People have often used ‘the melting pot’ as a metaphor for immigrants from all over the world, coming together to make America a great and diverse country. (Although when I was growing up, I had a creative teacher come up with ‘fruit salad’ as a better metaphor, implying that immigrants retained some elements of their native culture and blended together in a tasty mixture – unfortunately, California also became known as the ‘granola state’, full of flakes & nuts, but I digress . . . ) However, immigration has become so politicized lately, it’s hard to find any common ground. The Senate was able to put together a bipartisan reform bill, but apparently the House won’t take it up because they’re too busy repealing the ACA or deciding whether or not to sue the President. Still, one would think that all sides could at least come together over the plight of thousands of children fleeing violence in Central America who have crossed our border recently. (Oh, I know, I’m just an eternal optimist . . . stop laughing at me!)
The nasty, xenophobic reaction by so many politicians and pundits has been appalling, but also ripe for ridicule (starting with the “Go Home Illeagels” signs and protesters swarming a bus from the local YMCA). So in that spirit, we might as well update the iconic poem inscribed at the base of Lady Liberty . . .
Politics and pop culture have always been strange allies, from campaign songs (“Tippecanoe & Tyler Too,” William Henry Harrison’s 1840 theme) to actors-turned-politicians (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan, and I hope someone reading this knows who George Murphy is – I am NOT that old but I am a buff of old movie musicals and learned about him through a Tom Lehrer song . . . but I digress). Presidents have even joined in the fun, including Clinton’s famous sax solo on Arsenio Hall and Obama’s appearance on “Between The Ferns,” although nothing can top Richard Nixon uncomfortably saying “Sock it to me?” on Laugh-In. (And yes, I AM that old . . . )
However, this alliance can sometimes be not only awkward but cause friction when politicians use songs without permission – Jackson Browne successfully sued McCain for using his “Running On Empty” to attack Obama in ads, and Ann & Nancy Wilson formally complained when Sarah Palin used “Barracuda” as her theme song. Those objections are understandable, since repeated use of a song implies the artist endorses that candidate. On the other hand, I sympathize with conservatives who have a much harder time finding good anthems by rock stars who support them – not much to choose from besides Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless America,” which might explain Ted Nugent’s recent resurgence . . .
The other time rock & politics make uncomfortable bedfellows is when pundits jump into the fray, like Bill O’Reilly’s near-obsessive complaints about Beyoncé being a bad role model – although as Jon Stewart pointed out, the video he was most upset about involved sex with her husband in an expensive limousine, so O’Reilly should have been thrilled that she was glorifying both marital passion and conspicuous capitalism. Unfortunately, other Fox news hosts must have missed Stewart’s ridicule of what he termed O’Reilly’s ‘disapproval boners,’ because last week Jesse Watters claimed that Democrats like Hillary Clinton relied on “Beyonce voters,” single women who “depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands. They need things like contraception, health care, and they love to talk about equal pay.” This foot-in-mouth moment inspired endless internet analysis, a wildly popular Tumblr account, and at least one suburban mom to squeeze into a leotard and take advantage of a rock/political moment too tempting to resist:
Lawyer jokes are low-hanging-fruit – everyone knows at least a few, and it’s far too easy to make fun of ambulance-chasing caricatures or frivolous lawsuits against fast food outlets when people spill things on themselves. (Although I do have one favorite: A priest, a rabbi, a nun and a lawyer walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “What is this, some kind of a joke?” But I digress . . . )
Some of my best friends really are lawyers, and they do everything from defending homeowners against wrongful evictions to the mind-numbingly-dull paperwork on which most small businesses depend. (Admission: My father was a small business contract lawyer, and when I was trying to decide whether to go into law or show business, he informed me that while law was a noble profession, “what separates humans from animals is our ability to appreciate art.” He then added “plus you don’t get applause in court.”)
Suffice to say, while I didn’t end up going to law school, I firmly believe in the power of law to protect people, and I understand the vital role played by lawsuits. However, John Boehner’s threat to sue President Obama for some yet-to-be-specified-disregard-of-something-he-hasn’t-figured-out-yet bears no resemblance to a valid lawsuit – instead, it sounds like when a 10-year-old threatens to run away from home because his parents are so mean, they won’t let him do, uh, whatever it was he wanted to do but forgot.
So this week’s song combines my general understanding of law with the show business career toward which my lawyer father pointed me . . .
Note: Show Lauren we need more entertainers and fewer lawyers by supporting her new CD, a compilation of greatest hits from these videos. You can hear clips and learn more here.
here are a variety of theories attempting to explain the relative minority status of women in comedy, ranging from socialization (women are raised to laugh at others, not to tell the jokes) to courtship (men want to be the ones to make others laugh) to good old-fashioned sexism (club owners tend to be men and think men are funnier). At any rate, women tend to be less comfortable with, or at least less proficient at, off-color humor – which is why it’s so startling when they do get down & dirty (part of Sarah Silverman’s huge appeal is that she looks like a fresh-faced girl-next-door and talks like Lenny Bruce).
I don’t know if it’s my gender (female, duh), my age (not telling, duh, which tells you I’m old enough not to want to tell), my upbringing (raised by a feminist mother who forbade Barbie dolls because they fostered an unrealistic body image, and an intellectual father whose idea of a joke was offering to do his Millard Fillmore impression . . . . but I digress), or my Ivy League education, but I’d always believed cerebral wordplay was infinitely superior to potty humor. My one near-break as a comedy performer was an invitation to audition night at The Comic Strip in LA, after I’d won some cabaret awards in San Francisco. I did a couple of my witty, Noel Coward-esque songs about current events, to polite applause, but then the man after me impersonated the male sex organ having its first orgasm, complete with sound effects. Needless to say, he totally killed and got invited back. (To be fair, this was almost 30 years ago. Don’t bother doing the math, let’s just say I was old enough to rent a car – but barely!)
I never had to wrestle with whether or not to adjust my highbrow ideals, because shortly after that I started a family. Turns out, the biggest influence on my sense of humor has been having two sons, particularly once they hit puberty (and especially once Husband 2.0 came on the scene, whose brilliant plan to cure the boys of using foul language was to have ‘swearing night’ at dinner so they’d ‘get it out of their system.’ Instead, they both just enlarged their vocabularies!) Between language, rating each other’s burps, and Family Guy, I’ve pretty much surrendered to a frat house environment.
I still try to keep my weekly songs witty and informative – which means usually my sons ignore my videos (apart from my 17-year-old reassuring me that ‘over 100 views is viral for old people’ – cue rimshot). But this week, I’ve succumbed to a sophomoric tone, at least in part – which means my sons think this week’s song is actually cool.
Over-reaction is becoming so common on the political scene these days, things have to go pretty far before they qualify as genuinely surprising over-reaction. But the furor over last week’s primary defeat of Eric Cantor definitely qualifies.
To put it in perspective, Cantor lost by 36,000 votes, which is about 5% of his voting-eligible constituents, which is about .002% of the 150 million eligible voters in the country. But that didn’t stop pundits from gasping in shock and declaring that this was a political game-changer, with miscalculation like “Dewey Defeats Truman” combined with “Real Housewives”-style national fascination. (Not to mention the fun of seeing Cantor’s opponent, an economics professor who advocates something called “Christian Capitalism,” unable to answer basic questions about the minimum wage . . . but I digress.)
This one low-turnout race has apparently led to everything from a resurgence of the Tea Party to the end of any hope for immigration reform to the realization that Democrats should just give up on 2014 unless turnout is boosted by major hurricanes in November that have female names (which apparently are viewed as less scary, so people don’t evacuate as quickly). Hello, people – it’s only one tiny district!
On the other hand, there is a Through-The-Looking-Glass surreal quality about one of the most obstructionist right-wing Majority Leaders in history losing a primary for being too liberal. So who knows, maybe the over-reactors are on to something . . .
I’ve used my teenage son’s line before here, about how ‘over 100 views is viral for old people.’ (Yes, I am shameless about using my kids’ comments for comedic purposes. And actually, they really like it – I do a whole routine about their reactions to learning the facts of life, which you’d think would be humiliating, but for a generation raised on Family Guy and The Daily Show, any kind of reference is apparently a good thing! But I digress . . . )
I do what I can to increase my views – I am now on Twitter (where I have tens of followers), and I send out email links, contribute content to Facebook groups, etc. I’ve even considered adding footage of our very adorable dog (who looks like the live action model for Tramp, from Lady And The Tramp), but it turns out, all I have to do is mention gun control. Suddenly, I’m a youTube sensation!
Of course, fame has its drawbacks – in my case, it’s dozens of really mean comments, disparaging my intelligence, my politics, my attractiveness and my singing. But it’s hard to take these kinds of insults seriously when they’re often so badly spelled, it makes my teenagers’ texts look positively erudite. And in any case, these anti-fans are still making my video go old-people-viral, and in the words one could imagine being tweeted by Kim Kardashian, “like, the only bad publicity is like not having any, like right?”
It seems that nearly everyone has a different opinion about what is and is not funny. One common definition is that “comedy equals tragedy plus time.” Another explains that “when I fall into a sewer, it’s bad, but when someone else falls in, it’s funny.” And you can find thousands of websites purpoting to explain why The Three Stooges are hilarious to men but not to women.
Humor is frequently used as a coping mechanism, to release anxiety or to vent frustration (this explains the huge number of Jewish Mother jokes). And some of the most insightful comedians have used it to vent – think of George Carlin’s rant about the 7 words he couldn’t say on television, or Rita Rudner’s jokes about relationships (e.g., when she wanted to dump a guy, she just told him she wanted to have his baby, and “usually he would leave skidmarks”). But it can be touchy – what about when you’re dealing with highly sensitive or politicized issues? (Although I am still impressed by the first Saturday Night Live show after 9-11, when we all wondered when it would be okay to laugh again. After a moving tribute to New York’s first responders, producer Lorne Michaels asked Mayor Guiliani, “Is it okay to be funny?” and Guiliani responded, “Why start now?”, totally diffusing the tension and making laughter okay. I hope I can write a line that perfect someday!)
Writing political humor frequently means tackling subjects that provoke strong feelings. Sure, every now and then completely neutral stories pop up like the crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto, or the scndal involving oh-so-aptly named Anthony Weiner. But it can be difficult to find humor in an issue that makes me angry – which is why it’s also so important. Laughing at a challenge makes it easier to deal with – even if that challenge involves not screaming at C-Span. Which explains the enormous popularity of programs like The Daily Show (not to mention the fact that it’s the primary news source for most millenials . . . ).
Irvine, my home town, is in Orange County, which I like to think of as ‘the red state’ in the middle of California (in the ’60s and ’70s, there were even fewer Democrats than Jews . . . cue rim shot). But many of my uber-conservative high school classmates have seen my videos and will send me messages like “that was really funny, even though you’re totally wrong” or “cute song coming from a commie pinko.” So when I write my songs, I aim for a tone that even those who disagree with me could enjoy.
Normally. (As my father used to say, “Moderation in all things – including moderation.) Sometimes it doesn’t work – and this week may be one of those times.
Music & science may seem to be strange bedfellows – the only songs I could think of were Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” from the ’80s (and if you’re not old enough to remember that era and its fabulous goofy technopop, check out Devo while you’re at it), and “I Sing The Body Electric” from Fame (from the ’70s, which is making me feel really old . . . but I digress)
Generally they would seem to be polar opposites – science is about concrete data and provable facts, where music is emotional and subjective. Sure, you can give a scientific description of sound waves, but that doesn’t explain why some pieces of music affect us so emotionally. (For example, I get goosebumps when I hear the french horn entrance toward the end of the 4th movement of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony; I also start giggling every time I hear the intro to Spike Jones’ version of Hawaiian War Chant . . . ) Besides, trying to analyze the beauty of music reminds me of E. B. White’s comment about why analyzing humor was like dissecting a frog – “Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”
However, there is concrete scientific data on music’s value in aiding retention of information – it connects with the brain on multiple levels, which is why we teach kids the ABC song, or why anyone who ever learned the “50 Nifty” tune has no trouble remembering all 50 states in alphabetical order. (This multi-layer connection also explains “ear worms,” which is a disgustingly appropriate term for a tune that you can’t get out of your head. Often a TV theme or a commercial jingle . . . anyone old enough to remember “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is?”)
Science is getting a bad rap these days from people who deny climate change – an affliction common among right wing politicians and media pundits. Cosmos host Neil DeGrasse Tyson is doing his best to combat this willful ignorance, including his wonderful quote, “The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it.” I don’t have Tyson’s scientific expertise (or a TV show), but I can do my part by using music to help make the same point. (And to tie this all together, I’ve borrowed an ear-worm-ish ’80s TV theme . . . )
I’m probably dating myself by referencing that antique, fairly offensive Virginia Slims tagline, encouraging women to embrace feminist progress by flaunting their own florally decorated brand of cigarettes. Now it comes across as hideously dated, but in the 1960s, the idea that women could do anything that men could – including poisoning themselves with nicotine – was both novel and incredibly exciting. When I was around eight years old, I remember struggling with whether I would prefer to be a world famous concert pianist or the first female president. (Yeah, I was thinking small . . . . )
I got a taste of politics as a college intern in Washington (although no one made a pass at me except for a bartender with bad breath. . . but I digress), and learned fairly quickly that I didn’t have a thick enough skin to survive in that arena. But I always wondered whether I’d get to see someone else achieve that ‘first female president’ goal.
Like all good starving artists, I was working as a waitress in New York when Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro as the first female member of a major party presidential ticket, and all of us called our mothers in a collective burst of feminist solidarity. So by 2008, I was ready for some more groundbreaking – excited for Hillary Clinton to be even a viable candidate, and thrilled that I resembled Sarah Palin enough to come in 2nd in a lookalike contest.
But now it’s looking like Mrs. Clinton isn’t just a possibility, she’s already assumed to be the de facto nominee for 2016 (if she chooses to run; the suspense over that choice has been as gripping as any of the soap operas that have gone off the air). It’s fascinating to see how people react. If nothing else, she has proven that she definitely has the resilience, thick skin, and quick reflexes to rebound from whatever gets thrown at her, from insults to conspiracy theories to random shoes (to insulting conspiracy theories about how she was somehow behind that shoe throwing . . . )
. . . and all the men and women merely players, in the immortal words of William Shakespeare (or of Christopher Marlowe, if you subscribe to that theory; or of Family Guy, if you’re like my sons and get most of your cultural references from that show’s parodies). So much of what we do is for public show, from dressing for a special occasion to posting on Facebook to making a speech on the House floor. (And you were wondering how I’d segue from theatre to politics!)
Actually, politics and theatre have merged before, and not just in plays like The Best Man (the 2012 all-star revival of Gore Vidal’s classic about the 1960 President primaries, which I saw with my boys, who weren’t impressed by Angela Lansbury, Eric McCormack, Candace Bergen, or John LaRoquette, but who loved seeing James Earl Jones, a.k.a. Darth Vader . . . but I digress). There have been a few musicals about politics, like 1776, Fiorello, or The Cradle Will Rock – not to mention the political undercurrents in Urinetown, Les Miz, Miss Saigon, Evita, and so on. Meanwhile, Congress seems to be getting more and more theatrical, with hearings, speeches, and posturing taking the place of actual legislation.
So before someone beats me to the punch, I thought I’d better jump in and stake out my own territory here.