And here’s Part Two of our interview with singer/songwriter Roy Zimmerman. Last week in Part One we talked with Roy primarily about his more comical satirical songs. This week, in the final part, the conversation takes a turn as Roy talks about how he writes a song with heavier political content–maybe songs that can change some minds.
Click on the triangle or mp3 link above to hear Part Two of my interview with Roy as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI FM NYC and Pacifica affiliates across the nation.
Roy Zimmerman has been described as “Lenny Bruce meets Stephen Sondheim meets Phil Ochs in Brian Wilson’s living room.” He’s a master of satirical political songwriting, the lyrical heir to Tom Lehrer, as well as a damned fine musician. I’ve been listening and laughing at his sharp wit for years, and I was very happy to do an extended interview with him.
Click on the triangle or mp3 link above to hear Part One of my interview with Roy as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI FM NYC and Pacifica affiliates across the nation.
The delightful Mary Murphy as interviewer Merri Boast grills The Devil, played by me, in our original “Sympathy For The Devil” radio satire, broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program over WBAI 99.5FM, WBAI.org ,and Pacifica affiliates across the nation.
Click on the triangle or the mp3 file link above to listen.
Merri: “The Good die young, But evil is forever.” –John Donne. Hello this is Stale Air, and I’m Merri Boast. Today I’m interviewing our special guest, in this time of coronavirus, an expert in all things diseased and evil, The Devil. Welcome to Stale Air.
Devil: Hi, thank you Merri. Love listening to your show. Big fan of the station. Learned the name of so many different kinds of cheeses from it. And I just never get tired of those Car Talk reruns.
M: Thank you, but before we begin, how are you doing? Is the shelter in place affecting you?
D: Oh, thanks for asking, Merri. It’s tough being confined to the nether realms, 24/7, but I think we’re making do. Can’t complain. Keeping warm. Super busy. I’m very proud of this coronavirus project we’ve been working on. If you don’t mind me tooting my own horn, I think it’s one of the best things we’ve come up with in a long time. People understand now that the world is no longer in a state of limbo, but actually it’s Permanent Hell. And down here we’re pleased as punch to parade our brand–so to speak–parade our brand in front of the population as much as we can. And Oh and speaking of Hell—I want to thank Jeff Bezos , a real buddy, at Amazon for continuing to crack the whip.
M: Good to hear that you are doing well. I’m—I’m not quite sure how to address you. Is Prince of Darkness or Mephistopheles all right?
D: Well, we don’t like to use those names anymore, Merri. They’re kind of stuffy and old-school, and frankly just a wee bit pejorative. Prince of Darkness, really? To tell you the truth, Merri, I prefer Beel-ze-bub. Or for short, just plain Bill is fine. That’s a good Christian name…if you’ll pardon the expression.
M: Bill it is, then. Bill , we all recognize that this has been an unprecedented time—
D: –Thank you–
M: and most of us are wondering if the rest of us are going to make it through this coronavirus epidemic. Do you have any insight into this?
D: Well that’s a great question, Merri. It’s not as simple as it might first appear. Now some may say, what’s the problem, just spread the virus and kill as many people as you can. Clear win for our side. But actually I feel that’s short-sighted. It’s totally forgetting one of the tenets of our side, which is to maximize the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for the greatest length of time. I’ve brought along a little graph here, cooked up by our art department—thank you Jared and Ivanka—and you’d see on the graph, if my ZOOM connection were better, how the line spikes upwardly very quickly over just a few days. Seems like a clear touchdown, but really, just about anyone can do that. I mean, any of your minor demons could probably have accomplished that. It’s not rocket science. We felt though, that we wanted to go the extra mile to extend the weeping and wailing and particularly the gnashing of teeth as much as possible. And that’s where really we needed to call in our staff, our entire team.
M: So you don’t work alone?
D: Oh, good Lord, no. There’s just too much to be done. I’m basically a hands on guy, and while I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty, I can’t do it all alone. I can’t be everywhere at once. I’m not a miracle worker. It takes a village.
M: I’m wondering, where do you find your staff? Aren’t people horrified when you call on them?
D: Oh no, not at all. We offer a very nice benefits package, 12 vacation days a year, 401K. Cafeteria with a hot foods buffet. Healthcare plan if you choose to buy into it. So we’re very competitive with most non-European enterprises. It’s true, though, that there have been some periods in history, I’ll admit, where it was hard to find people willing to come over to the Dark Side. It was touch and go there for a while during the Garden of Eden thing—and I want to give a shout out to The Snake: Thank you Snake, never gets old. Big Hugs. Now the 60s were tough, finding assistants to insert ourselves into the whole peace, love and anti-war movement was challenging, but we managed, and of course the whole post 9/11 era. Actually, I have to give you guys credit. We borrowed the embedded propaganda approach from you. So well done. And the mass illegal warrantless wiretaps?—really a stroke of genius on the part of your government. We couldn’t have come up with that one ourselves. It’s great to see stuff like that crowd-sourced.
M: This is Merri Boast for Stale Air and I’m talking with Beel-Zee-Bub, Master of Chaos. We’re discussing his plans to cause the maximum of pain and suffering for the greatest length of time. Bill, I was wondering if there was anything in your childhood that might have influenced your present life’s work? Were you an odd child?
D: Ha. Well Merri, that’s funny you should ask that. I was talking with some friends about that the other day, and they were making fun of me because as a child, believe it or not, I didn’t lie. I mean I just could not lie. Every time I thought about lying, I would just get this funny feeling in the pit of my stomach and I would just clam up.
M: Well you certainly seemed to have gotten over that.
D: Thanks, Merri. I say immodestly perhaps, we feel we’ve come a long way. Interning for Mark Zuckerberg did wonders for us. And I want to acknowledge, too, the great work you folks at your station have been doing. We’re just so darn proud of the lies your station has spread. The whole lead up to the Iraq war, the consistent demonizing of the Venezuelan socialists, and the ongoing excuses for the worst depredations of capitalism, all coated with a veneer of hip humanity, really brings joy to my heart. It makes me feel appreciated, and like our work has not been in vain. So kudos to you.
M: Thank you. I’d like, if you don’t mind, to get back to this coronavirus situation. You spoke about maximizing the pain and suffering. Could you tell us a little more about that?
D: Sure. Our team felt that we didn’t want it over in a day or two. So we tossed around the fireball a bit to brainstorm how we could draw this thing out. And I don’t remember who it was, but one of the team members—might have been Mnuchin or Miller, I forget right now—suggested that we have an out. In other words, don’t let people die right away, but hold out the possibility of some hope to extend the timeline.
M: And that’s where you got the idea of social distancing.
D: Exactly, Merri. It is a genius plan, but you see there’s the danger you can go too much the other way, too.
M: Meaning what exactly?
D: Well, meaning our plan to offer up hope might work out too well. What if social distancing actually worked and the virus was completely wiped out?
M: That wouldn’t fit into your plans would it?
D: It certainly wouldn’t, Merri. So we had to figure out a way to provide mitigating circumstances and yet make sure they were not too mitigating.
M: And that’s where the President came in.
D: Yes thank God for him. He really did such yeoman work in sending out mixed messages as to whether social distancing really worked. He made sure that some of the population would quarantine and some wouldn’t. Really perfect to extend things. Oh, and the masks! I don’t mind telling you I LOL’d when I heard him say that he personally would not be wearing a mask. Genius. Keep the people in a state of total confusion as to what works and what doesn’t, and this thing can extend out to the Second Coming.
M: The Second Coming?
D: Slouching towards Bethlehem, Baby, Slouching towards Bethlehem.
M: Thank you, Bill.
D: Thank you, Merri. I’ll be seeing you real soon, okay?
M: I’ve been speaking with Beel-ze-bub, co creator of the coronavirus, The Macarena, and The Ellen Show. Next week we’ll be talking with Vice President Joe Biden about his no-malarkey recipes for grilled cheese. This is Merry Boast …for Stale Air.
(And in a bit, I’ll have the Arts Express audio production posted.)
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about parody and satire. A poster on one of the magic boards I follow declared that he doesn’t like satire; and he mentioned that Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller magic fame also felt this way. Penn wants a comedian to just “Come out and say it,” comparing Jonathan Swift’sA Modest Proposal unfavorably to George Carlin’s comedy. Penn feels they make similar points but Carlin is more direct. Well, of course historically, unfortunately, people have paid a heavy price to just “Come out and say it” directly. Now, why Penn, a very intelligent man, would gloss over that point is interesting, but I don’t want to get into that in this essay (maybe I’ll expand on this in the comments area). Instead, I want to share some thoughts I’ve been kicking around concerning how parody and satire actually work.
Satire is often conflated with its humorous kin, parody, but I don’t consider them synonymous. I’m not that interested in making a semantic argument, scolding for misuse—use the words as you wish—but I do want to distinguish between two distinct categories of comedy, no matter what one calls them. And so for convenience, I’ll refer to the two categories as parody and satire. Though they are both categories of humorous critique, there are some important differences.
Oddly, it might be easier to understand my definition of satire, if I first begin talking about parody. Both parody and satire embody a subject of humorous critique presented in a given form. In parody, however, the subject of the critique is the form itself. Let me give a few examples here: Mel Brooks is well appreciated for film parodies such as Young Frankenstein. The pleasure we get from watching Young Frankenstein is in how Brooks takes the tropes of the classic horror movies of the 30s and pokes fun at them: there’s the hunchback, the inarticulate monster, the creepy castle, and so on, which all trigger memories of what we loved about those kinds of films. We laugh because these are familiar elements, but in addition, Brooks jokes with the form by unexpectedly breaking with its conventions: the inarticulate monster, out of genre, puts on a top hat and grabs a cane, performs a Broadway soft shoe dance, and so on. The subject, then, of Brooks’s horror movie is the form of horror movies. We see a similar dynamic occurring in other Mel Brooks movies, such as High Anxiety, Spaceballs, and Blazing Saddles. The subject of each of these movies is a critique of their particular forms—the thriller, the sci-fi movie, the western, respectively—the target being the absurd aspects of their forms.
One more parody example: the current wave of literature parodies which somehow manage to shoehorn zombies into them. So, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example, takes the form of a nineteenth-century Jane Austen novel of manners, but subverts the form by importing characters from a completely different kind of genre. The humor is in the discordant clash of forms. Again the subject of the parody in this case is of the form itself. It’s not “about” anything other than the comedies of manners and the tropes of zombie tales.
But satire works differently. While satire takes a form of an already recognized genre, its subject is not solely about the features of that form. The subject of satire is something apart from its form, but talks about the relationship of the subject to the form; and in the best satire, the form indicates how the subject uses elements of that form to gain, consolidate, or maintain power.
To clarify, let’s begin with Penn’s example, Jonathan Swift’s classic satire, A Modest Proposal. The writer proposes that the solution to starvation and poverty among the Irish poor is to let Irish parents sell their children to the rich as a source of food. Now the subject of the piece is clearly the exploitation of the poor by the rich; but the form of that satirical piece is the political statement of a rational man serving the people. Here Swift takes that form and shows how the form of rational political discourse is used to advance monstrous conclusions by proceeding from unjust premises. So the essay is not just a critique of the position of the Irish poor in Swift’s time, but it’s also an illustration of the forms of discourse that had helped to maintain such an unjust power relationship. In other words, in A Modest Proposal, Swift is in effect saying, “This is how rich people think and act. And these are the forms of twisted rationality they use to advance their cruel arguments to make them seem less self-serving.”
Or let’s take another, milder, satirical example, an excerpt from a recent article from the satirical online newspaper, The Onion:
“2020 Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg Announces Bold Plan For 2,500-Mile Intercontinental Riverwalk
SOUTH BEND, IN—Touting the benefits in tourism and business revenue that such a project had already brought to his hometown, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, IN mayor Pete Buttigieg announced Thursday a bold plan for a 2,500-mile intercontinental riverwalk. “At a time when Americans are more divided than ever, what this country needs is a riverwalk that will provide people from all strata of society with continuous strolling, dining, and festival opportunities,” said Buttigieg, gesturing to a watercolor architectural rendering of the Intercontinental Riverwalk that he described as his “core campaign plank,” which would revitalize the country’s heartlands by attracting sorely needed coffee shops, clothing boutiques, and artisanal cocktail bars in riverside locations stretching from coast to coast. […] At press time, the Indiana mayor went on to unveil diplomatic plans to broker a pact between Mexico, Canada, and the United States for a Transnational Farmer’s Market on Saturday afternoons.”
The Onion is not as sharp as it used to be, having to constantly churn out humor online, but this is a nice low-key satirical example. The subject of the satire is Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign bid. The form is the inbred local newspaper or Pennysaver giveaway press release article. The piece is not just making fun of smalltown papers and Buttigieg’s campaign. What it also does is show how Buttigieg’s campaign (the subject of the critique) deliberately uses the tropes of the SmallTown America® press (the form) as branding to push its candidate forward. In an actual Buttigieg press conference or debate, South Bend, Indiana becomes the center of the civilized world; all knowledge, wisdom, and experience flows from there. Plain old front-porch common sense in partnership with local business leaders will solve all the world’s problems. The Onion piece catches the flavor of the campaign perfectly—by utilizing the form that it does.
Analyzing the differences between parody and satire in this way is useful in that it also allows us to see what factors might make for a stronger piece in both categories. Because in parody the object of humor is the form itself, the best parody tends to exaggerate features of the form, like a caricaturist might do with a person’s features in a cartoon. But satire, on the other hand, works much better when the form is left alone; indeed when the form is a pitch-perfect imitation, but filled with the content of the subject of critique. That way, one can see how the subject uses the form to its own advantage.
So, while like Penn, I much admire the direct form of comedy as exemplified by George Carlin’s work, it’s important to understand that parody and satire allow for other kinds of humorous critique and observation to come into play. Parody and satire allow us not only to understand the subject of its critique, but also to understand the power that form, less visible and apparent, holds over us as well.
And here’s yet one more installment of the humorous news commentary that I wrote a few times a week in 2014/15 for a local radio personality. I don’t know that the references (or humor) hold up anymore, but I thought you might enjoy reading some of them, because remember:
Fame is fleeting, but Bad Jokes are on the Internet forever.
A U.S. federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked President Barack Obama’s plan to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Some 26 states, led by Texas, sued the administration to halt the programs, arguing that Obama’s orders violated constitutional limits on his powers.
Comment: Because the President only has the right to secretly bomb the crap out of foreigners, not to give them asylum.
Hoping to better understand the health effects of oil fracking, the state in 2013 ordered oil companies to test the chemical-laden waste water extracted from wells. Data culled from the first year of those tests found significant concentrations of the human carcinogen benzene, in some cases, levels of benzene thousands of times greater than state and federal agencies consider safe.
Comment: I’ll have my Vodka-benzene martini shaken, not stirred.
Among the items discovered by Neil Armstrong’s widow, Carol, while cleaning out their suburban Cincinnati home was a bag containing long-lost Apollo 11 artifacts. Neil never told anyone on earth about the items and no one knew about the existence of the items during the 45 years since he returned from the Moon.
Comment: Armstrong’s widow declared, “Hey, that’s what happened to all my Helen Reddy, Strawberry Alarm Clock, and Peter Lemongello record LPs!”
Five’ll -Get-You-Ten Dept.:
The national debate over so-called ‘education reform’ has come into sharp relief in Philadelphia, where a pro-charter organization has offered the cash-strapped city school district up to $35 million to enroll an additional 15,000 students in new charter schools; but the Philadelphia School District says it would cost as much as $500 million to enroll the new students in new charter schools—about 20 times more than the amount offered by the non-profit.
Comment: It’s the new math: we give you a few dollars with one hand, then take your shirt and pants with the other.
Bacteria that haven’t evolved for more than 2 billion years have been discovered in the ocean floor sediments off Western Australia.
Comment: The bacteria were caught watching Milton Berle re-runs and explaining to their offspring that color TV has not yet been perfected.
Pennsylvania groundhog ‘forecasts’ 6 more weeks of winter
The handlers of Pennsylvania’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, said the furry rodent has forecast six more weeks of winter.
Americans Dismiss Climate Change And Reject Theory Of Evolution In New Survey
A new survey in the U.S. has revealed that huge numbers of Americans reject the theory of evolution and don’t believe that human activity is in any way responsible for climate change.
Comment: They do believe, however, that the weather can be predicted by a groundhog.
Snowden files show that Canada’s electronic spy agency has been intercepting and analyzing data on up to 15 million file downloads daily as part of a global surveillance program.
Comment: In related news, thousands of Canadian intelligence agents reportedly quit, saying they couldn’t stand snooping on one more freakin’ phone conversation about hockey and Celine Dion.
Pope Francis will push for climate change policies, in a year when global warming is shaping up to be a central issue both for the Vatican and Washington. He’ll push United Nations leaders to write an international agreement to reduce emissions and help poorer countries adapt.
Comment: His Holiness will recommend green farming methods such as compost heaps and home-made fertilizers. However, he warned, Catholics may only use the fertilizers the three days a month when there is no danger of conception.
Jonathan Swift’s brilliant satirical proposal regarding the dual problems of poverty and famine still feels fresh and apropos. Here’s a version I performed and produced that was broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC.
I don’t know if this makes any sense to anyone under 60, but I found this SCTV send-up of a small-town Lawrence Welk-type polka music television show hilariously true to form. John Candy and Eugene Levy lead the proceedings.