Irreverently Funny? Or Just Irreverent?

Irreverence is not the same as comedy.

I have a follow-up post to my previous entry about Bud Selig, but it’s not quite complete. However, I find myself needing to get something off my chest before I can really focus on other topics, like school, or baseball, or that short story I have started over sixteen times now because I keep distracting myself.

I’m not a very big television guy. I used to be. Growing up I watched plenty of television and then some. Nowadays however, my television watching is fairly moderate. For one thing I am not much of a fan of the current level of writing that permeates modern television. I’m not very big on being treated like I am stupid. I don’t need writers explaining things to me like I am in a class of kindergarteners. Nor do I care for shows where common sense is simply tossed aside in such a reckless manner that those same kindergarteners are scratching their heads. (Yes, I’m looking at you Eric Kripke of Revolution.) However, there are certain actors that I like, so, when they get a show, I generally tune in to watch. One such actor is Tim Allen.

Last year, Tim Allen made his return to prime time television with his new sitcom, Last Man Standing. The show was a somewhat safe twist on the concept he had guided to success with Home Improvement in the mid-90s. In LMS, Allen plays Mike Baxter, a successful, conservative salesman in suburban Colorado. He lives in a nice house with his successful wife and their three daughters, the eldest of which has a young child, Boyd, from a teenage indiscretion. The wife is smart, witty, good-looking, and strong-willed. She is an independent woman. The eldest daughter, despite the complications of being an unwed mother of only 21 years, is level-headed and also pretty intelligent. She works to provide what she can for Boyd and is intent on bettering herself and also not letting her sisters repeat her mistakes. The middle daughter is a Kardashian groupie, complete with the looks to succeed in following the Kardashian success plan. She’s not overly bright, but she’s very adept at the things she sets her mind to, especially anything dealing with social media. The youngest, and most intelligent, daughter is making the transition from junior high to high school. Along with this change comes a transition from being a sports-minded tomboy to being a young, dress-wearing, boy-conscious woman.

The ingredients for the show were carefully cast, and the show saw some moderate success. The show was not the huge hit that Home Improvement had been, but in all fairness, it’s tough to expect any show to reach that level of success. However, this is network television we are talking about. Moderate success instead of overwhelming success kept the network from making any sort of decision on whether or not to renew the show for a second season until very late into the game. With no decision reached, the last five episodes of season one saw LMS limp across the finish line – still successful, but with ratings that had the network demanding a change. This is where things turned for the worse.

The show replaced the oldest daughter with one that looked 10 years older. They aged Boyd from toddler to kindergartener. They brought back Boyd’s father (but not the actor) to become a constant foil to Tim Allen’s character in the mold of Meathead versus Archie Bunker. They made the second daughter so dumb she didn’t realize she was trying to read a book upside down or that batteries were a source of energy. Even the wife is no longer a strong character. To top it all off, ABC moved the show to the farthest reaches of prime-time civilization – Friday evenings. The majority of the changes were made by a new show-runner, with input from Tim Allen, in hopes that the show could become a modern take on All in the Family.

Now, in his defense, Tim Doyle, the new show-runner, does admit that this show is not as good as All in the Family, but he is still dead-set on hitting what he calls “red meat issues.” He wants to expand the quality of comedy on television to include things that make the audience think instead of simply churning out relationship or parenting stories. I applaud him for wanting to raise general social awareness on hot-topic issues through television, but, as of six episodes into the season, it’s been made fairly clear that, not only is it not working, but the approach is alienating what little audience remains. Yet, Doyle and ABC actually seem surprised.

Really?

Let’s review, a show that started out as sort of a reimaging of a 90s sitcom is changed mid-run to be a modern re-imaging of yet another, completely different show that aired in the late 60s and early 70s. What could possibly go wrong in that scenario? Oh, that’s right – it’s the year 2012.

Even the edgiest network sitcom, pushing the bounds of political correctness to the extreme, will still fall far short of the crass, chauvinistic, racist satire that was All in the Family. The problem is, All in the Family only worked because it was “all-in.” There are people that love All in the Family, and others that hate it. But, regardless of where a person falls in regards to enjoying the show, there is little denying that All in the Family was a cultural icon that redefined network sitcoms forever.

Archie Bunker was hilarious. He was also the sort of character that would have the politically correct pundits calling for modern networks to not only cancel the show, but to issue formal apologies for the offensive nature of the humour. Yet Doyle seems to think that LMS can be a show in the mold of AITF, but simply not go so overboard with the characters. Unfortunately, the humour of AITF does not work at half-speed. Irreverence can be funny, but it must be sincere. I know, that sounds counter-intuitive. But it’s true. Comedies like AITF, or the movies of Mel Brooks worked because they knew exactly what they were doing. They knew they were offensive and brought a comic light to that fact. Comedy was used to increase social awareness of a number of issues while allowing the dominant hegemony to still have something to identify with.

The political correctness police would never allow such irreverence in today’s television. So, in order to appease them, the writers give us a hot-topic issue, or a racist issue and then proceed to make fun of it. But that’s a huge difference from the likes of Mel Brooks and Norman Lear. Those two made the issue part of the actual comedy itself. The issues were the vehicle through which the comedy was delivered. Now, comedy seems to try and heighten awareness by making the issues the focus of the comedy. So instead of the issues being a vehicle for the comedy, the issues become a target for the comedy. This has the effect of coming off as preachy and making the shows uncomfortable to watch for those that might be sensitive to an issue. One approach irreverently embraces a subject and shines a light on how backwards the world can be eliciting laughs and increasing awareness by using the hot topic as a vehicle for the comedy. The other approach is so careful to be sincere that it ends up being both unfunny and irreverent and eventually, driving away the audience.

It’s hard to make a statement is no one is paying attention.

Prejudice, class strife, poverty, political scandals, working poor, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, these are not topics to be made light of. The pain and suffering attached to these sorts of topics is real. Using these topics as a vehicle to express comedy for the purpose of entertainment however, does not make light of the issues. Rather, it raises the awareness of the issues by presenting them in a manner that does not drive the audience away. That is irreverently funny. Making fun of the gay rights movement, or any other hot button issue, on the other hand, is simply irreverent, and has no place in mainstream media.

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I Usually Don’t Discuss Politics

I generally don’t like discussing politics. Politics and religion are simply two subjects that are magnets for heated, unfriendly, “I’m right and you are wrong” arguments, and rarely do they seem to attract extended healthy debate. However, there are times when a political issue just begs to be discussed. Whether it is the result of current events shedding bright light on a topic, or the topic is simply being glossed over in a way that is a blatant insult to the intelligence of the American people, some topics just need to be aired out. Without occasional venting, the lunacy of some issues would eventually make my head explode. The Keystone XL pipeline is one of those issues.

Apparently both American political parties are largely in favour of this massive pipeline designed to move Alberta tar sands oil across North America and to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The building of the pipeline is an ambitious project that will require many labourers to complete and see many millions of gallons of oil piped from a friendly neighbor end up in America. Well gee whiz! What’s not to like about that? I’ll tell you what. Plenty. This is one of those times where Washington’s spin machine has been working in overdrive. I’ve seen tops go around and around for minutes that weren’t spun this well.

The GOP and others, including many Democrats would have you believe that this project is going to create 20,000 jobs directly and also as many as 100,000 indirect jobs. These numbers are hopelessly inflated. Furthermore, the jobs created are, for the most part, skilled labour jobs. Sure, there are skilled workers out there looking for work, but they aren’t all situated along the pipeline. The jobs created will hardly be local jobs. The fuzzy math used to come up with the numbers is a travesty. Instead, why don’t they publish the real numbers expected to be employed at each stage along the route? How about taking it another step further and showing how many are going to be general labour jobs? And how long are these jobs expected to last? The folks on Capitol Hill seem to think that most Americans aren’t savvy enough to realize that these are all temporary jobs at best. Independent evaluations of the number of jobs to be created brings the number down to under 7,000. Hmmm…not so many jobs after all.

But let’s say that the infusion of jobs could really help the economy and get things moving in the right direction again. What about the rest of the hoopla? The tar sands that are going to be mined for this oil do not produce crude suitable for being turned into gasoline. Without getting into a drawn out chemistry lesson, suffice it to say that the vast majority of crude, the likes of which will be transported through this pipeline becomes kerosene or diesel. Sure, Americans need those things too, but stop trying to sell us all on the idea that this oil will do anything to help drop gas prices across the country. If anything, the refineries used to process the crude will be spending less time creating gasoline in order to devote resources to refining this new supply as well. That would actually translate into a gas price increase. Now, I’m no economist, so maybe I missed something. But hey, Cornell University does in fact have many economists who have evaluated the situation and they seem to agree. Last I checked, most people seem to think that the folks at Cornell more times than not know what they are talking about.

Then there’s the environmental factor. Tar sand oil is the dirtiest of crude, and as nature would have it, one of the most destructive to pipelines given the abrasive sand scouring the interior and the higher temperatures and pressures it must be moved along at. Then there are the processes of extracting and refining it. Industrial waste and pollution from these processes are on a scale rarely encountered.

But wait, there’s more! What about TransCanada, the company behind this whole project. TransCanada just so happens to also be the company behind the keystone 1 pipeline which, in its first year of operation spilled at least 12 times, including a spill over 21,000 gallons in North Dakota in May of 2011. The EPA ruled that the company had cut corners by using inferior steel and defective welding. This is a pipeline that, if built, will cross more than 1,500 waterways in the heartland of America where every drop of water is necessary to grow all those crops. Do we really want to risk a spill like the one that dumped 42,000 gallons of oil in the Yellowstone River, or risk our waterways being polluted and clogged with tar sands like the Kalamazoo River in Michigan? Heck, Kalamazoo happened in 2010 and still hasn’t been cleaned up yet.

American is the third largest exporter of refined oil. It is a necessary part of our economy. I get that. Oil means money, and America has plenty of it as well as the means to do something with it. But if this is really about helping America make money off of the lucrative oil business, then where is the sense in having the pipeline end in Port Arthur, TX? It’s absolutely no coincidence that the pipeline ends in a Foreign Trade Zone, meaning any oil purchased there is purchased free of U.S. taxes. So let’s recap briefly. The oil will be imported from Canada, who sees money from direct sale of the crude. The crude is then refined in Texas by cash rich oil companies and sold off in the Foreign Trade Zone for destinations in China, Europe, and even Latin America. Sounds to me like the American people are assuming all the risks from the pipeline, but are getting to share in none of the reward. They don’t even get the tax revenue.

Higher water and air pollution, higher fuel costs, and continued energy insecurity. Exactly what part of this is a good deal for Americans? The sad thing is, the pipeline planning is so far along that its construction is all but inevitable.