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ODU's Jones Participates in New York Times Panel Looking at Humor in Difficult Times

Jeffrey Jones, an Old Dominion University associate professor of communication, participated in a recent New York Times "panel" discussion about humor in today's difficult times.

Five writers and academics who study humor were asked by the Times how comedy changes when economic or global negativity dominates the headlines. The discussion, titled "Humor in Hard Times," was part of the Times' ongoing series "Room for Debate," a running commentary on the news.

Along with Jones, panelists included Richard Zoglin, a writer and editor at Time Magazine; Bambi Haggins, director of film and media studies at Arizona State University; Paul Lewis, professor of English at Boston College; and John Rash, director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, a national advertising agency based in Minneapolis. The five experts gave written commentaries, answering whether humor changes depending on the politics of the time, and unemployment figures

Jones, the author of "Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement," wrote that the contrast between "good times" humor and "hard times" humor is demonstrated best through two recent examples - one on the new "Jay Leno Show," and the other on "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien."

Jones wrote that controversial filmmaker Michael Moore appeared on Leno's show recently to promote his new film, "Capitalism: A Love Story."

"Say what you will about Mr. Moore's techniques or politics, but his humor fits squarely within the tradition of satire," Jones wrote.

After a clip from the movie was aired, "Leno struggled to squeeze a single laugh line out of the interview, producing little more than two overt proclamations of Moore's nonpartisanship in the film."

Jones wrote that an appearance by acerbic comic Bill Maher on "The Tonight Show" revealed the limitations of the late-night talk show format as a vehicle for edgy, political-based humor.

While suggesting in a grave tone that some Americans are simply stupid, and President Barack Obama's efforts to achieve a nonpartisan agreement on health care wouldn't pierce that, "Mr. O'Brien blithely looked on, seemingly unaware that such debates were even dominating the national conversation," Jones wrote. "He proved incapable of engaging in either a humorous or serious conversation on the matter."

While difficult economic times make comedy more challenging for stable, late-night comedy shows, Jones wrote that comedy often finds its voice through different, edgier means.

"What seems pronounced about comedy in hard times, then, is not the continued comedic banality of Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien or even their brand of facile humor as salve for the economically hurting and displaced," Jones wrote.

"Rather, it is other comedic voices that simultaneously appear - ones with an edge and bite that can prove quite appealing, yet ones that may offer little in the way of direct ha-ha humor."

He cited as an example the blistering, yet humorous commentary by comedian Jon Stewart about CNBC commentator Jim Cramer.

In short, humor in hard times may not be very humorous. But we do look to comedians and satirists who can offer some perspective (or even critique) that seems noticeably absent from the serious discourse of politicians or the formulaic comedy of mainstream talk show hosts.

Jones is also co-editor of another book, released earlier this year, titled "Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era." Through its collection of essays, the book considers the symbiotic relationship between politics and comedy in the contemporary genre of satire television. Programs discussed include "The Daily Show," "South Park" and "The Colbert Report," among others.

Jones co-wrote the book's opening essay, "The State of Satire, the Satire of State," and contributed the essay, "With All Due Respect: Satirizing Presidents from 'Saturday Night Live' to 'Lil' Bush,'" which looks at the history of presidential satire and caricatures on television.

This article was posted on: September 21, 2009

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