Saturday, September 6, 2008

New Comedy Podcast: The Voice of God

Hello, everyone.

I'm writing a new daily comedy podcast called The Voice of God.

God is drunk, bitter, angry, and has had it up to here with the whole lot of us. Up. To. Here. And so he's blogging daily, and telling us exactly what he thinks of us.

God is extreme, he's insulting, and he's (hopefully) funny. You can also subscribe to his daily rants through FeedBurner and have his rants downloaded straight to your ipod.

Start with the first one, in which God gives us five reasons why we should kiss his ass. And if you're new, check out how he has it out with a listener, draws a line in the sand, and loses.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Heart of Stone: the Trailer

Hi, everyone. The trailer and the website for the movie I've been working on for the last year are finally up and online.

The website is here: You'll find the trailer, pictures, details about the actors, details about the music, and about why a movie about new emotions is science fiction.

'Heart of Stone' is a low-budget, feature-length, independent Israeli science fiction film in Hebrew.

Ofer Berger, a world-renowned scientist, has a heart of stone. He has no emotions. One day, the floodgates in his mind open. Emotions pull out, wild, strong, uncontrollable, and behind them is something new and different and unknown...

Just for fun, here is the trailer (with subtitles):


Sunday, March 2, 2008

Comedian, Bash Thyself

A while ago, we talked about how to be funny, a comedian must first be able to laugh at himself. To write effective satires, a satirist must be able to admit he’s wrong. That is the difficult task he expects of his audience, he must be able to deliver it himself. To be an effective and honest pundit, a pundit must be able to admit a mistake, to claim he’s changed his mind and to admit someone else might know better. That is, after all, what he expects of us.

Here are a couple of examples, inspired by last week’s events:

The Post-Oscar Jon-Slam

This excerpt is is taken from one from last Wednesday’s The Daily Show. In it Jon Stewart welcomes John Oliver, The Daily Show’s ‘Senior Hollywood Correspondent’, to talk about the Oscars that had taken place two days earlier. Soon the fact that Stewart was the host is mentioned by Oliver.

John Oliver: “And may I say, your performance was terrific.”

Jon Stewart: “Very kind of you. Thank you so much, John, for saying so.”

Oliver: “Absolutely. And far, far superior to the crapfest of two years ago.”

Stewart stares at the camera. Presently, he says, “John, that was me, as well.”

Oliver: “Indeed it was. But this was quite a turnaround for you. And it’s not just me saying so, Jon. That’s the consensus of the millions and millions of people all around the world,” Oliver continues, “who read about it.”

Stewart corrects him: “And saw it.”

“No, just read about it. Nobody saw it.”

Stewart begins to apologize, “Well, obviously, it wasn’t the highest rated Oscar ever...”

“No,” Oliver agrees. “It wasn’t. Unless by highest you mean lowest. It was the lowest. Or the least high. Is that what you meant, Jon? The lowest? Because it was that,” Oliver continues and continues to Stewart’s face. “The lowest rated Oscar. Ever. Of all times.”

“To be perfectly fair, though...”

“It’s almost funny, if you think about it,” Oliver interrupts Stewart. “When you did it before you were horrible and millions and millions of people watched it. Yet when you deliver a good performance, it disappears into the atmosphere to exist only as a brief moment in future Oscar montages.”

“That is somehow ironic.”

“I mean, two years ago,” Oliver continues, “with the whole world as your audience, you delivered a basic cable performance. Yet on Sunday night, with a world-class performance, you delivered a basic cable audience. It must be truly upsetting.”

“Well,” Jon says. “You can’t control an audience.”

You certainly can’t, Jon.” Oliver produces a piece of paper and reads off it, “Adults 18 to 24 down 15%. Women 35 to 54 down 28%. People who know you, aged 18 to 49, down 72%. People who gave birth to you, down 100%.”

And so it goes.

The entire bit, which takes place on Stewart’s show, ends with Jon laughing at the camera and telling the audience “I think we have more fun writing the post-Oscars Jon-slam than we do anything else we do on the show.”

On the Other Side of the Scale...

The fact that Stewart is able to bash himself so powerfully, that he is able to admit (whether it’s true or not) that he is wrong or that he has failed, is a trait that allows him to come with a clean conscience to encounters like the following, from a couple of years ago. Here he tells the two hosts of Crossfire exactly what he thinks they’re doing wrong, to their faces. Note how he does come with a clean conscience because he has this trait, and note how the two hosts react. The high-browed “You don’t don’t do it, either” never fails to convince.

Do you see the connection between being able to admit you’re wrong and Stewart’s behavior? Do you see the connection between not being able to admit you’re wrong and the two hosts’ behavior?

It’s connected, man. To be a comedian, you need to be able to laugh at yourself. To be a satirist you need to be able to change your mind. To be a pundit you have to be able to admit you’re wrong.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why Are Comedians Quick?

Why do comedians seem to be so much quicker in their thinking than us normal people? How is it that they think so quickly? How is it that they respond quickly? Do they really think faster than we do? Is it a requirement?


The most extreme example of seemingly superhuman speed is found in improvisation, as anyone who saw Whose Line Is It, Anyway? can attest to. The first and foremost requirement of improv is this: No matter what happens, you must accept a premise you’re given, rather than knock it down. So if you’re on the improv stage, and your fellow actor says, “Look at that camel!” you don’t say as a response, “That’s a giraffe,” simply because you were had a good giraffe joke. That would knock down the premise you were offered and destroy the bit. You could say, “But why is it blue?” And by doing this, you accept the premise, go with it, and offer something to your fellow actor.

The people in the audience are not used to accepting new ideas without taking time to process and, perhaps, to refuse them. So when they see a new idea accepted so quickly and built upon, it automatically seems as if a lot of thought has gone into the response.

But that isn’t the case.

Accepting a new idea takes a lot of time for us. Accepting a new idea, to comedians, takes no time at all. If they don’t, they die.

The Live Interview

Let’s move on from improvisation to interview shows, from Late Night to The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, where comedians interview live people, forcing them to improvise jokes on their spot. Here’s one example:

In The Daily Show’s March 12th, 2007 interview, comedian Jon Stewart interviews Senator Chris Dodd. He asks him why he is running for president.

Sen. Dodd: “First of all, I’m a first-time father. I’ve got a couple of young children, daughters, and I don’t want to sound naïve at all, and I look at them... I mean, you’ve got a couple of young kids. What kind of a future are they going to have? What kind of a world are they going to grow up in? What kind of a nation are they going to live in the 21st century? And, frankly, right now, I think there is more at stake than probably ever before in my lifetime. Both with what’s going on at home and abroad. And I decided to get in this race and talk about what we could do to make it better for them. I know it’s naïve, but—”

Jon Stewart interrupts him, “Here’s what I’ve done. I also have young kids and I look at them, and I started building a bunker.”

Stewart automatically accepts Senator Dodd’s premise (thinking about the future while looking at your kids) and goes on from there. In fact, he continues, “Your idea could work, too. But I have a feeling, when the day comes, I’m not going to be knocking on your door, you’re going to be knocking on mine.”

As Stewart proves by taking Sen. Dodd’s premise and reaching the opposite conclusion, accepting a premise doesn’t actually make the other guy right. It just means you’re agile enough of thought to understand someone else’s premise. Then you go with that logic, and see where it leads you.

Smart People vs. Comedians

Adapting to changing circumstances, being able to accept new ideas, not sticking rigidly to your old position – these are all the necessary tools of a good comedian. They are also the marks of intelligence. So what happens when a quick and intelligent comedian meets a quicker and more intelligent man? The man may not be as funny, but he’s able to adapt to new situations just as fast as the comedian. Here is the best example I found in which the shoe was on the other foot.

This is from an interview in The Colbert Report (Feb. 8th, 2006) in which Stephen Colbert, who, on a daily basis, stumps his guests by offering ideas (meaning ‘premises’) they’ve never thought of or didn’t expect to face, now interviews Prof. Alan Dershowitz. We’re going to look at the dialogue like a chess match.

Colbert introduces Dershowitz, then runs to the crowd, as he always does, and gets cheers. Colbert sits down.

Colbert: “Mr. Dershowitz, thank you for joining us.”

Dershowitz: “Thank you.”

Colbert: “Do you have an audience at work?”

Colbert’s opening salvo is framing a question Dershowitz clearly doesn’t expect. Dershowitz answers immediately: “I do, always. I teach to a class.”

Colbert: “You do? Really?” Colbert didn’t expect a ‘yes’ from his guest, but adapts quickly, “Do they applaud like this when you come in? Up in Harvard?” Colbert takes his question to a place Dershowitz would not have expected.

Dershowitz begins his answer even before Colbert finishes asking the question: “No, they react.” Dershowitz isn’t blocking by saying ‘no’, he’s splitting hairs, thus proving he’s accepted Colbert’s premise and is building on it.

“Oh, really?”


“With fear, I’m assuming.” Colbert accepts Dershowitz’s premise and takes it one step further to a place Dershowitz clearly did not mean.

“I hope,” Dershowitz thus accepts Colbert’s premise again.

“Do you ever shroud a student like in that movie, The Paper Chase?” Again, Colbert offers a premise his guest was not expecting.

“No, they’re too smart.” Dershowitz does not deny the premise. He accepts it and within the rules of the premise finds a reason why it isn’t so. He continues, “They sit there with their, you know, Googles, and they know more than I do.”

Colbert: “Yeah, with their internets.” Colbert accepts Dershowitz’s ‘Googles’ and builds on it. Mockingly, of course. “And their world wide webbing? It’s amazing.”

“It is,” Dershowitz accepts Colbert’s volley.

They move on to talk about Dershowitz’s book. Colbert puts it up on the table: “Okay, this is it. Preemption, a Knife That Cuts Both Ways. Tell me about the knife and why it’s cutting us.” Colbert presumes a false premise regarding the book.

Dershowitz opens his mouth to answer, and Colbert continues, “Is it cutting us?”

“It is cutting us.” Premise accepted.

“Whose knife is it?”

Not blinking, Dershowitz continues, accepting Colbert’s premise, and using it to make his point, “It is the knife of power that is being wielded. Preemption means, just simply, we get the bad guys before they get us. And that, sometimes, can be a good thing.”

“You look at us wrong, you get a God-smack.” Colbert immediately picks up on Dershowitz’s premise and goes with it one step further.

“No,” Dershowitz splits hairs again rather than blocking completely: “you try to kill us, you try to invade us, you try and terrorize us, and we’re going to get you first, but there are tremendous risks involved in doing that. Because we can get the wrong people, we can get there too early, we can provoke an attack, so it’s a knife that cuts both ways.”

“Well, this sort of sounds like anti-preemption here,” Colbert accepts what Dershowitz says and tries to take it to a direction Dershowitz doesn’t want to take.

“Well, it’s pro some preemption and anti some preemption,” Dershowitz clears his theme by understanding what Colbert said and explaining the difference between the two positions. “It all depends.”

“You can’t have it both ways!” Colbert aggressively introduces a new and unexpected premise (elsewhere known as The O’Reilly Premise).

“You can have it both ways. You have to have it both ways.” Dershowitz understands the other side but insists on his own.

“No, if you have to have it both ways, that’s why the knife cuts back and forth,” Colbert introduces a new premise in mid-argument, miming a knife cutting both him and Dershowitz.

“Absolutely,” Dershowitz accepts it.

“You want the knife to just do this,” he mimes the knife attacking only Dershowitz.

“But it has to be sterilized,” Dershowitz goes with Colbert’s premise even further. “You don’t want to cause an infection.”

Colbert moves on to his next thought: “Okay, so...” and then Dershowitz’s words sink in, and he stops, stumped for an answer. He was not able to adapt quickly enough.

The audience begins to laugh, as Colbert thinks of the next thing to say.

“I’m Jewish,” says Dershowitz during Colbert’s silence, accepting his own premise and going with it.

Colbert takes another few seconds, then, unable to think of something smarter, changes the subject.

And thus Dershowitz wins this battle against an intelligent, professional and mighty-quick comedian not because he’s funnier but because he’s that much smarter.

Accepting new ideas is a mark of intelligence. Understanding new ideas is also a mark of intelligence. Being able to adapt quickly is one, too. And always keep in mind that understanding the other side’s logic doesn’t make the other side is right. It just means you’re smart.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Soft Opinions

Sometimes our convictions aren’t as deep as we think. Sometimes our convictions are soft. Sometimes they’re soft without us even being aware of how soft they are.

Let me tell you a story.

A Christmas Tale

One episode of Picket Fences, written by David E. Kelley, began at a school recital at the small and harmless town of Rome, Wisconsin. The teacher, Louise Talbot, is rehearsing the nativity scene with the kids towards the upcoming Christmas pageant. She’s playing the Virgin Mary. The police comes in, uncomfortably forced to enforce a court order to stop the rehearsals and to stop the show. It’s no longer legal to have religious content on public property.

Louise, who’s been one of the best teachers in the school for the last nine years, thinks it’s ridiculous and refuses to stop. The sheriff is then forced to arrest her and bring her before the town judge. The judge releases her and explains to the townspeople why they can’t have their pageant the way it’s always been done. He suggests, however, doing it on property that’s not public.

But now that Louise in the system, her fingerprints turn out to be the fingerprints of a man who’s been missing for quite a few years. It turns out, and Louise can no longer deny it, that she used to be a man. She had spent a couple of years dressed as a woman, then had a sex-change operation.

The school board is flabbergasted. They summon Louise to answer some questions. She appears, and with the help of a friend, shames them for thinking what they’re thinking to do. The day is almost won, but Jimmy Brock, the sheriff and a member on the board, turns the tables on Louise (classic Kelley) and shows everyone how she, by definition, has to be mentally unstable. So how can she teach our kids?

Louise is soon fired. She sues the school, and we head back to court. The judge (there’s only one judge in the small town) reverses the school board’s decision for being blatantly bigoted. The rehearsals for the nativity scene continue with Louise still as the Virgin Mary. But now that the news is out, parents come to the class and pull their kids from the pageant. Louise doesn’t want to, but relinquishes her role in the pageant so that the kids may have theirs.

The pageant, then, continues as planned. When the nativity scene arrives, the kids change the text, and talk about how the kids don’t want to live in their parents’ bigoted world. They refuse to accept the bigotry, they say, and invite Louise back to the stage. Their speech is moving, and in an emotional scene Louise walks out from the audience and stands on the stage. A few grownups in the audience begin to stand and clap. Slowly, more and more grownups stand up. A few more grownups look around, and they come to their feet and clap, too.

Now... you get that, right? You can understand people looking around, seeing that it’s okay with everyone else, and getting up as well. Seems natural, doesn’t it?

Soft Opinions

The thing is that these are the same people who only a few moments ago were sure that this was a line that could never and must never be broken. And when they saw that many other people accepted the new circumstances, they immediately saw that there was no real harm. Their opinions seemed to be hardnosed and steadfast convictions. But as soon as the rest of the people didn’t agree, the convictions behind the opinions vanished.

Sure, it’s a TV show and it didn’t happen in real life. But their behavior probably seemed natural to you as I told you the story (and certainly if you saw the episode). It’s easy to believe, because that’s how most people would behave.

So: How many of your convictions are soft? How many things you consider are lines in the sand are actually lines in the sand on the beach? One wave, and they’re gone.

Make a List

Test yourself: What convictions, what issues, what opinions do you hold that you’re certain of? What would you fight for? Make a list. Then look at the list and as you go down the list, issue by issue, imagine that everyone you know suddenly believes in the opposite.

How many of these positions would you keep? How many of these issues would you still believe? Which of your opinions are soft and would change if everyone else’s opinion changed? Which of your opinions would never change no matter what everyone else thought? Which opinions would you really fight for?

It’s election time. Time for real opinions, not soft ones. Now, seriously, go make that list.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Women Versus Blacks

In the last post we talked about how, in the current political situation, Hillary Clinton can’t make any move regarding any ‘black issues’ without automatically losing to Barack Obama. She can’t be blacker than him. She can’t understand what it’s like to be black the way he can. If she makes a move on any black issue, black activists will do Obama’s work for him, and he will win without having opened his mouth.

Now the question that comes to mind is this: Does it work the other way around?

Let’s imagine a scenario: Obama suddenly talks about women rights, and how he respects his wife and how strong and intelligent she is, and how he learned from her that women have it bad and how he wants to fix the situation. Would this give any kind of victory to Clinton the way it would give a victory to Obama if she made such a statement about black people? Would people assume Clinton is way ahead of him on this? Would there be a backlash against Obama, that as a man he doesn’t have any idea what he’s talking about? Would people assume that Clinton knows ten times better than he does everything about ‘women’s issues’? Seems to me that the answer to all these questions is ‘no’.

So the real question is: Why not?

That is not a political question. It’s a question in human behavior, which is a subject we like to tackle here. In looking for an answer, I only found one, and it’s a sad one: The majority of women doesn’t respect women.

To explain this answer let’s work our way from the conclusion backwards. If most women didn’t respect women, then they wouldn’t trust a woman to represent them. In fact, they would be suspicious of her. If most women didn’t respect women, then they couldn’t really form into cohesive and influential groups representing women. In fact, they would form fragmented groups with little influence. If most women didn’t respect women, they perhaps would think that their own conditions are bad but that other women perhaps deserve what they have. All these results are true, and they all stem from one premise: The majority of women doesn’t respect women.

That is a sad state, and I wish there was another answer to the question. In fact, if you have a better answer, please share it with us.

False Premises in Today's Politics

With elections looming, politicians are everywhere. ‘Tis the season.

The last couple of seasons of the The West Wing, may it rest in peace, were devoted to the election process we’re seeing today. First, Santos (played by Jimmy Smitts) ran as an idealistic candidate for the Democratic nomination, while Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda) ran for the Republican nomination. Once they both won, they ran against each other. We got to see a lot of inside politics. We got to see why politicians say what they say, what their advisers tell them to tell us, and what moves that we see really mean to them.

Accepting the Premise of the Question

One of the most important issues we saw time and time again was the candidates’ refusal to answer questions the premise of which was decided by the other guy. The reasoning behind it was that, once you accept the other guy’s premise, once you accept the framing of the question, it doesn’t matter what you say, they will win the argument when the day is done.

For example. Leo McGarry, running for Santos’ V.P., is an old hack at politics, having run the country from behind the scenes. But now he’s a politician. He’s supposed to talk to reporters. Here he is being briefed by Annabeth (Written by Debora Cahn):

Annabeth: “Press is here for the Q&A. Now remember, you control the conversation. You don’t like what they ask, don’t accept the premise of the question.”

Leo says, “I’ve been rejecting the premises of questions since the Hoover Administration.”

The two of them now face reporters. Says one, “Mr. McGarry, are you still in AA?”

Leo avoids the question: “Good to see you, Christine.”

The reporter insists, “When was the last time you went to a meeting?”

Leo answers, “I’ve made statements about that before. You should take a look at them.”

Reporter: “Does your cardiologist think you can handle this kind of stress?”

Leo: “My cardiologist has made a statement about that. You should take a look at it. See, what I’d like to talk about is what Matt Santos can do to improve the public schools here in Pennsylvania and across the country.”

Sounds like every other professional politician we know. He evaded the uncomfortable issues, didn’t say anything he didn’t want to, accepted no bad premises, and led the answers to his own agenda.

Later on, however, he slips up:

One Reporter says, “Mr. McGarry, are you finding the campaign trail exhausting?”

“Invigorating, Kevin, thanks for asking.”

“Is Speaker Haffley floating an education issue with the White House?”

“I don’t know what’s going on in the Speaker’s office, but I can tell you that Matt Santos has the most practical approach to improving teacher quality we’ve seen in a long time.”

“Is it similar to Haffley’s plan?”

“The Santos plan is a comprehensive.”

“Why is the President working with Haffley if this is the candidate’s baby?”

“Because the Constitution empowers the President to sign bills into law and doesn’t empower candidates to do anything.”

Annabeth steps in, says Leo has to go. Once they’re alone, Leo says to her, “I accepted the premise of the question, didn’t I?”

In accepting the premise of the question, Leo said his own candidate has no power. That’s a mess-up.

The thing about mess-ups is that they don’t look like mess-ups when they happen. But the rules of the ‘game’ are clear: the second you accept the other guy’s premise, somewhere down the line you will lose the argument. Before we move on to real life, let’s look at one more fictional mess-up from The West Wing.

Santos, a Democrat, keeps losing on defense issues, even though he’s a Reserve Air Force pilot, while Vinick never served a day. That’s because Republicans always have a better image on security issues. But when Santos is called to serve, Santos goes to serve. And suddenly the news channels are filled, day in and day out, with Santos, looking good in uniform, climbing aboard the air-force jet, and flying off.

Suddenly, Santos is catching up to Vinick in the polls. A rattled Vinick loses it for a second when talking to the press (written by Lawrence O'Donnell Jr.) when a reporter asks him if it was a stunt:

“A stunt?” Vinick seems shocked. “No, that was devotion to duty. That’s what makes the American military the greatest fighting force in the history of the world. And I hope Congressman Santos continues to do his duty when I’m Commander-in-Chief.”

It sounds like he jabbed Santos. But he didn’t. In answering the way he did, he accepted the premise that Santos is a military guy, thus giving his opponent more credence. Santos says it best when he watches it on TV: “I’ll take any sentence that has ‘Santos’ and ‘do his duty’ in it.”

Today’s Politics

In real life, we’ve learned to pick up on this kind of dialogue when politicians refuse to answer questions. We’ve learned (hopefully) to pick up on it when people spout talking points rather than real thoughts on TV. But sometimes it’s more complicated than just answering a question. These days, Hillary Clinton has tried to gain ground on the black race issues.

Her problem is that she’s fighting Barack Obama’s premise. Any attempt to go for the ‘black’ issues would immediately give victory in the argument to Obama. She can’t be blacker than him. She can’t understand what it’s like to be black the way he can. He doesn’t even have to say it. With this issue, he doesn’t even have to do anything to win it. Any time Clinton raises the black issue, at this stage of the race while going against Obama, she is losing votes and giving them to Obama.

False Premises in Today’s Politics

We’ve seen how people unwittingly accept other people’s premises when answering questions or when raising issues, but false premises are everywhere. In fact, we take many of them for granted to such an extent that we don’t even see them. And in accepting a premise, we help it along.

False Premise #1: There Are Only Two Real Choices In (American) Elections.

The question is: If you took a second to think about it rather than take it for granted, would you still think it’s true? Since when are you satisfied with only two choices in anything? Do you accept two choices of milk? Two choices of coffee? Two choices of cars? Two choices of houses to buy or apartments to rent?

Is a choice between two things actually a choice in your eyes in anything but politics?

Americans are so finicky, expecting a wide selection in everything they buy. And yet they expect no such choice from their politicians, the people who write the laws and have the ability to send their kids to war.

Two choices? Is that it? Is that the premise you choose?

A good reason to accept that premise is an apparent lack of choice. Third-party candidates never have a real chance. But whoever says that third-party candidates are the alternatives actually accepts the false premise. They are not the only alternative. Which brings us to the next false premise:

False Premise #2: One Party, One Opinion

This premise says that voting a Democratic candidate into office helps the Democratic Party and voting a Republican into office helps the Republican Party. Seems natural and obvious. But it doesn’t have to be true.

If you vote for, say, a Democrat, and it’s good for the Democratic Party, then that man is loyal to the Party and not to you. Voting for a party and not for a candidate means that the entire Party is one choice, one opinion, has one set of rules and one agenda. That’s good for both Parties, but it’s bad for us.

If you come to a candidate from a place that says: If you do the things I like, if you go the way I want, I will vote for you, no matter what Party you come from – in that case, the candidates will suddenly have to suck up to you, rather than their bosses. They will have to do what you say, rather than what their Party says.

They need you. Make them work for it; break Party lines.

If it works, the Parties themselves will do their best to fight it. But they will adapt and change. Because they need your votes and they need your money. At the end of the day, both parties work for you.

It doesn’t matter who’s to blame for the situation (whichever situation it is that bothers you). It doesn’t matter who did what when. Make the candidates take a stand by telling them you’ll vote for them (or not) based on positions you find important, completely disregarding Party lines. Make both Parties work for your vote specifically, creating ‘one Party, many opinions’.

The alternative is to go on accepting the Parties’ premise and going on as before. In accepting the premise that there are only two choices in elections and in accepting the Parties’ premise that there is one party, one opinion, you make sure that the Parties win. One election cycles, the Republicans are on top. Another election cycle, the Democrats are on top. In both election cycles, you’re on the bottom. Just as Leo made sure the other side won when he answered the question, just as Vinick lost the argument the second he accepted Santos’ premise, and just as Clinton is losing the race issue by tackling it. Accept both Parties’ premise, you help them both win. In not accepting the premise, there is a chance that you will win.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Forcing Us to Think (Again)

Every so often we’re going to come back to a theme we’ve talked about before. Some ideas are worth it.

Now we’re on David E. Kelley fairness watch. Here is our first. Now it’s time for the second.

David E. Kelley Fairness Watch

David E. Kelley is the only writer today who is able to write one side of an argument (say, in a court drama like Boston Legal) in such a convincing way that the viewers agree with that side, know they’re going to win, and certain that there are no strong counter-arguments. Then Kelley lets the other side speak, and when that lawyer’s done, the viewers are equally certain that his/her side’s case is completely right.

This forces the viewers to think. With equally-strong and powerful arguments on both sides, the outcome is uncertain. And our brain works more than we think it does when watching TV, imagining what could happen, what would happen, and why.

Here are two examples from a recent Boston Legal episode.


Clarence, who works for the firm and sometimes dresses as a woman was caught on tape, dressed as a woman, screaming at some guy and going absolutely nuts. That footage is then put on YouTube, to Clarence’s chagrin. Clarence sues YouTube for defamation.

And so, they go to court. There the judge appears with a helmet on his head, to everyone’s amazement. A red helmet with a white stripe.

“Before we begin,” the judge says, “some of you may or may not have noticed that I’m wearing protective head gear. I sustained a small wound while gardening. My doctor advised to take conservative precautions until the stitches are removed. Please pay no attention.” With that out of the way, the case begins.

The first thing YouTube’s lawyer does is make sure whether the footage fairly and accurately depict what happened? And it does. There is no doubt about that. Clarence takes the stand, and, as a lawyer, is forced to admit that the law expressly protects internet sites “from online defamation liability arising from material posting on their sites by individuals.”

The issue is clear. The law is clear. Clarence admits the footage was not doctored. What you see is what really happened. And the law protects sites like YouTube. Clear-cut and simple, isn’t it?

Now it’s Clarence’s lawyer’s turn to speak. “Your honor, this was an extremely embarrassing event, aired world-wide on a website, absent the context that occasioned it.”

The helmeted judge does not understand. “The footage depicts what happened. So where’s the damage?’

“Your honor, think of it. We’ve all had a meltdown or two. A mortifying episode or two. Typically, we’re allowed to live those moments down. But now thanks to the internet, we can’t. Suppose,” he produces a handheld video camera, and points it at the judge, “I taped you as ‘Justice Bauble Head’.”

“Put that thing down!” the Judge is beside himself.

“How would you like to be defined—” he continues to tape.

“Put it down this instant!”

He puts the camera down and turns it off. He then takes a breath and starts calmly, “My point is: Life’s little embarrassing moments are now having far-reaching and more devastating consequences. If the day has come that we are going to be publicly and globally shamed by our foolish missteps, then the laws of defamation should keep pace. Certainly when these tort laws were drafted, the legislators never contemplated YouTube.”

And he sits down.

Do you know who’s going to win now? Even if you think you know who’s right, Kelley phrased the positions in such a way as to make them equal: Will the judge go with the law and decide against Clarence, or will the judge decide to go against the law because the law is wrong? You don’t know. But you’ll think about it.

The Racist Cop

In the same episode, the firm has another case. A policeman shot an unarmed black man, who fit the description of a suspect. The policeman says he was reaching for what appeared to be a weapon. But in truth, he reached for something else. In addition, the policeman has a history of erroneously shooting black men, and to top it off, when the D.A. tests the policeman under an MRI, it turns out that his brain responds with more violent emotions when he sees a black than when he sees a white man.

With the case drawing to a close, the prosecution speaks first: “Policemen do tough work, dangerous work. The cities across this country seem to grow more and more dangerous. That is a reality. But here’s another reality. African-Americans have been targeted disproportionately in both arrests and excessive force. Blacks comprise 13% percent of our population, yet 44% of our prison population. And how many times do you have to turn on the news and see that yet another innocent, unarmed black man has been shot dead by the police before we say ‘enough’? Eight times he shot him! Even his partner, who is also his friend, called the shooting reckless. Was it an honest mistake? Yeah, sure, like the last time he mistakenly shot an unarmed black man. How many mistakes can we allow him? Do we keep tolerating these executions or not?”

And the prosecution sits down. So, does the defense even have a case? And even if it does have a case, it can’t be equally as good, can it? All the facts are in.

The defense speaks: “The victim matched the description of the armed suspect. He raised his hand with something metallic in it. It looked like a gun. My client reacted. The District Attorney did not offer even one witness to dispute that. Instead, he gave you a brain scan. The police can now take our blood, our hair, our DNA. They can make us give handwriting samples, voice patterns. They can check our computers to see what interests us, our GPS’s to see where we’ve been. And today they’re introducing scans to show our feelings. Where does this stop? And let’s assume these MRI’s really can show that my client feared black people more than whites. So what? The law has to distinguish between thought and deed. The Supreme Court is doing away with warrants. Our administration eavesdrops on all of us. Are we really going to allow this government to unleash the thought police? Are we that scared? We must be. Because today the prosecution is trying to convict a man of murder with nothing more than an MRI. God help us.”

So... Who do you think won this one? What would you vote if you were sitting in the jury?

One thing is certain: Your brain thought about it whether you wanted it to or not.