Monday, June 4, 2018
Tags: Audio, Disney, Humor, Roseanne, Samantha Bee
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, June 4, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
As morality, politics, and pop culture collide, Disney tries to win on both sides of the political street
Last week there were two major skirmishes as we think about America's controversies related to pop culture. Earlier in the week it had to do with comedian Roseanne Barr. At the end of the week, it had to do with yet another comedian, Samantha Bee. In both cases, morality and politics collided and this where Christians need to look very closely, applying the lens of a Christian worldview.
First of all, we have to understand the importance of popular culture. Culture's a product of entertainment, and language, and symbolism, and economics, and politics, philosophical and moral debates, neighborly relationships. It is the entire nexus of relationships, symbols, language, and meaning that makes a culture a culture. And in today's context, popular culture is a ubiquitous culture. It is the cultural language, it is the common symbolism. It provides, in so far as a common narrative currently exists, the common narratives that Americans know.
Now, as we are looking to popular culture, we have to recognize that entertainment and cultural products always carry a message and they are always carried along by basic fundamental worldview assumptions. So, as we're looking at popular culture, we're never looking merely at entertainment. A television show is never merely a television show. A song is never merely a song. A joke, as we shall see, is never merely a joke.
Last week we looked at the contribution of sociologist James Davison Hunter at the University of Virginia, looking at how culture works. It was Hunter, you may remember, who had argued that cultural conservatives in the United States have turned increasingly to politics because electoral politics turns out to be just about the only major mechanism of the entire society that is not in the hands of cultural liberals. And when you are looking at entertainment and popular culture, well there, the grasp of cultural liberals upon the mechanisms of production and meaning, that grasp, that grip, is almost absolute. And that's why you look at the skirmishes last week and understand that something bigger than first appears is going on here.
First of all, you had a racist tweet by comedian Roseanne Barr. You had Roseanne Barr, who had just completed one season, and had been signed up by ABC for a second season of a television program that bore her name. By the way, one interesting footnote to all of this, is the fact that television analysts, looking at the disaster that fell to ABC, in the controversy about Roseann Barr, well those analysts are noting that already, there had been a trajectory toward fewer and fewer programs on television bearing the name of a leading star. Why? Because in today's context, that's an awful lot, to ride on one person's reputation. Given how many reputations have collapsed and fallen in Hollywood, and in the entertainment and media industry, just over the last several months.
So the argument from the analysts is, that even though this show, named for Roseanne Barr, was simply called Roseanne, it's very unlikely there are going to be many other programs that bear a star's name in that way. And you compare that to where television was a generation ago. Or, perhaps, now you'd have to say two generations. The Andy Griffith Show, the Dick Van Dyke Show, the Ed Sullivan Show. Most of those programs were based around a single personality, or at least a single name, that was the keystone and value equity of that brand. But now, we're looking at a very different world. Entertainment companies are going to be much more reluctant to invest that much equity in a single name. Or at least, that's what we're being told, now. And apparently, for good reason.
But you go back to the controversy about Roseann Barr, she had issued a series of tweets. One in particular, openly identified as racist. This led ABC to cancel her contract. And, indeed, to cancel the program, just days after it had presented the program as a multi-million dollar advertising opportunity for the advertising and media community. ABC had put so much into this program, that Roseanne Barr appeared on the stage at a major media event for advertisers, even before the executives of ABC.
But as we're thinking in worldview analysis, even before we get to the controversy that came later in the week, I want to look at a major article that appeared in the Washington Post last Thursday. The headline of the article? Politics is Getting in Way of Disney's Desire to Have it All. It turns out that the common corporate denominator behind so much of the controversy of late, is the Disney Corporation. And the point of this headline story, by Steven Zeitchik, of the Washing Post, is that Disney has found itself repeatedly in political controversy. Even as a company, it has been known primarily for a steadfast effort to avoid that kind of controversy.
But the Washington Post article is even more interesting, because what it really tells us, is not so much that Disney, of late, has been trying to avoid controversy, as that Disney has been trying to win on both sides of the political street. Zeitchik began his article by writing, "Almost no entertainment conglomerate aims for as wide a swath of the viewing public as the Walt Disney Company, which seeks to, in the words of the company, "Deliver stories, characters, and experiences that are welcomed into the hearts and homes of millions of families around the world.""
But as Zeitchik says, "Those homes have seen a lot of slammed doors, lately." He continued in the article, "ABC's abrupt cancellation of Roseanne, after a racist tweet from star Roseanne Barr, sent many conservative voices into a frenzy about the politics of ABC and parent company Disney. It is," Said the Post, "The latest instance in which the entertainment giant has come under fire from a wing of the American electorate. Whether it's over Jimmy Kimmel, ESPN, or an episode of Blackish."
Then, the reporter writes, "A company that has sought to position itself as a repository for all American brands of Star Wars and Dancing With the Stars, of basketball legends, and Marvel superheroes, finds itself grappling with the realities of being a conglomerate this large, in a time this divisive." One of the most interesting comments in the article came from Carmenita Higginbotham, she's a professor at the University of Virginia. She's also, according to the Post, one of the nation's leading scholars of the Walt Disney company.
She said, "We hear Disney, and we think kids movies, and things that everyone just kind of loves. And the company likes," She says, "Riding the middle. Because that's where the money is." But then, Higginbotham went on to say, "But now, they're taking all these public hits. They're going from the middle, to riding the edges. And it's just startling to watch." Now that's the really incisive statement. Here, you have the Disney Company, which in its stated publicity materials, tries to present itself as the repository of cherished stories. Non-controversial stories that are welcomed into American homes. But, as the Washington Post points out, if you're going to move from the middle to the edges, then you're going to find a lot of the doors to those homes slammed in your face.
That's because we're living in a time of such dramatic political polarization. And it's not only political polarization, we recognize that underneath that level is a polarization of worldview. A very deep polarization on the deepest moral questions facing our nation and society. Disney, and for that matter, any other corporation that tries to move on both sides of that street is going to offend both sides of that street. If it works only one side of the street, then it's going to offend half of the American public. It's going to offend a good deal of its own market. And that's exactly what the Washington Post has noted has happened of Disney.
Professor Higginbotham of the University of Virginia summarized Disney's quandary this way, "Disney has demonstrated that they're skilled at navigating damage control. The problem is that there's so much damage to control." By its investment in the television program Roseanne, starring Roseanne Barr, and a cast of others, on its ABC division, Disney had tried to present some kind of a program that would appeal to a more conservative audience. Or at least, might even appeal to a more liberal audience interested in laughing at, if not with, conservatives. But then, on the other hand, through ESPN and other divisions of entertainment and culture, Disney has played, as we have said, the other side of the street, and courted controversy that has offended millions of conservatives in the United States.
The front page of last Thursday's edition of USA Today featured a story by Marco della Cava and Jessica Guynn entitled Culture Wars: Hit Where it Hurts. And the article on the front page of USA Today, went on to note, as a news story, just how quickly ABC and Disney responded to the controversy over the tweet by Roseanne Barr. Jay Tucker, executive director at the Center for Media, Entertainment, and Sports at UCLA said, "You're looking at a very 21st century challenge." The reporters had described that challenge in these words, as they told of "a fraught, new corporate era in which companies had been pushed to the front lines of the nation's contentious cultural debates. In this battleground," said the reporters, "Swift responses are often seen as the only way to contain a social media firestorm."
William Klepper, who teaches business at the Columbia Business School, said that corporations are having to make, what USA Today called, quick calls to avoid damage in a social media age, in which angry tweets and Facebook posts go viral. Professor Klepper said, "People have been around this circuit too many times. Now, it's an issue of, state your values, state what you stand for, hold to your code of ethics. But if you delay, try to explain away, or worse, yet, you try to defend, it's a lose/lose today."
What the lack of response to Samantha Bee’s comments tells us about the left’s control of the entertainment industry
But I mentioned intentionally that both of those headline stories, one in the Washington Post, and the other in USA Today, had appeared in last Thursday's print editions of those two newspapers. That means that the stories had moved on the online editions hours before. The print edition comes later. And what makes that important is, that the later, in this case, means that on the very same day those print articles appeared, the second big controversy of last week appeared. And this concerned, not Roseanne Barr, but Samantha Bee. And by late on Thursday, Samantha Bee had apologized to President Trump, and his daughter, Ivanka Trump.
As John Koblin, of the New York Times, reported, "Samantha Bee apologized on Thursday for having used a vulgar epithet to describe Ivanka Trump on her TBS show, saying she had crossed a line. TBS also issued an apology, but took no disciplinary action against the late night host." The article by Koblin goes on to unfold, and what's most interesting, and I think most significant, from a worldview perspective, is that there was a very different response from TBS to Samantha Bee than there was by ABC to Roseanne Barr. Roseanne Barr's tweet was absolutely racist. There was no question. But Samantha Bee's joke was absolutely vulgar. So far over a line, that I cannot even describe it on The Briefing.
Koblin went on to make clear that the offending joke, and it is extremely offensive, was offered by Samantha Bee on the Wednesday edition of her late-night television program on TBS. Koblin then went on to state the obvious, "The different consequences for the two politically-minded entertainers," speaking of Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee, "Provided conservatives with a fresh opportunity to accuse the media industry of having a liberal bias." Now that's an understatement of understatements. You're talking about a joke that was so vulgar, it is hard to imagine that anyone in public life could survive having made it about anyone. But it is especially noteworthy that, in this case, you have a liberal female comedian who offered the joke about a female political figure, the daughter of the president of the United States. But also, someone who is a part of the official government.
But then, you think about some of the heightened moral and political controversies of recent days, and you wonder how anyone could get away with this. And, indeed, the White House spokesperson, Sarah Sanders, said, "The collective silence by the left, and its media allies, is appalling." Speaking of Samantha Bee, Sanders said, "Her disgusting comments and show are not fit for broadcast. And executives at Time Warner and TBS must demonstrate that such explicit profanity about female members of this administration will not be condoned on its network."
The news story that appeared on Thursday did include an apology from Samantha Bee. She said, "I would like to sincerely apologize to Ivanka Trump, and to my viewers, for using an expletive on my show to describe her last night." TBS also offered an apology, saying that the apology by Samantha Bee was the right course of action. TBS went on, also, to say that the language was vile and inappropriate. "Those words should not have been aired. It was our mistake, too, and we regret it." Some advertisers have announced they are, at least temporarily, canceling advertising on Samantha Bee's program. But the important thing to note, here, is that ABC fired Roseanne Barr, but TBS did not take any disciplinary action against Samantha Bee.
Ari Fleischer, who was White House Press Secretary under President George W. Bush tweeted, "There's no uprising against Bee. Why? Because she is liberal." It's also interesting that the very next words in the article were these, "While liberals largely supported Miss Bee." Now, the while liberals largely supported her is what's important. But the article went on in that paragraph to say that Chelsea Clinton, for example, had criticized her. The important part there is that the introductory words were, "While liberals largely supported Samantha Bee."
In his column that appeared in yesterday's edition of the New York Times, Ross Douthat noted that the big issue here is not the shock of this kind of joke. Because honestly, it's becoming harder to shock the American people, that's another point we're going to consider in a moment. The bigger issue is, that it's not the isolated controversy that demonstrates the power of the progressive wing's control of the entertainment industry. It's what's considered normal, and mainstream, and non-controversial that is far more effective in carrying the message of a liberal, moral, and sexual revolution.
The redefinition of comedy: Why a society that will laugh at everything doesn’t really understand anything
But I think there's a missing element to the analysis that is being offered about both of these controversies from last week, and about the larger cultural context that we're trying to understand and analyze. I think it has to do with the singular role the comedy now plays in our society. And the re-definition of comedy within our own lifetimes. This is noted in a recent book. It appeared just a few days ago, by Ken Jennings. It's entitled Planet Funny: How Comedy Took Over our Culture. The important thing here, of course, is that this book, its manuscript, was finished months and months before these latest controversies.
But nonetheless, the argument by Ken Jennings is that our entire society has become so focused upon comedy, that it has led to a gross distortion of the entire social field. He asked, whether in one sense, we must have achieved some time in the past, what he calls peak funny. That's a parallel, of course, to the economic category of peak oil. But he notices that today's jokes, "Aren't just ubiquitous, they're also a new breed. Faster, weirder, more complex, more self-aware than ever before. How did we get here," he asks, "How is the new sensibility changing our laughterhood."
Jennings offers a relatively short history of comedy. But it is interesting, and largely accurate. He points out that the ancients considered scorn the very essence of humor. That's one of the reasons why the ancients were quite concerned about humor. Plato, Aristotle, other Greeks, they were very concerned that humor would be morally distorting. They were generally not in favor of it. Jennings deals with some of the analyses of humor, that is, why something strikes us as funny. Whether it's silliness, or absurdity, or irony, or what's identified as incongruity theory. That is, something happens we're not expecting to happen. Irony, something gets to a place in a way we are not sure others will notice as well.
But of course, there are other varieties of humor. Including, scorn and sarcasm, and incredulity. But one interesting part of this analysis is that comedy is taking over more and more of the society. Sector by sector, as Jennings writes, "Funny is like a virus. Once it adapts to a new vector, or colonizes a new host, or spreads to a new population, it's almost impossible to eradicate." One way to see this is in advertising products. If you go a generation back, most of the advertising is deadly serious. Very little of it is funny. Some of it might be cute. A singing kid, or some kind of attractive pet. But in thinking about comedy, and laugh lines, that was generally considered to be too risky for advertisers.
But not anymore. According to one analysis from inside the industry, in 2013, over half, 52% of all advertising, was either, "Funny or light-hearted in nature." Last year, in 2017, this kind of advertising even spread to Old Spice, one of the most venerable brand names in men's products in America. And according to Jennings, the CEO of Procter & Gamble told everyone, "That Old Spice is now an entertainment brand, it's not a deodorant brand." The book, by the way, includes some really interesting dimensions to this development.
Including the fact that in 1998, Geico went forward with a television advertisement. But during the Screen Actors Guild strike, they were unable to use a human actor, so they came up with an animated gecko. The rest is history. They invented a cockney lizard, it became an unexpected hit, and as Jennings said, "Over the next decade, as Geico's market share tripled, insurance advertising changed. The sedate testimonials of years past were replaced with an endlessly wacky parade of ducks, cavemen, nutty professors, humming quarterbacks, and peppy salespeople."
Jennings makes a passing reference to some of the early church fathers, who also weren't big on humor, considering it to be an opportunity for sin. But as we're thinking about the controversies of last week, and in particular, the controversy about Samantha Bee and her obscene comment, one of the most interesting aspects of the development of comedy is that the boundaries have been continually pushed. And in many of the ways that they have been pushed, it's language that's been doing the pushing. Moral limits to language have virtually fallen one after another.
One interesting footnote in this is that Jerry Seinfeld had used profanity and obscenity for laugh lines early in his career. But about the year 1980, and note, that's almost 40 years ago. About 1980, Seinfeld became concerned that in his stand-up routine, he had become too dependent upon laugh lines from profanity. So he stopped it. Seinfeld summarized that he did not want to use profanity in order to get laughter for bad, flat jokes.
But another aspect of what's going on here is that, as a society has turned itself over more and more to humor, and largely, at the expense of other cultural issues of important, it is also true that everything becomes repetition. Stephen Merchant said, "Everything's been done. You're just doing variations on a theme. We've seen it all." We have seen late-night television entertainment which had been, in previous generations, understood as something of an escape valve. An opportunity to get away from serious issues. We have seen it turned into some of the most searing and scathing political invective found anywhere in our society. And often in the name of humor. But again, scatological, searing, scathing humor.
And as we have seen Merchant's comment, that everything has been done before, everything is now just a variation on a theme. If you want to get attention, if you are a comedian of the left on late-night television trying to get attention, there are few avenues to get that attention. Samantha Bee found one of them last week. By using language that has never been used on television in such a political context, ever before.
But I want to go back to that New York Times article that noted that the cultural left has been overwhelmingly supportive of Samantha Bee. The very same people who called for the firing of Roseanne Barr. I don't believe it was wrong to call for the firing of Roseanne Barr. I think it is very wrong not to call for the firing of Samantha Bee. Koblin said that the controversy about Samantha Bee, "Provided conservatives with the fresh opportunity to accuse the media industry of having a liberal bias." Well of course it did. And of course, that liberal bias is real. And nothing demonstrates it more clearly than the fact that no disciplinary action was taken against Samantha Bee at all.
But our responsibility is to understand what's going on in the culture around us, even when we don't control it. That's a part of what's important for the analysis that was just concluded. But before finishing The Briefing today, I want to come back to understand more of a biblical worldview as we think about humor. As we think about something striking us as funny. As we think about comedy. It is not true that the bible is opposed to laughter. It certainly is not true that the bible's opposed to joy. The bible, for that matter, is not even opposed to humor. Several of the illustrations found in the Old Testament, some of the parables of Jesus, are very much infused with humor. You can sense the humor, you can hear the humor. As you read the text, you can see the humor.
Incongruity and displacement, a certain amount of satire, and even sarcasm, is found within the text of scripture. But it is not a sarcasm or a satire that tempts the reader of the hearer of scripture to sin. A world filled with sinful human beings is filled with incongruity and displacement, and it is certainly filled with no shortage of irony. We laugh at our children, we laugh at our neighbors. We laugh, if we're honest, at ourselves. The bible warns against course jesting, but it doesn't tell us that we're never meant to laugh. And furthermore, even as Christians would understand the importance of, even what some comedians now recognize as an ethics of humor, not punching down the vulnerable, but rather, more self-deprecating humor. We come to understand there's something very healthy in that.
But despite Ken Jennings' rather brief dismissal of the church fathers, they were really on to something. As thoughtful Christians have been throughout the centuries of the Christian experience, understanding that humor is also a temptation. It is, you might say, a vulnerability. It is a weakness. Because we also note that, at times, we laugh when we know we shouldn't. In that sense, Christians do understand humor as a gift, perhaps something of an inevitable gift, in a sinful world. But we also understand, just looking at the controversies of last week, that humor and comedy can become also an opportunity for revealing human nature and human behavior at its worst.
Finally, we also note, even as we were warned of the fact that humor and laughter, like a virus, is taking over so much of the society, sector by sector. We notice that there are some issues that are just too serious to be taken as funny. A society that will laugh at everything doesn't understand anything.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.