The Point Is To Believe Something
Politico, The Onion, and Whitmer Thomas: The Golden Boy
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Has The Onion gone soft on Bernie Sanders? What is satire? Are you allowed to be mean to one person if you are not mean to another? Did I just read two thousand words of comedy criticism filtered through the mind-numbingly neutral-even-though-the-author-has-an-obvious-point-of-view voice of mainstream political reporting? These are just a few questions raised by a recent Politico feature dramatically titled “How ‘The Onion’ Went Full-On Bernie Bro.”
The article is boring: do not read it. The thesis is that The Onion has historically skewered Democrats and Republicans equally, so it is therefore a Major Shift to give Sanders friendly headlines like “MSNBC Poll Finds Support For Bernie Sanders Has Plummeted 2 Points Up,” “Bernie Sanders Holds Secret Campaign Meeting With 15,000 Working-Class Democratic Donors,” and “DNC Mulls Asking Donald Trump To Run As Democrat In Effort To Stop Sanders.” The author appears to assume The Onion has skewered both Republicans and Democrats because, like mainstream political media, it operates from a place of non-partisan neutrality. To go easy on Sanders is therefore to operate from a partisan standpoint, which is to betray the publication’s mission. Ahh, nooo.
What this thesis overlooks is that there is another point of view from which one might skewer both Democrats and Republicans. That point of view is leftism. Surprise: The Onion is a left-wing rag. It is certainly neither pure nor consistent in this respect; no publication is, least of all one that has gone through so many changes and been shaped by so many writers. But this is the obvious common thread uniting “criticism of Republicans,” “criticism of Democrats,” and “criticism of establishment politics and media that uses Bernie Sanders as a pretext.”
The author arrives at this answer early on, when Onion editor-in-chief Chad Nackers spells it out for him. “Nackers says it’s not that the Onion has decided to try its hand at actively abetting the Sanders campaign. To him, this campaign is simply the first one its staff has seen that embodies what it has been complaining about all along.” Nackers even says explicitly that “a lot of Bernie’s policies are progressive things that we want to back.” But from here the author returns immediately to the idea that this somehow represents a sea change for a website that also went relatively easy on Hillary Clinton:
It’s often been observed that the Trump era has forced people to take sides, making it almost morally untenable to sustain a 1990s-style ironic detachment. For the Onion, it wasn’t Trump who forced its hand on the issue, but Bernie. Can America’s Finest News Source still maintain its satirical credibility while consistently favoring one particular player in that game? And, maybe more important—isn’t it missing a huge opportunity to be funny?
Again, this is not “taking sides.” It’s “having been on one side the whole time.” To remain on that side does not risk The Onion’s satirical credibility, because satirical credibility is just regular credibility. You build it by being right and fair; you lose it by being wrong and unfair. Perhaps the confusion here is that in mainstream political media, the duty to represent all sides fairly was long ago supplanted by a compulsion to represent all sides as equally valid. If you think of news satire as News But Funny, I guess you might expect it to share that compulsion. But the point of news satire is not to turn news alchemically into jokes. The point is to believe something about the news and say it. It is more specifically to believe some things are good and others are bad, then to reveal the goodness of the good things and the badness of the bad things. That does not mean a satire publication should uncritically boost the candidate it likes; only that it is squarely within the realm of fairness to treat better candidates better. (Here I will note, as Politico does not, that the The Onion has also given Elizabeth Warren what one might call soft treatment.)
Politico has the whole thing backwards. It seems to me the surest way to lose credibility as a satirist is to cooly interpret everything through a lens of pure neutral nonbelief. Inconveniently this is also the surest way to forge a long lucrative career making satire. Funny how that works.
Whitmer Thomas’s The Golden Boy is a mix of traditional standup special and documentary, comedy and personal history. It’s the latest in a trend of hybrid comedy specials that I occasionally see derided as self-indulgent or navel-gazing: get to the jokes, people say, I’m here for the jokes. I like them. They may sometimes feel more self-indulgent than the average hour of someone talking about themselves, sure, but I think overall they represent an embrace of the form. Television is a different medium than live performance, and a television production that simply replicates live experience—as funny and good as that experience may be—will necessarily leave something out. I love standup, and yet when I watch specials I often feel like I am just watching other people watch standup. I get jealous; I want the real thing. So I welcome works that recognize this gap and seek out their own perfect marriage of content and form.
Not that the hybrid model is a new development: Zach Galifianakis, for instance, used it in Live at the Purple Onion way back in 2006. But The Golden Boy makes a compelling new case for the filmic approach to standup specials. It’s a messy, funny, heartfelt hour recorded mostly at the Flora-Bama Lounge in Pensacola, Florida, where Thomas’s late mother used to perform in a band with his aunt, her twin sister. The stage is small. Fog hangs in the air. Thomas alternates between jokes and music, picking up an electric guitar and singing what he’s described as darkwave comedy bangers. His subjects range from his mother’s death—“I can’t party,” the audience sings with him, “‘cause my mommy partied to death”—to his emotional codependency, his estranged father to his sexual performance anxieties. A handful of his jokes are what you might call well-made standup, that is, delicately structured observational material, like an early story about his father leaving—
—while many more are just delightfully irreverent two-liners and silly anecdotes. (I am particularly fond of one about his older brother, who all the schoolyard bullies feared simply because he was… bigger than them, although not apparently a bully himself.) The tone is awkward, the pace rocky. These are good things. Thomas’ co-director Clay Tatum tends to keep the camera close on Thomas’ face, which can make for a dizzying experience in some of the more kinetic musical numbers, while elsewhere revealing a depth of feeling you seldom find in standup. During a closing bit about his mother’s last words—she told him he’s “the golden one” of the special’s title—we see Thomas’s watering eyes, his hair sweaty and mussed up from an hour of head-banging. His voice cracks. He takes long, difficult pauses as he recalls his last moments with her, the sense he’s tried to make of his life since. “It’s really a lot of pressure,” he says. “I was declared the golden one and here I am flailing in my adulthood, and trying to connect the dots.”
I sometimes wince at moments like these, which plainly state a work’s theme and subtext. I did not wince at this one. The beauty of The Golden One is that its documentary portion works in tandem with the live material to give a shape to Jenny Thomas’ life and loss: how she gave Whitmer his fascination with show business, the unrealized dreams she shared with her sister, the substance abuse problems that afflicted them both, the toll his aunt’s drinking took and still takes on his cousin, his brother’s indifference to their mother’s local celebrity when they were growing up, the emotional walls young men build to live with grief and abandonment and uncertainty. What emerges is a palpable sense of the messy humanity that comedy exists to help us understand. In this light—harsh and inconsistent, leaving half his face in shadow—Thomas’ plainspoken conclusion feels less like a grand statement of theme than a humble recognition of the limits of that understanding. Make as much sense of the darkness as you please. You still have to live with it.
“It's strange,” he says next. “I left, I went back to LA, and you know, I thought, well, that was hell.” We hear dreamlike synth chords awakening to carry us into the closing number. Thomas cracks a wry, sad grin. “Life is a joke.”
When I started reading and writing criticism, I thought it was because I wanted to understand art. The longer I do it, the more I see that I also want to understand why I like the art I like—why I am moved by what moves me. Right now I believe my tastes, if persnickety, are pretty simple. I crave work that feels as strange and familiar as a human being. I cannot tolerate the familiar without any strangeness, nor the strange without anything familiar. I think this is why I am drawn to standup, improv, and poetry, all forms that at their best feel like direct transpositions of the human psyche: weird, jagged, unpredictable, furious and hurt, funny and sad and awestruck, never exactly describable in retrospect, always on the precipice of collapse, a dream you’ve woken up into. I think it is also why I am still so annoyed by the question in that Politico piece:
Can America’s Finest News Source still maintain its satirical credibility while consistently favoring one particular player in that game? And, maybe more important—isn’t it missing a huge opportunity to be funny?
As I got at above, this question only makes sense if you view all funniness as equally valid: the joke that takes one side as equivalent to the joke that takes another. But they aren’t equivalent, because no two sides are equivalent, jokes are funny for reasons, and some reasons are right while others are wrong. Which is why I think the real question here is: “isn’t it missing a huge unserved audience?”
Maybe that is ungenerous of me. Then again, this question is why SNL hired Shane Gillis, why TV networks have sought to increase their appeal to red states, and seemingly why Comedy Central has leaned into its avowedly apolitical and totally substance-less new late night offering Lights Out With David Spade. (I have also heard that one of the network’s top priorities right now is finding “the next Tosh.0.”) It is the question of businessmen: the question you ask when you view comedy as entertainment first and art second.
Comedy exists at a confusing nexus of entertainment and art, yes, and there are certainly those reasonably incentivized to embrace this hierarchy. But I think it is a grave mistake for critics and artists to think of comedy primarily as a service meant to satisfy demand rather than an object meant to communicate. One prioritizes the demands of the audience over the intentions of the artist, while the other creates a mutualistic relationship: I serve you a product because you want to use it; I communicate with you because you need to hear something and I need to say it.
By viewing demand as self-justifying, the first framework encourages the sustenance of the current order simply because it’s the order we have currently. By asking “what is needed?”, the second calls for risk, forward motion, ruthless scrutiny of the status quo, and an unending search for what’s missing. We can have both, of course, but I am suggesting the form benefits immensely when questions like “is this serving everyone it could be serving?” are kept far away from questions like “what is this doing, what does that mean, and what do we do with that meaning?”
Because comedy is not a product. Comedy is an extension of the self. It is made by people, and people are made of thoughts and feelings. Whether it’s an Onion headline or an HBO special or an open mic set, the best comedy is at some level a reproduction of the person who makes it—their prejudices and insecurities, their fears and their outrage, their loss and their grief. It has to be real. It has to say what it means. It has to believe something.
Image via HBO.