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MIA: A Homeland Department of Satire

by Gary Gordon
Sept. 22, 2002

"You say you want a Resolution
Well you know, we all want to change the world
You tell me to ignore the Constitution
Well you know, we’re not sure if we like that plan
’Cause when you talk about unilateral anticipatory defensive strikes
Don't you know that you can count me out?"

"Nixon is the kind of guy who, if you were drowning thirty feet away,
would throw you a twenty-foot rope, then Kissinger would step
forward and say ‘the President has met you more than half-way.'"
    --Mort Sahl, circa 1974

There is an old proverb that ought to go like this: When living in a time of war fever, it is healthy to think unconventionally.

Thinking unconventionally requires visiting the satirists.

So I did.

Last week writer and actor Larry Hankin held a Larry Hankin film & video festival on the patio at Warzsawa, a restaurant in Santa Monica. And a lot of it was very, very funny. Laugh out loud funny. A tasty antidote to the shroud of war talk blanketing our nation.

Hankin is probably best known for playing Mr. Heckles on four or five episodes of “Friends”, and for playing the fake Kramer on “Seinfeld.”

But for several of us he is more than that: he is known as a member of the San Francisco-based improv group The Committee and as a practitioner and representative of a time when satire was smart.

Fans of the history of 20th Century American satire know the broad strokes of the litany: Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce to Jules Feiffer and the Compass Players to Nichols & May and Mad Magazine to Second City to The Committee to Firesign Theatre to The National Lampoon to Second City-Toronto to Saturday Night Live and SCTV.

Alan Myerson, who founded The Committee, circa 1961, was at Larry’s show. So were Howard Hesseman and Peter Bonerz, who were part of the heyday of The Committee before their television careers on “Bob Newhart” and “WKRP”.

In her book The Second City (Perigee Books, 1987), Donna McCrohan makes clear what satire is and isn’t:

“...true satire is more far-reaching than simple ridicule or humor. If a teacher has a mole and a strange nose and someone draws these in an exaggerated manner, the caricature may qualify as parody but it’s not satire. It’s only satire if it targets a defect that’s hurting someone else. Satire ridicules to expose, with the idea that awareness is a step toward remedy.”

To paraphrase Robin Williams: Remedy, what a concept.

Dwelling as we are, surrounded by war drums, with everyone declaring God is on their side, it seems necessary to paraphrase Bob Dole in his ill-fated presidential campaign in 1996, “Where is the satire?”

Second City used to have a club, The Upfront Comedy Café, on the Promenade. One night Richard Libertini did a sketch in which he met secretly with another man and they reminisced in hushed tones about the days when “satire was legal.”

The Hankin film festival, with the presence of these luminaries of improv, spurred lots of discussion with my friends Penny and Ron. Kind of like the discussion rock fans have when they trace the interconnectedness of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Stephen Stills, The Band, Dylan, The Byrds… Kind of like the discussion sports fans have when they discuss in detail who played for what team and was traded for whom, along with all the stats.

(The connection between Stills and The Band is, of course, Kevin Bacon.)

Since I have numerous comedy albums, having produced and hosted a weekly comedy radio show in Florida years ago, we decided to have a listening party to hear some Second City and Committee, thinking a satire fix might help us to either escape the current headlines, or gain perspective. And laughing was a good idea, too.

Working chronologically, I selected cuts from several albums. An early Mort Sahl cut featured his story of the time he was called back into the Reserves during the Berlin Crisis, and given a list of reasons why he should fight the enemy, only to watch in dismay as Nixon and Eisenhower soften their approach toward the Soviets. “Eisenhower invited Khruschev to visit and when he came, nobody shot at him.” His conclusion: “If you maintain a consistent political positions long enough you’ll be tried for treason.”

The Lenny Bruce cut was about Christ and Moses returning to Earth and showing up at the ornate St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York where Cardinal Spellman is presiding. As Christ notes the hypocrisy in all the wealth “after having walked through [impoverished] Spanish Harlem”, and lepers begin arriving to be cured, Spellman calls The Pope, tells him who’s there and demands to know “What’re we paying protection for?”

An early Second City cut (circa 1960) has Arkin as a beatnik guitarist at the Chicago Museum of Art urging a very uptight and repressed college student (Barbara Harris) to respond to the art emotionally, not sociologically, as she’s been taught. She tries, talking about the physical objects in a sculpture and Arkin interrupts “don’t make no lists. We’re against that.” Near the end of the bit she finally breaks down, gets in touch with her emotions, and shouts “I hate my Aunt!”, at which point Arkin volunteers to come home with her and help her “with some other things.”

Larry was in one of the early Committee bits, an album of their Broadway show, circa 1963. Also centering on sex before the sexual revolution, Larry plays a college student trying to bed his girlfriend. When she says no, he says okay. She is obviously upset that he’s so understanding and demands to know “don’t you want to know why?” He speaks eloquently about not wanting to know why, she says okay, and then he says, “all I want to know is why?”

Burns and Schrieber satirize right-wing fundamentalist radio preachers (the Reverend Holy Moly asked those who want to be saved “Have you been washed in the blood of a lamb?” and warns people that “giant communist frogs are eating people in Florida.”), and David Steinberg (another Second City alum) does his sermons about Jezebel, Lot, and Moses. (Moses asks the Burning Bush, “who are you”. The reply: “I am that I am.” Moses says, “Thanks for clearing that up.”) Steinberg’s routines are among those that got the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour kicked off CBS-TV in 1969.

The last Committee album, circa 1972, also features Larry, with Hesseman and Del Close. It is a brutally funny routine about drugs in which the addicts are so hard up they try to use a plastic spoon to cook the stuff.

Another cut on the album, that we didn’t listen to, is The Wide World of War, which features Hesseman doing the play by play as if the Vietnam War was a sporting event.

The last cut we listened to was the Firesign Theatre’s “Temporarily Humboldt County”, which is a free association version of how the west was settled at the expense of the Native Americans. At the end a politician declares the opening of the “Fort Stinking Desert National Indian Monument and Cobalt Testing Range.”

I suppose we didn’t listen to “Wide World of War” because we wanted to get away from all the war talk. Not easy to do these days. And even though Ronald Brownstein writes in the L.A. Times that Vietnam is no longer part of the discussion, a lot of this has a very real sense of horrible déjà vu. Actually, to submit that Vietnam is not part of the discussion is to acknowledge that it is tacitly part of the discussion.

Talk of “anticipatory self-defense” is not wholly different from “protective reaction strikes.”

And talk of a Resolution brings to mind the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, based on false reports of an unprovoked North Vietnamese naval attack, giving the President Johnson a virtual free hand to wage war “by any means necessary.”

Now Constitutional scholars point out President Bush must not merely go to Congress and consult about making war, as he finally deigned to do, he must ask for their declaration of war because only Congress has the power to declare war.

Johnson got it from a unanimous House and a 98-2 vote in the Senate.

There was much less war fever then than there is now, and much more satire. Hmm, a relationship between...?

It occurs to me that if only the decision to make war was put through the same rigorous, time-consuming process before the Santa Monica Planning Commission, the City Council, and the Architectural Review Board as was developer Howard Jacobs’ “Boulangerie” project, fever would be wiped from the froth on the lips of the war-talkers and we could, perhaps, reason together.

(One of the local citizens opposed to the 4-story mixed-use project actually compared it to the tragedy and devastation of the Vietnam War, which proves my friend John’s point that sometimes you can’t satirize something because it’s already too extreme and funny.)

But satire does help to understand alternative points of view, and even dated satire can remind you that, in the words of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Bacon, “we have all been here before.”

McCrohan quotes from an early Second City routine, circa 1961, which seems as if it could’ve been written yesterday. Bowen (perhaps best known as the Colonel in the movie “M.A.S.H.”), plays President John Kennedy at a press conference:
     Question: “Mr. President, do you favor the use of poison gas and germ warfare?”
     Answer: “Yes and anything else that will help us avert the horrors of nuclear war.”
     Question: “Mr. President, don’t you believe in disarmament?”
     Answer: “Of course I do, but you have to remember that if we give up our armaments, some other means must be found to fight our future wars.”

These days the most visible, active political satirist is Jon Stewart, although Bill Bennett runs a close second. My vote is for Stewart to head the new Homeland Dept. of Satire. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, satire in defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in pursuit of satire is no virtue.



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