Daniel Tosh is Important

1 04 2012

Daniel Tosh is a stand-up comedian and television host.  I doubt many people would describe him as particularly socially-conscious in either of those roles.  His show, Tosh.0, is a hybrid of stand-up, sketch comedy, and internet video commentary and includes potentially offensive material in bits such as “Is It Racist?” and “Rico’s Black Clip of the Week.” I think that Daniel Tosh, and Tosh.0 in particular, is a prime example of postmodern entertainment that pushes the boundaries of social issues in a way that results in elevated discourse rather than crass exploitation.

Tosh.0 is Postmodern

The television show is nowhere near original. Despite my description above, it is inherently a clip show.  Its reliance on home videos posted on the internet make it the America’s Funniest Home Videos of the 21st Century.  The format of a host in front of a green screen commenting on clips owes its existence to Talk Soup (later re-named The Soup), originally hosted by Greg Kinnear.

Of course, something doesn’t have to be original to be entertaining.  Tosh’s style in delivery and class clown grin make the show engaging and somehow personal, and the adult content of both the videos and the commentary give the show a bite not found in either television predecessor.  The show plays like a highlight reel of internet comment posts, weeding out the merely shocking, racist, or pithy and showcasing the truly snarky and hilariously cynical.

The unoriginality of the show seems to categorize it as mere pastiche, but Tosh.0 is unabashedly self-aware.  From the inclusion of the writing and production crew in sketches to the mockingly prophetic sign-offs before the final commercial break of each episode (Tosh signs off with a reference to a cancelled Comedy Central show:  “We’ll be right back with more Sarah Silverman Program!”), Tosh highlights not only the mechanisms of the show’s production, but also the reality that the lifespan of the show itself is limited.  The sign-off was perhaps more prescient in the early days of the show.  As with many Comedy Central shows, its low production costs come with low expectations from the network—cancellation of a Comedy Central show is a foregone conclusion.  That is, of course, until it catches fire like South Park did, or Chappelle’s Show, or even The Daily Show.

Tosh has also made reference to his predecessors on air.  “Hey, I heard there’s some show called The Soup that totally ripped off our format!  The idea for this show came to me in a dream!  With Greg Kinnear, except it really wasn’t Greg Kinnear…”  In this season’s Web Redemption of a horrible sketch comedy trio, Tosh led the segment saying, “Hey, sketch comedy is hard.  If someone brilliant like Dave Chappelle can go crazy doing it, what makes you think you’ll be any good?”

Tosh.0 is Socially Conscious

The fraternity with Chappelle is based on more than that of hosting popular Comedy Central programs.  Richard Pryor paved the way for Dave Chappelle, and Dave Chappelle paved the way for Daniel Tosh.

Chappelle is credited for approaching issues of race in a comedic way on television unflinchingly and uncompromisingly.  He made fun of racism—not just white racism toward blacks, but also black racism toward whites and Asians, and even other blacks.  It can be cynically concluded that Chappelle and Pryor (who did the same thing thirty years earlier in stand-up comedy) could get away with calling out black racism because they themselves were (are) black.  Daniel Tosh proves that the race of the commentator is not the determining factor for this kind of statement.

The clip that spawned the recurring bit, “Is It Racist” was a video of an Asian toddler in a pool, held afloat by his or her head suspended in a plastic floating ring.  Among many jokes, Tosh cracked, “Is it racist if I can’t tell if her eyes are open or not?”  After a brief pause, he said indignantly, “I’m saying ‘Is it?’  Yes… yes, I’m being told by the audience that yes, it is racist.”

Jokes about racism regarding African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Jewish people, and even white people are all approached with a level of honesty and self-effacement that makes them engaging rather than mean.  In a web redemption from this season, Tosh interviews a couple who’s wedding was ruined by a sandstorm.  The groom was Mexican and the bride was white.  Rather than shy away from racial comments when in the actual presence of a minority, Tosh addresses it head-on.  Any menace in this line of questioning is deadened by the fact that Tosh is conducting the interview in a heart-shaped hot tub.  He often uses the physical appearance of his own nearly-nude body to neutralize potentially heated or offensive confrontations.  It also helps that during these interviews, he is unabashedly positive, which is unexpected given the bite of the rest of the show.

Context is key for Tosh’s approach to topics like race, sexuality, abortion, and religion.  He is making jokes, yes.  But his delivery and his appearance, as well as the jokes themselves, communicate an awareness of his own place in the larger issue underlying the comedic bit.  In comparison, it is much harder to see positivity in the comments by viewers on Tosh.0 blog posts.  Many comments come across as simply racist, rather than as addressing racism.

Below is the clip of the Asian “Neck Tube Baby” bit from Tosh.0.  Not only is it an example of Tosh’s approach to race, it also includes the show’s characteristic reflexivity, acknowledging the production of the bit itself.

Daniel Tosh is Uplifting

I’ll be honest.  For the first two seasons of Tosh.0, I changed the channel or left the room during the “Web Redemption” segment.  I’ve never been a fan of cringe-inducing comedy, and the idea of taking someone’s most embarrassing moment, already broadcast to the entire internet, and making a seven-minute television segment based entirely on that moment, seemed too mean-spirited and too awkward for me to watch comfortably.  My fears were unfounded.

Tosh brings the people in question to Los Angeles and interviews them to begin the segment.  The interview includes the cracking of jokes, of course, but Tosh is truly laughing with the interviewee.  The redemption part of the segment is typically cheesy.  The person gets a second chance to complete whatever task when awry and got them internet famous for some sort of mistake.  A girl gets a chance to walk down stairs in a prom dress without tripping.  A guy gets a chance to park a Ford Mustang in a garage without running it through the wall.  Typically, in these bits, Tosh is the main point of comedy—often employed through the use of a goofy costume such as the Pope outfit worn for the redemption of the married couple mentioned earlier.  Most of the time, the person succeeds in their attempt to redeem themselves, even though that redemption is a little low in the area of a pay-off.  They still have the internet embarrassment out there, though by now they’ve probably come to terms with it.  Heck, they did agree to be on a show knowing full well that the embarrassing moment was the reason for their appearance.

In some cases, however, the person fails in their comedic-sketch attempt at redemption.  Tosh uses this to aim the humor away from the person involved, however.  An appearance by Ron Jeremy after a girl falls down the stairs in a prom dress for a second time becomes a joke about Ron Jeremy (Ron Jeremy is his own joke about himself).  Dennis Rodman appears from nowhere to block a man’s attempted trick basketball shot.  That was perhaps my favorite save.  On returning to the set (these bits are shot on location and shown as clips during the hosted show), Tosh points out that for $5,000, you can have Dennis Rodman show up at your house and do whatever you want… for about five minutes, which mocks the show for paying that much for the cameo and Rodman for shilling himself out so shamelessly.

Daniel Tosh is Important

Daniel Tosh is not what I would consider an activist comedian.  He’s not out to make some great social change in the world.  He’s out to make people laugh and, if you believe his shtick, make a lot of money doing it.  But performers don’t necessarily have to be performing ABOUT an issue to make a difference regarding an issue.  It’s often a matter of bringing the conversation up.  If that approach is comedic, the conversation is that much easier to start.  Tosh’s approach is more high-brow than it may seem at first glance, and for that, we thank you.


Let’s Talk About Lady Gaga

26 08 2011

Originality just doesn’t seem to be all that important anymore.  Oh, sure, there seems to be a cultural drive toward innovation, but just how much innovation can we, as a society, take?  Technological innovation is not my primary target here, and surely there are examples of technological originality that drives cultural shifts in behavior such as smartphones or ipods.  Although, some areas of technological advancement are somewhat hindered by a societal push against originality.  No matter how revolutionary the electric car that may be developed by one automotive firm or another, they all maintain the same general “look” of the kinds of automobiles we have been used to for over eighty years.  When cars move drastically in style from the typical design with a longer front end to house an engine, they seem silly (take the BMW Isetta for example—there’s a reason it was used as the nerd Steve Erkel’s car in the sitcom Family Matters).  There is no real purpose for having this space in electric or hybrid or even gas-powered cars, but cars that change drastically don’t sell, because the public chooses the familiar over the innovative.

Really, though. This is a ridiculous car.

Culturally, at least “mass-culturally,” we do not seek out the truly innovative, strange, or original.  As I write this, the film Fright Night is opening.  I actually had no idea it was a remake of a 1980s B-movie, though I certainly saw no reason to put it into a category of “ground-breaking films.”  From the previews, it seems like a vampire-filled version of the Scream films, which, while reflexive, were themselves rehashing a horror-movie formula that has been around since the dawn of the genre.  My point is that the non-original quality of contemporary entertainment is not limited to remakes of previous cultural production, but that the formulas are used over and over again, and the cultural quotation that occurs between the individual instances of using those formulas is so universal, that we often don’t realize that anything is being quoted.

As an example, let’s look at an ad from the current Foot Locker campaign:

It seems harmless enough, if a bit stupid.  However, the average television viewer may or may not be aware of the internet video series this ad is similar to:  Drunk History.

Four years after the first Drunk History video, the Foot Locker ad is using many of the same triggers for humor:  a loose grasp of historical facts and contemporary language and behaviors used by historical figures in re-enactments.  It is also using a similar laid-back delivery in narration.  It’s not drunken delivery, but it is somewhat slow and a bit monotone.

As I have outlined before in Ad-Stiche, pastiche can be seen as quotation that seems to make no indication that it is aware of the fact that it is a quotation.  It isn’t satirical or mocking of the original source, nor is it an homage.  It is simply a hollow parody.  Ads as pastiche may seem too easy, too obvious.  Advertisers copying something popular is practically encouraged as a way to tap into the contemporary consciousness.  However, Drunk History is a bit on the obscure side and, more importantly, it is old.  Four years after its first burst of popularity, with thousands of memes, viral videos, and flying pop-tart cats being produced and distributed in the meantime.  In this case, the parody becomes subsumed, unconscious; hence, it becomes pastiche.

Perhaps my favorite example of originality’s lack of importance in contemporary culture is Lady Gaga.  Some years ago, there was a bit of noise raised over the similarity in sound between her song, “Alejandro” and Ace of Base’s 1993 song, “All That She Wants.”


There is obvious quotation in the opening few bars with the flute/synthesizer, arguably the melody, and perhaps even in the narrative.  I don’t see “Alejandro” as an Ace of Base rip-off, but as a knowing acknowledgement of a type of fetishization of Latin American men in popular music—not just with Ace of Base and Lady Gaga, but with Abba as well.  The use of the name “Fernando” is, to me, an obvious allusion to the Abba song of the same name.  It even has flutes!  The reason this becomes pastiche is because, while some of the target audience for the Lady Gaga song might be familiar with Ace of Base, they are largely unaware of Abba, and overall they are unaware of the fact that Gaga is seeking to quote and allude to these earlier songs, not to steal the work.

More recent claims about Lady Gaga stealing from previous songs have been made regarding stylistic similarities between “Born This Way” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”  And there, of course, are many. (FYI–if you click the “Born This Way” link, it’s the full music video, complete with extended movie-intro.  You may just want to skip to the middle to get the gist of the song.)  In fact, Lady Gaga’s entire persona is built on the kind of performance-based, change of identity, strong female presence that Madonna embodied in the 1980s and 90s. But Madonna also used pastiche and quotation, most obviously of the look of glamorous, golden-age Hollywood stars like Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe, just as much as Gaga uses it.  Gaga is just more blatant, or perhaps I should say, more open, and possibly, more aware.  Lady Gaga’s name itself is quotation, referring to the 1984 Queen song, “Radio Gaga.”

Madonna and Marlene Dietrich. You could do this, side by side, with Greta Garbo as well.

As before, I am not denouncing this trend toward unoriginality and pastiche.  Nor am I disparaging Lady Gaga for employing them.  I love Lady Gaga.  If I could find a way to incorporate her into every single class I teach, I would do it.  What I am doing here is highlighting areas in which we see cultural production on a very commercially and critically successful level, and the originality of that production is not the most important draw—it’s the personae, it’s the performance.  Originality is no longer the touchstone of cultural achievement, packaging is.

Packaging... egg... Gaga... it's a metaphor! Get it?


10 06 2011

I often find myself attempting to illustrate Frederic Jameson’s notion of pastiche.  It’s not the easiest thing to explain, in that, on the surface, it is so similar to parody.  Jameson defines pastiche as “blank parody.”  According to him, pastiche lacks the “ulterior motive” of parody, “amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue [it has] momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality exists.”  To paraphrase:  pastiche is a copy, like parody; however, it doesn’t acknowledge and isn’t even aware that it is copying anything, nor that there is anything to be copied.

Satirical parody uses mimicry to point out some sort of fallacy or folly concerning the thing being copied.  The Daily Show uses its format as a parody of television news to make apparent the falseness and hypocrisy of mainstream and cable news sources.  Satirical motives aren’t necessarily required for parody however.  I doubt that anyone would argue that any song by Weird Al Yankovic is seeking to point out any specific folly of the original song or artist—but there is absolutely acknowledgment that the Weird Al song is a copy of something else.  Here, he performs parody on two levels, copying both Dire Straits and The Beverly Hillbillies.

Yankovic is not engaged in pastiche.  He is aware, acknowledging, and mindful of what exactly his work mimics and the relationship it has with the original.  For quite some time, I have used the television show Family Guy, specifically the Star Wars episodes, as an example of pastiche.  When compared with Mel Brooks’ Space Balls, the lack of pointedness is apparent.  Brooks seeks to lampoon the tropes and even the commercial success of the Star Wars franchise, while Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy) seems content to simply re-enact the films with his own characters, throwing in a few tired jokes here and there.

I’m no longer as convinced as I once was with the example of Family Guy‘s Star Wars episodes as pastiche.  I think it’s more fitting to see the entire series of Family Guy as a pastiche of the animated sit-com to which it owes its existence:  The Simpsons.  To accuse Family Guy of ripping off The Simpsons is too generous, I think.  From the look, writing, and plot structure of the show, it appears that Family Guy has no awareness that it is the same show—albeit less funny and less original.  The fact that MacFarlane now has two shows that are pastiches of Family Guy itself (American Dad and The Cleveland Show) adds to my point.

My points about Family Guy often fall on indignant ears of students or friends.  Because of the show’s popularity, people miss how unoriginal it really is.  And, surely, my own dislike for the show colors my arguments and, perhaps to some extent, my judgment.  However, recent television advertising has provided me with some stellar examples of pastiche, that may make the concept more clear.

This ad is obviously targeted toward twenty-something hipsters, so the lack of historical awareness regarding the punchline might be a product of knowing that the target audience might not have any idea where it came from.  But that does not stop it from being pastiche—in fact, it more firmly establishes it as such.

The pastiche of this commercial lies in the line “Can I get a hot tub?”  The actor delivers the line, inexplicably, in the style of James Brown.  The hot tub appears, the agent says, “Nice,” and the commercial ends.  Of course, what the actor is alluding to is a Saturday Night Live sketch from the 1980s starring Eddie Murphy.


In the sketch, Murphy is parodying the voice, singing style and stage presence of James Brown, though changing the scene from the expected concert stage to what appears to be a low-budget cable access talk show centered around a hot tub.  Eddie Murphy is making fun of James Brown.  The actor in the State Farm commercial is unaware (or at least doesn’t acknowledge) that he is imitating Eddie Murphy imitating James Brown.  The commercial is a representation of a representation (here, an imitation of an imitation), and therefore simulacrum.  It is also blank parody—with no awareness that there is a norm to be diverging from.  The delivery of the line “Can I get a hot tub?” is presented as natural and true excitement from the character, not as parody of something that came twenty-five years before.

This entire ad campaign is pastiche.  It has the exact same premise, structure, and visual aesthetic as a Macintosh ad campaign from a few years ago that featured Jonathan Hodgman and Justin Long as a nerdy PC and cool-kid Mac.

T-Mobile’s ad is the same ad, only for a different product.  Yet there is no acknowledgment that it is parodying or copying anything.  What is the ad agency’s motive here?  Is it to visually associate T-Mobile with Macintosh, luring Mac users to the phone company?  That makes little sense, considering the ad campaign began when Mac’s iPhone was exclusively available on the AT&T network.  While the makers of the ad likely were familiar with the previous campaign (how else could they copy it so completely?), there is no awareness within the ad itself.  It is blank parody.  It is pastiche.

Jameson comes across as being decidedly negative about pastiche.  And, as we can see from my writing, I come across in a similar vein.  However, the opinions of cultural critics aside, pastiche is really just a component of our contemporary society.  Writers are fond of comparing the postmodern condition to schizophrenia and even drug addiction in that society seems completely focused on the present.  What is happening right now is all-important, and events, products, and even people from the past are left by the wayside and forgotten.  In the twenty-four hour news cycle, Anthony Weiner’s penis obscured reporting about long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Donald Trump was reported on as a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination without ever even running, and Charlie Sheen dominated headlines for weeks.  Remember that?  Charlie Sheen was everywhere.  Does he even matter anymore?

Pastiche reflects this attitude.  Quotations from earlier eras of production can be made, but no awareness that they are quotations is necessary on the part of the viewer.  What matters is what is being produced and experienced right now.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden urge to switch cell phone carriers.

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