has become an established part of his repertory: "Now, I'm not one who questions the existence of the president's birth certificate. But when you listen to his policies, don't you at least wonder what planet he's from?" READ MORE


In Praise of the Stoner, a True American Hero

Let us sing a few words in praise of the stoner, for the stoner is the last of the American heroes. From the streets of Los Angeles to the streets of New Jersey, the stoners have traveled this great nation, and in those adventures we ride passenger with them into the heart of the American dream.

We should agree at the start the stoner is indeed a hero. Movies are populated with characters, stock characters and clichés. We may encounter jocks, or nerds, or preppies. Sometimes they share the same screen with our stoner, but that is only circumstance. Though the stoner may walk among them, she is not of them.

No. The stoner is something bigger. The stoner stands high above those schoolyard peers. The stoner may inhabit, thrive even, in an ensemble cast, but the stoner carries films. The stoner is versatile. The stoner endures. The stoner comedy genre has turned thirty, some might say forty, years old, yet has not tired out. In fact, the stoner comedy has spent the last baker's dozen years living a second golden age, ever since the annus mirabilis of 1998 that brought life to both Big Lebowski and Half Baked. When is the half-life of American movie genres ever so long? The stoner evolves. The stoner survives. The stoner abides. READ MORE


The Comedy Stylings of Rep. Anthony Weiner

Queens Congressman Anthony Weiner spoke at the Congressional Correspondents Dinner this week, and it was well liked. These dinners are events where politicians stand up in front of journalists and attempt to tell jokes. Except for the one that had Stephen Colbert, these political correspondents dinners are generally cringe worthy and forgettable. Politicians recite inside jokes about current political controversies. At the White House dinner last May, Obama cracked about his birth certificate and Arizona immigration.

But Weiner’s self-deprecating routine would have felt at home at an open-mic stand up. He quipped about Jewfros and childhood bullying. He had a multimedia presentation and talked about his Twitter account. Clips of pundits and politicians yelling at each other on news programs has always been a forte of the Daily Show. Weiner made a roll using only himself. READ MORE


In Praise of The Onion's American Voices

For all the attention their stories receive and how often their news headlines get reposted, The Onion’s American Voices column has a way of being overlooked. Well, we should talk about it more, because it really is one of their funniest and best features.

American Voices has been so reliably well executed for such a long time it’s almost easy to take its quality for granted. And looking at the same six pictures, three at a time, as their names change week after week and their occupations grow boringer and boringer (recently: Machine Fastener, Assistant Managing Editor, Braille Typist, Hair Sample Matcher, Unemployed, Unemployed, Unemployed) it’s hard to keep in mind how brilliantly absurd this idea was when it started. Not to mention the reality it lampooned: that the “man on the street” opinions you read in the local papers were often just made up. (“Local papers”, if you're unfamiliar, is a thing that used to exist; ask your parents.) READ MORE


Political Comedy Loves the 80s

Recently the news has been feeling a little too familiar. Old characters have been making comebacks, and old jokes have come out of retirement. With today's comic focus on Moammar Gadhafi, tax cuts, and union workers, not to mention the omnipresence of Brat Pack associate Charlie Sheen and his non-stop talk of cocaine, you'd be forgiven for thinking the 80s are here again.

It's been heartening to see the unions in the spotlight again. The 80s were the beginning of the end for unions as a central part of American life. As any article about the standoff in Wisconsin will mention, union power began to wane after Ronald Regan busted the air-traffic controllers union in 1981, crippling the ability of workers to fight for higher raises. (It's a separate topic, but this was also the exact moment income inequality started rising again in America after a half-century decline, a trend that has never stopped.) Culturally, the 80s was a last hurrah for what could be termed "labor" comedies, such as Michael Keaton's Gung Ho (1986). These movies, with their socialism-tainted theme of sticking together, had to make way in the canon of work movies for the late-90s office comedies such as Office Space (1999), with their emphasis on worker alienation.

Today, the treatment of the unions in political comedy shows a slow but steady promise. While in its earliest coverage, the Daily Show dismissed the union protesters as The Bizarro Tea Party, both the public and comedians have grown more sympathetic with the union workers as the struggle drags on.

But the true 80s comeback star is Qaddafi. READ MORE


Nir Rosen and the Value of the Comedy Killer

If the internet has a down side for anyone, it's that it makes it much harder for casual sexists and racists to tell jokes among friends. (And yes, Chris Lee, it’s also made it harder for casual adulterers, but that’s last week’s story.)

It would be tough for me to claim that this week's top political comedy story was anything other than the joke that went awry: journalist Nir Rosen's poorly conceived tweet belittling CBS correspondent Lara Logan's sexual assault while covering the revolution in Egypt. As Tom Scocca of Slate rightly points out, it’s foolish and ill-advised for me (or most anyone, but particularly men) to say anything about the story, because, my god, it was just a horrible thing to happen (and for Rosen to say), and what’s more, it only opens up the risk of me sounding as insensitive as the worst commentators, with little foreseeable benefit to be gained from wading in at all.

So here goes. READ MORE


Making Jokes About Egypt

It can't be easy to write comedy about the stuff that happens around the world. If the President, whose job it is to have opinions about these events, can't come up with a coherent response to developments in Egypt for a week, think about how hard it must be for comedians to react immediately, to predict what the unformed public opinion will be, and to do it funny. So let's give credit where it's due. Overall, the comedy that's come out of the recent uprising in Egypt has been very impressive. (I'm referring to American comedy about Egypt, of course, not Egyptian comedy, but that may also be doing gangbusters for all we know.)

The challenges facing good foreign comedy are clear. The biggest obstacle is unfamiliar subject matter. By the time a foreign event makes it onto our radar, it tends to already be in crisis mode — whether that be war, uprising, tsunami, or sex scandal. This means that everyone has to get up to speed on something they've been ignoring, and quickly. This means cramming. It also means background info, and a discourse on historical context can really drag on the attention span while you're waiting for a punchline. READ MORE