Tuesday, October 19, 2004


The Death of Comedy

Or it at least has the flu.

I reluctantly went to see 'Team America: World Police' on Sunday night. I mainly went for a chance to hang out with some friends I don't see all that often. I saw Ebert's review, and knew whereof he spoke when he called it 'nihilist'. I'm not a big fan of 'South Park', although it is very funny sometimes. But, I figured, if Sean Penn is pissed off, it can't be all bad....

The problem is not exactly 'nihilism', but an actual inability to know the difference between seriousness and humor, resulting in a lazy, cowardly satire, neatly disguised by deliberate outrageousness. There is no comedy without tragedy. They define each other. If you don't know what to be serious about, you can't be funny, and these guys are hardly alone in our entertainment culture in not realizing this. At dinner after the movie, my friend Alex called Matt and Trey 'cover your ass' comedians - whenever they veer towards making an actual point, they say 'just kidding!' (My other younger friend Andrea got all the way to the crux by pointing out that being serious about nothing is no better than being pompous and humorless. Parker and Stone may be kinda dumbass, but that doesn't mean their audience necessarily is).

Aside from the strictly high school stuff (eg the vomit scene), they are hilariously funny as they satirize American culture, especially Hollywood and the 'media' generally. The first forty minutes or so of 'Team America' are worth the price of admission. I'm not going to give anything away, but I almost injured myself laughing. The 'Thunderbirds' marionettes are a perfect absurdist vehicle, even better than the crude animation of 'South Park'.

The politics are ultimately deeply stupid, however. I certainly don't mean the skewering of Sean Penn, Jenneane Garafalo and, inevitably, Alec Baldwin. That part is just a cheap plot point (funny at times), although they do sail a little too close to the wind when the Sean Penn marionette has his little speech about how wonderful life was in Baghdad before the invasion; Michael Moore is more responsible for that piece of idiocy than Penn, and that leads to the key point. Parker and Stone's real target is Michael Moore and Hollywood culture, not Alec Baldwin and liberalism in general. Unfortunately, they're too stupid and lazy to know the difference. And proud of it. ('America! fuck Yeah!'). That's why their cultural satire is funny, and their political comment is so dumb.

This becomes clear in the end. The 'cover your ass' satirists can't avoid coming out with a moral (just like they always do in 'South Park'), and it is literalistic and witless: the 'dicks, pussies and assholes' formulation - basically the idea that dicks like Bush are dicks (and hated by pussies like Baldwin), but we need them to take care of assholes like bin-Laden. If Stone and Parker had the guts to know what they were talking about, they would see that Bush is really just another asshole, not a 'dick'.

Hollywood in general is not very good at comedy these days. So many movies don't know what they are. 'Cable Guy'-type films abound - is it comedy? Is it drama? We are living through a humorless, literalistic moment in the US. Guys like Parker and Stone may enjoy their own lives, but - in 'South Park' and their movies - even if they express it in a converse way, they are ultimately all about generational self-pity: 'see how absurd everything is? See what a crappy ridiculous culture we've inherited? Poor poor us!' Neither funny nor tragic, only solipsistic. I don't disagree with their diagnosis, but they are part of the crappy absurd culture, too. And they turn out to be at least as mindless as what they skewer - only 'snarkier' and 'hipper' about it. Now that it's their turn....they mostly chicken out: 'just kidding'.

[UPDATE: Behold, the brilliant satirists of the age in their own words:

I think we just deal with everything with humor. Everything. We say all the time, "I know that if one of us got cancer tomorrow, we would be joking about it." It's just the way we deal with stuff. A lot of people with no sense of humor think that that means that you just basically don't care about anyone or anything, and it's not true.

Ultimately, I think we're both pretty optimistic people, too. A lot of this movie came out of, you're laughing at people because you're sort of saying, "Dude, relax." You have the Michael Moores of the world and all these people telling you, "These people are evil and America's going to be destroyed in a matter of five years!" And it's just, to us, not that dire. It's like, you know what? Our lives are pretty fucking great. And a lot of the lives we see around us are pretty fucking great, and everything's gonna be OK. That's just our basic philosophy.

(from the Salon interview )

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