homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

kottke.org posts about Lili Loofbourow

The new rhetoric of television politics

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 31, 2017

Politics happens in (at least) three places:

These categories all bleed into each other and still leave a whole lot out, but for a quick and dirty chop-job of the universe, well, I’ve seen worse. (And done worse.)

It helps to focus on one but not forget about the others. Keep your head on a swivel, like my football coach used to say. And each sphere has its own grammar, its invisible rules.

Some of the best writing about the Trump regime has been on the second, imaginary sphere, by TV critics on the politics of media. You might think this is the easiest of the three to tell stories about, but the degree of difficulty is absurdly high if you aim to do more than just summarize or react to the thing we’ve all just seen. Help me see. Change my vocabulary. Show me how it works. Show me why it works.

Lili Loofbourow’s glossary of Kellyanne Conway’s rhetorical moves helps you see.

Concept scrabble

“Most Americans are very focused on what their tax returns will look like while President Trump is in office, not what his look like.”

Conway frequently takes the words from the question — tax returns, Trump, Americans — and recombines them. It gives the impression of straightforwardness. The question, you’ll recall, was how Trump will respond to a petition signed by 200,000 Americans demanding that he release his tax returns. Conway takes those concepts — “the people,” “tax return” — and reshuffles them in a way that a) denies the premise (the 200,000 Americans who signed that petition fall out of her framing — let me tell you what the people care about, she says), and b) removes Trump from the sentence as an agent called upon to respond.

Besides “concept scrabble,” there’s “faux frankness,” “impatience signaling,” “Cool girling,” “Agenda Mad Libs,” and more, all illustrated with examples.

Emily Nussbaum’s “How Jokes Won the Election” helps you see — in this case, how many of Trump’s outrageous statements during the campaign had the structure of jokes. A lot of people have made a lot hay out of the “seriously”/”literally” dichotomy breaking down, but Nussbaum focuses instead on how it limits your ability to react, especially when you’re the subject of the “joke”:

The political journalist Rebecca Traister described this phenomenon to me as “the finger trap.” You are placed loosely within the joke, which is so playful, so light—why protest? It’s only when you pull back—show that you’re hurt, or get angry, or try to argue that the joke is a lie, or, worse, deny that the joke is funny—that the joke tightens. If you object, you’re a censor. If you show pain, you’re a weakling. It’s a dynamic that goes back to the rude, rule-breaking Groucho Marx—destroyer of elites!—and Margaret Dumont, pop culture’s primal pearl-clutcher.

When Hillary described half of Trump’s followers as “deplorables,” she wasn’t wrong. But she’d walked right into the finger trap. Trump was the hot comic; Obama the cool one. Hillary had the skill to be hard-funny, too, when it was called for: she killed at the Al Smith charity dinner, in New York, while Trump bombed. It didn’t matter, though, because that was not the role she fit in the popular imagination. Trump might be thin-skinned and easily offended, a grifter C.E.O. on a literal golden throne. But Hillary matched the look and the feel of Margaret Dumont: the rich bitch, Nurse Ratched, the buzzkill, the no-fun mom, the one who shut the joke down.

Conway can float in and out of different modes than Clinton can, partly because she has different political talents, but partly because she’s under different rhetorical constraints. These things are all imaginary, yes — but they work.

Still, Conway can be wrongfooted, too — here’s Loofbourow again:

In thinking about how to transcend the Conway effect, it’s instructive to study the people who’ve effectively interviewed her. Seth Meyers turned out to be a master at it: Comedians have a lot of experience quickly analyzing and calling out behaviors and tricks in ways that scan as funny rather than aggressive…

Meyers took Conway’s statement — meant to discredit a press report — and took its interpretation away from her. In his hands, her statement became the terrifying story of a president-elect who couldn’t be bothered to read his own intelligence briefs, even when they were about him. And he did it by using a more complex version of Conway’s multifactorial rhetoric.

There are limits to what we can learn about politics from comedians and comedy tropes — most of the time, the battles over laws and bodies exceed anybody’s ability to turn a phrase. But this imaginative sphere, too, is all part of the bigger combat, and there are still so many things we can learn about how the fight is fought.

Louis C.K. on testing the limits

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 06, 2014

Louis C.K. sat down with Jonah Weiner for an extended interview where he discusses learning how to fix cars, tell jokes, fry chicken, and more. (Seriously, Medium is milking that whole time spent reading thing now.) He also gives some clues as to what he seems to be up to in the current season of Louie:

JW: You’ve talked about how you’ve had to explain moral lessons to your daughters, but do it in a catchy way. It’s almost as though you’re writing material for them. What’s the place of morality and ethics in your comedy?

I think those are questions people live with all the time, and I think there’s a lazy not answering of them now, everyone sheepishly goes, “Oh, I’m just not doing it, I’m not doing the right thing.” There are people that really live by doing the right thing, but I don’t know what that is, I’m really curious about that. I’m really curious about what people think they’re doing when they’re doing something evil, casually. I think it’s really interesting, that we benefit from suffering so much, and we excuse ourselves from it. I think that’s really interesting, I think it’s a profound human question…

I think it’s really interesting to test what people think is right or wrong, and I can do that in both directions, so sometimes it’s in defense of the common person against the rich that think they’re entitled to this shit, but also the idea that everybody has to get handouts and do whatever they want so that there’s not supposed to be any struggle in life is also a lot of horseshit. Everything that people say is testable.

At the LA Review of Books, Lili Loofbourow has a good essay about Louie’s abrupt shifts in perspective, in the context of its recent rape-y episodes. There’s Louie the dad, who garners sympathy and acts as a cover/hedge/foil to Louie’s darker impulses. There’s standup Louie, who acts as a commentary and counterpoint to dramedy Louie… except when he doesn’t, and the two characters blur and flip.

Louie is — despite its dick-joke dressing — a profoundly ethical show… Louie is sketching out the psychology of an abuser by making us recognize abuse in someone we love. Someone thoughtful and shy, raising daughters of his own, doing his best. Someone totally cognizant of the issues that make him susceptible to the misogyny monster. Someone who thinks hard about women and men and still gets it badly wrong.

I had to stop watching Louie after Season 1. I raced greedily through those episodes, enjoying the dumb jokes and the sophisticated storytelling, and telling my friends, “this is like looking at my life in ten years.” Then my wife and I separated and that joke wasn’t funny any more, if it ever was. The things in Louie that are supposed to indicate the cracks in the fourth wall — the African-American ex-wife and the seemingly white children — are actually true in my life. His character is more like me than his creator is (except Louie has more money). No haha, you’re both redheads with beards. It’s an honest-to-goodness uncanny valley. I had to walk away.

At the same time, I feel like I understand Louis C.K., the comedian/filmmaker, better now than I did three years ago. If you read that interview, you see someone who’s more successful now than he’s ever been, who knows he’s good at what he does, but who’s never been certain that anyone’s ever loved him or if he’s ever been worthy of love.

Now America loves Louis C.K. and hangs on his every word: on gadgets, on tests in school, on what’s worth caring about. How can he not want to test those limits? How can he not want to punish his audience for caring about a character based on him that he doesn’t even like very much?