Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Problem with Pundits

Comedy, satire and punditry all require a common denominator that is usually overlooked: the willingness to look stupid.


When Tim Allen was at the Actors’ Studio, he was asked by a student the basic secret to being funny. That, of course, is a loaded question that can take years to answer by experts. Allen said (and I’m paraphrasing): ‘You have to commit. You have to be willing to commit and go all the way. Even if your joke tanks, even if you don’t get a laugh, even if you look stupid, you have to go all the way with it.’

That’s great advice. And if you take the time to imagine the comedians you like best and the moments of comedy you like best, you’ll see that in almost all those moments the comedian went with his joke/bit all the way. You’ll see that the joke didn’t have to succeed and that if it didn’t, the comedian would probably have looked very stupid. In fact, most comedy that does succeed comes first of all at the expense of the comedian. Comedy, by its nature, punctures bloated egos. It punctures stupidity, it punctures the unwillingness to bend (in behavior or logic or opinion). And if you have a bloated ego or an inability to look stupid or an unwillingness to bend, you can’t make comedy.

In puncturing other people’s egos you have to first of all be able to puncture your own. If you want to get people to laugh at their own stupidity, you have to be able to laugh at your own first.

Which brings us to satire.


In a talk a show a couple of weeks ago there was an interview with a playwright who’s famous where I live (which means you’ve probably never heard of him). He has a new satire out and he came to talk about it.

When he was asked about his last satire and about the fact that what he had said there had turned out to be not true, rather than admit it, he began to shift around in his seat and talk his way out of it, explaining, in a very roundabout way, why he wasn’t wrong even though the facts no longer back him up.

Now, satire asks of the audience something that’s very hard to do. Satire asks us to change our minds, to admit we’re wrong, to open our minds to new thoughts and new ideas. If you can’t change your mind, admit you’re wrong, and open your mind to new thoughts and new, how can you have the gall to ask that of your audience? How good can your satire be if you have an inability to open your mind?

Which brings us to punditry.


Punditry is like satire in this respect: the pundits are asking people to change their minds, to consider a new idea or a new concept or a new opinion.

Too many pundits in all forms of the media are unable to admit mistakes. Not only are they not asked about their previous erroneous statements by their interviewers, they do not usually admit to such things on their own. Not all pundits are like this – and the best certainly aren’t – but certainly too many. (One good example jumps immediately to mind: Jeff Greenfield is a very smart ‘analyst’ who has no problem saying he was wrong or that he’d changed his mind. That’s one of the reasons he’s become hot property.)

When it’s your job to be right, it’s hard to say “I was wrong”. When it’s your job to be right, it all becomes about your ego and you feel you must maintain your status and the opinion of others. But it isn’t your job to be right, it’s your job to be intelligent.

Changing your mind isn’t evidence of flip-flopping (an accusation politicians are victims of); changing your mind is, at times, an ability to adapt to new information and new circumstances, an ability we usually refer to as ‘intelligence’.

But let’s change “I was wrong” to “Oh, that’s right”. The two statements mean the same thing, after all. If it’s your job to get the audience to say “Oh, that’s right”, you should be able to go through that process yourself. Lead by example. It’s not about your opinion, it’s about having the ability to think. And “Oh, that’s right” symbolizes that pretty well.

So here’s a proposition to pundits out there: Start saying, “Oh, that’s right.” People’s opinions of you will go up.

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