March 18, 2009


The Hunting of the Denby: a review of Snark by David Denby (Mark Steyn, March 2009, Commentary)

[I] confess to some misgivings about the mode of public discourse in 21st-century America.

I am, therefore, amenable to the premise of Snark, * a 144-page treatise by the film critic of The New Yorker (no, not Anthony Lane; the other one). Where I part company with David Denby is with David Denby. With the best will in the world, he doesn’t seem the obvious go-to guy for a “polemic in seven fits.”

What’s a “fit”? It’s the sub-division of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting Of The Snark. Carroll’s nonsense had eight fits, but Denby sputters to a close after seven—that’s all the fits that fit, and even then you feel maybe three or four of them don’t really fit. Snark’s sub-title is “It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation,” but he never quite pins down what “it” is. It’s not “nasty comedy, incessant profanity, trash talk, any kind of satire, and certain kinds of invective,” all of which he claims to be in favor of, but rather “the bad kind of invective.”

“Perhaps,” says the author on page one, “a few contrasts will make the difference clear.” So he contrasts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert with Penn Jillette and Adam La-Duca. Just for the record, Messrs Stewart and Colbert are kings of the late-night “ironic” news shows that form the primary source of information on current events for 79 percent of Americans under the age of 30 or whatever it’s up to now. By “contrast,” Jillette is one half of Siegfried & Roy—no, wait, Penn & Teller, the Vegas illusionists. And LaDuca is, er, a student who used to be president of the Pennsylvania Federation of College Republicans and now has a Facebook page.

Why a bigshot New Yorker writer is hanging out on the Facebook pages of obscure Pennsylvania students, I have no idea. But that sounds rather snarky, so let’s move on. The point is: These are apples and sausages. One might usefully contrast two liberal satirists starring in their own nightly TV shows with two conservative satirists starring in their own nightly TV shows, but unfortunately there aren’t any of the latter. Hence, the author’s complaint that a Pennsylvania student’s Facebook page isn’t as devastatingly witty as The Daily Show. Golly, maybe Adam LaDuca has a smaller writing staff than Jon Stewart. [...]

Back in the 90’s, David Letterman did a Top Ten list about a Clinton/Yeltsin summit. It wasn’t going down so well, so, midway through, the host stopped to explain it to the audience: “The one guy eats, the other guy drinks. That’s all you need to know.” Indeed. Denby’s “layer of knowingness” is really a wafer-thin veneer—knowingness for the unknowing. Bush? Dumb. McCain? Old. Palin? Hang on: Also dumb. When Denby bemoans “the feebleness of snark” by citing Maureen Dowd’s arthritic walker-dependent “running jokes” about “Poppy” Bush and “Babysitter” Cheney, he is, almost, on to something: This is sophisticated cynicism for the gullibly naïve.

Nevertheless, it is surely ironic that a writer who coos at every opportunity his appreciation of irony (“the most powerful of satiric weapons”) seems to lack the vital precondition for irony—the ability to imagine the other. Why is Bush so obviously a buffoon and Gore so profoundly a “serious man”? Well, because Denby voted for one and despises the other. Say what you will about the creators of the British magazine Private Eye, to whom he devotes considerable space, but they’re equal-opportunity jeerers. In American terms, Richard Ingrams, Private Eye’s founder, would be reviled as a homophobe, a racist, and an anti-Semite. When co-owner Peter Cook’s comedy partner Dudley Moore went off to California in the late 1970’s to romance Bo Derek in 10, Cook was sympathetic: “I suppose if you’re a lower-middle-class midget from Dagenham with a club foot, being a Hollywood star must seem quite a good deal.” [...]

For my own part, I find the divide between Colbertian “irony” and Dowd-esque “snark” less of a chasm than Denby imagines: Both are part of a self-referential present-tense culture bobbing around in circles on the surface, and it’s foolish to argue degrees of precedence between flotsam and jetsam.

The humor of Mr. Colbert is ironic in a very particular way. Because he ostensibly adopts a fictional persona he is free to say and his audience to laugh at the things that being PC in "real life" forbids them. He is just saying what they really think beneath the surface. He doesn't do comedy, he does political commentary.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 18, 2009 6:48 AM
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