On Talk Shows

On Talk Shows

At the Washington Walrus, we usually focus on politics and the more immediate issues concerning government. Every now and then however, we like to dip our toes in the murky waters of culture and entertainment; in this particular case, one of the more shallow bodies of such water.

It’s not that I dislike talk shows (or chat shows) or their hosts. It’s not that I even bemoan the format, rather what it’s been reduced to in this day and age. You see, there was a time when these shows didn’t desperately grasp for whatever little nugget of attention was left out there, lost in the cracks of YouTube and Prime and Netflix. There was a time when actual proper conversation was involved, unburdened by pre-rehearsed garbage and bit jokes resulting in a pie in the face. There was a time when it wasn’t all so juvenile and pandering, when Americans tuned in for a bit of humor, yes, but also out of genuine interest.

Johnny Carson was of course, the “King of Late Night”. He hosted the Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992 and became an icon in the American world of entertainment. If you wanted a movie plugged, you wanted his show. If you were looking to get your big break as a comedian and possibly bag a sitcom, you hoped to impress Carson himself. Even politicians like Ronald Reagan found their way onto the couch, though Carson, himself, never declared any political allegiance (a far cry from the suitors of today). By the end of his tenure, he garnered north of 10 million viewers a night on average, which is over three times what Colbert did in 2018. He had the business at his command in many respects and he did it with great timing and affability, that never gave way to piousness or crude frivolity. He had the numbers and the respect of the masses.

So what went wrong? Carson may have dominated the late night sphere for the longest time but he was not the only talk show host out there. Day-time hosts like Oprah, of course, made more than a splash in the 1980s and in the decade before, Dick Cavett interviewed some of the world’s biggest stars and directors, including Orson Welles. But just as the news networks began to multiply, so did the demand for content in the talk show format. You didn’t need 10 million viewers every to become a success. You could be a Leno or Letterman fan or after that, someone who watched Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, or a splash of all. Some unique talents came about in the 1990s and 2000s who just wouldn’t have had a shot before like Bill Maher, Conan O’ Brien, and Craig Ferguson. For awhile, it all worked out quite well… before TV began to matter less and less.

Jimmy Fallon may not have been the first to recognize the value of “viral bits” spreading across social media and YouTube but he was the most diligent host in the late 2000s and early 2010s to capitalize on this trend. His show, today, barely resembles a chat show at all because of this, successful though he may be. And like him, Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden, and others have become increasingly reliant on bits like “Carpool Karaoke”, “Mean Tweets”, etc. for gaining viewership/followers/subscribers.

It’s a different market in many ways and not one without its plaudits. Some of these bits are funny. I enjoy watching the Matt Damon-Jimmy Kimmel feud. I like the odd “Wheel of Musical Impressions”. I may even have chuckled at one or two Corden sketches (the Shape of Water one, though I felt pretty guilty afterwards… cause it’s Corden.) The problem (okay, not a real problem) however is that most these bits are desperate and stupid and bringing what could be an interesting format right down to the bottom of the barrel. When actual conversation is conducted too, it’s painfully rehearsed, concerned with the most trivial schlep (did you actually eat a pizza at the Oscars???) and disingenuous/cringe-worthy ass-kissing to the point that I contort and fold in on myself, much like the Witch King of Angmar’s death in Return of the King. Especially with Fallon and Corden. Especially with Corden to further that bracket.

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Why do I dislike Corden the most of these hosts? To surmise briefly, he’s everywhere. He hosts the Late Late Show four nights a week, does A League of Their Own in the UK, and still manages to dress up as creepy cat for the upcoming movie Cats. His laugh is also annoyingly fake.

I also agree with the mega-chinned Jay Leno who believes too many hosts are “one-sided” nowadays. In 1993, when Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher aired, the host opining their political persuasion was pretty different and bold. Today however, every dumb comedian with a desk goes for the low-hanging fruit that is Donald Trump with the result being sheer weariness among viewers and a decrease in general intellect. Undoubtedly, we inhabit a far more outrageous political climate than any in recent memory but is there anything to be gained in the preaching-to-the-choir mantra of Stephen Colbert or Seth Meyers? It all seems so trite and easy for such clever comedians. If that wasn’t enough too, even the likes of Fallon, Kimmel, and Corden are going after the president despite their complete lack of political “wokeness” five years ago. It’s not challenging and it’s not funny anymore. Part of me even suspects it tilts those on the fence in a rightward direction, just as that “Fight Song” (for Hillary) did in 2016… sigh…

Today, people are looking elsewhere for a decent interview, on the radio with Howard Stern or on podcasts with the likes of Joe Rogan (though everything leads back to MMA with him). The decline of the chat show is hardly a crisis, given all the other actual crises we face today, but it is something which sheds a rather depressing light on our cultural mindset today. Our attentiveness is shorter than ever. We need jokes and we need them now. Celebrities are awesome. You were hoping to hear about Tom Cruise’s filmography? Well, too bad cause his dog did something crazy! I know you’re running for president but what is your favorite flavor of ice cream? Is it strawberry? How did Trump’s latest foreign visit affect the premise of the new Pitch Perfect movie… etc.

We can do better than this. We can plug a movie or album and have an actual conversation with a celebrity without forcing them to play hop-scotch. Call me a crazy optimist but if general broadcasting’s going to die in the face of streaming services like Netflix, at least do it with some dignity and not on all fours in a ball pit with James Corden.

 

 

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PC Culture & Universities

PC Culture & Universities

The divide of cultural thinking in America is becoming more and more apparent with every passing day of the dystopian Trump administration. On one side, we have the so-called backwards’ thinking red-necks keeping Kid Rock clocking in the millions and on the other, we have high-minded intellectuals who will take down anything even approaching the shade of intolerance in the comments’ section of their Facebook newsfeed. A few months back, we discussed this latter conglomerate in relation to Clint Eastwood’s denouncement of the millennial generation. Today, we will delve into that ever-relevant subject in the context of the student body and protests at universities; not for any particular instance but because in this new environment, liberals (whose ideas such as health care are widely more popular with the public) must realize that not every little thing is worth losing their minds over.

Colleges should be bastions of free speech and open-mindedness. Third-level education is about exploring new ideas which not only intrigue but challenge you. You do not necessarily have to agree with someone’s line of thought (even the professor’s) but you should be exposed to it because intellectual thought gains credence when it is tested and critical thinking, as we have also discussed before, is pertinent to keeping power and established notions in check.

So how come in many cases, colleges have come to exhibit the exact opposite philosophy?

Well, let’s take a look first at how many students’ intolerance of perceived intolerance has manifested:

  • In 2014, Condoleeza Rice (US Secretary of State under Bush II) was supposed to deliver the commencement address at Rutgers University in New Jersey but was protested  over her administration’s handling of the Iraq War. Although the university’s president Robert L. Barchi defended their choice of speaker on the grounds of her being ‘one of the most influential intellectual and political figures of the last 50 years’, she decided to drop out, stating that the occasion should be a ‘joyous’ one and that her involvement might prove a distraction.Condoleezza Rice Gives Talk, Promotes Book In Washington DC
  • Later on that same year, comedian and political pundit Bill Maher was opposed by the students of Berkeley for criticizing Islam. In a viral debate with Sam Harris and Ben Affleck, he contested that as a set of ideas, Islam was a tough one to tackle because of the connotations associated with attacking a religion. In a change.org petition, signed by nearly 6,000 people, the student body objected to his ‘blatant [bigotry] and [racism]’, furthering that Maher’s kind of beliefs only served to conflate the ideas of extremists with the greater Islamic population. Maher went on to deliver the commencement address anyways but not before commenting that ‘liberals should own the First Amendment the way conservatives own the second’.
  • Women’s rights’ activist Ayaan Hiris Ali, meanwhile, was scheduled to receive an honorary degree from Brandeis University until the throngs came out against her. The offer was rescinded owing to the fact that past statements of hers against Islam were not compatible with the ‘core values’ of the university. Her activism, of course, can be attributed to a more controversial nature than Bill Maher’s but the student body’s disavowal of her, in light of the other causes she has promoted, spoke volumes for the culture in which we live.

Richard Dawkins, the famed biologist and atheist, has posited that political correctness has been replaced by an ‘unofficial’ Orwellian Thought Police. With instances such as the ones mentioned above, he believes that we have seen a ‘betrayal’ of the free speech movement which grew out of Berkeley. This philosophy, for many, undermines the values of a true democracy and lends gravity to the arguments of conservatives who conjecture that the left are out of touch with the common man.

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Maher (left) and Dawkins on HBO’s Real Time…

Not all liberals are ‘regressive leftists’ however (to borrow a phrase popularised by Sam Harris.) Many, like former President Obama, have espoused the need for students to balance their ideals with an open-mind. Militant political correctness, he stated in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopolous, serves as nothing more than a ‘recipe for dogmatism’. Even the leadership of the Civil Rights’ movement, he furthered, ‘sought to understand the views… of the other side,’ no matter how appalling. Students have become ‘coddled’ in today’s world, he asserted; a view shared by the likes of Robert L. Shibley, the vice-president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (a non-profit organisation), who stated: ‘Colleges and universities are teaching students to think like censors… [fueled by] overboard harassment policies, free speech zones that render most of campus a censorship zone, and a focus on civility and comfort at the expense of lively debate’.

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On the flip-side to be fair, one can argue political correctness has been born out of necessity. After all, hateful or embittered rhetoric can be influential- just look at the effect it had in driving anti-semetic practice in the 1930s. Plus, the need for racism or any alternative forms of exclusiveness is about on-par with the need for two more season’s of The Big Bang Theory. (Seriously, cancel the f*#$ing thing already… not to make light of this…) Let’s face it however; universities err on the side of caution a stretch too far. It may be because they have always been havens of progressive thought; it may be because the media thrives off sensationalist stories; it may be the power of a group mentality; and it may be because even the slightest association of a racist, homophobic, or sexist thought is enough to ruin one’s social standing today, but such thinking does not always precipitate action.

Free speech is ‘indivisible’ for Mick Hume, the author of Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? When one makes it a ‘privilege’ and not a right, ‘who are you going to trust to make the decision about where to draw the line through [it]?’ That does not mean we should allow bigotry, sexism, or any other forms of discrimination to thrive but if their preachers or their ideas have gained enough momentum, why not give them a forum from which to be challenged? Why not ask Condoleeza Rice, herself, about Iraq? Because her answer will offend you? It’s high time we ditched the emotional baggage of our PC culture and adopt an idea so foreign to America today, that you would swear its visa had been suspended- reason.

 

 

Clint Eastwood and the PC Police

Clint Eastwood and the PC Police

Last week, Hollywood legend and sharp-jowled libertarian, Clint Eastwood sparked outrage for his professed support of Trump over Clinton, amongst other seemingly outdated notions. To keep it brief, he opined that just because Trump’s speeches caused offence, did not mean he was racist; rather that reaction reflected the values of a “pussy” generation, one built on overtly sensitised political correctness. This kind of “talk” (from Trump’s ever flabbergasted face) was not considered “racist” when Eastwood was young. So what has changed? The very discourse and face of civil rights, replied a host of people on Twitter and Facebook.  Not a bad point at all, I must admit, but this particular confrontation interested me for the subject matter involved. Let’s face it, Trump could be (could) right on one thing; maybe we do have a big problem with political correctness. Let’s examine this, in light of this controversy.

When the Donald delivered his rousing question mark of a speech announcing his candidacy over a year ago, the internet went abuzz with rage over his remarks regarding Mexicans. Were they stupid? Undoubtedly, Trump displayed (and has since) a poor and dangerous attitude towards immigration; an attitude which, if given credence, could not only sever international relations but also disenfranchise the millions of people who still see America as that beacon upon a hill. Were they racist? There’s a lot of evidence to suggest Trump may be a class-A bigot and indeed his banning policy is a prime Hitlaresque example of discrimination but for the sake of discussion here; not inherently so. It is racist to condemn a race of people because of what they look like and for merely being different. It isn’t necessarily when you criticise their country’s policy or culture, among other facets, given ample reason. Caution, of course, must be advised because no nation of people should ever be identified with a single brush stroke, but when issues such as immigration can’t even be tackled for fear of backlash, a problem arises. For one, you limit the intellectual scope of debate. And for another, you hamper free speech.

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It’s genuinely hard to get a good photo of Donald Trump.

 

Years ago, many hoped the internet and social media thereafter would break down social barriers and allow people of all creeds, colours, and religion to speak their mind, unburdened by censorship. These barriers have undoubtedly weakened but in their place, liberal constructs have sprung from those so sensitised to controversial opinions. We see this on a moronic level now. Last week, Eastwood wasn’t the only one grabbing headlines. An online petition too, was making the rounds, for the proposed closure of Rotten Tomatoes; a film review aggregate which collected an array of unfavourable opinions on David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. If people can’t even withstand a negative review of a film (and believe me it isn’t great), then what hope have we when it comes to topics which matter and should be discussed in an open forum; rape, religion, and emigration? As Mick Hume stated in his polemic Trigger Warnings, “[words] can hurt but they are not a physical weapon… Free speech is more important than hurt feelings.”

Now back to Trump. Do I agree with anything he’s said? Only perhaps with political correctness being a problem and that America’s infrastructure is crumbling. (The latter I can’t comment on in great detail however.) Overall, I think most people can succinctly point out though, without further reading, that Trump speaks with emotion and not logic, which undermines any gravity his claims may otherwise hold. The controversial subjects he brings to the table should be allowed to remain there however for the sake of free speech. If we disagree and find his comments repulsive, then why not point this out in an intellectually engaging manner? Like a debate, for example. Knee-jerk outrage only serves to energise his uruk-hai like supporters, which brings us neatly back to the generational divide old man Eastwood felt last week.

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A Trump supporter at last month’s RNC.

 

Culturally, America is being pulled in two directions. The liberals, I believe, are beginning to win this tug of war, even if it’s not politically evident. In recent years, social media and television shows such as Glee have been a great platform for the likes of the LGBT community. Where the race issue was once believed to be a shadow of its former pre-eminent self too, it is now at the top of our newsfeed, because of increased pressure from a generation with a growing voice. Most of us would likely agree that this is a good change of direction. On the other hand, many people in America feel betrayed by the direction their country is heading in. They’re tired of not being able to say what they want to and how they want to with regards to the hot issues, mentioned overhead. Is it not reasonable to say in this PC climate, that many feel suffocated? It’s not only with self-identified conservatives either.

Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have criticised this aspect of modern culture. The former, amongst others such as Jeff Ross, no longer frequents colleges because students often come across as too uptight. Bill Maher felt the backlash more forthrightly in late 2014, when students of Berkeley protested his address, due to his outspoken criticism of the Islamic religion. In another era, you would have thought Saddam Hussein was coming to flog his best moments’ memoir. Even opposing Katie Hopkins’ visit in this vein is pathetic (though that may simply have been for the quality of guest). Again it is worth repeating, if you have a genuine difference of thought it is worth taking that person head on with questions. If people had done that more calmly with Trump, then maybe he wouldn’t have been able to use increased media frenzy to push his way up the polls. Sensationalism sells, but it’s not always a dignified trade.

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From the “Modern Day Seinfeld” Twitter page. A good one to follow.

 

It is now 67 years since George Orwell’s classic 1984 was released and the Thought Police are becoming an all too eerie reality. In colleges, the very places which should stand as bastions of free speech and open mind, offensive opinions are being rejected without reflection. Whereas we have become a more inclusive society, we have also become one in some respects, that is tolerant of absolutely everything but intolerance. As Mick Hume asks, “[once} you make free speech a privilege and not a right, who are you going to trust to make the decision about where draw that line through free speech?” Eastwood may have the wrong idea about Trump but he’s got a reasonable measure of where American society’s headed, if only having lived so long. Political correctness, for all its good intentions therein, is not always the correct way to tackle the seemingly racist, bigoted, or plain mean.