Call it the JibJab effect or the Daily Show phenomenon. Whether it is news or politics, humor is in. And I don’t mean the political ditties of the Capitol Steps in
Washington or the monologues of Jay Leno. I am talking humor of the “edgy” variety (not the entertainment publication), as in the blurring of the boundaries between news and entertainment.
And so I come to today’s topic, should news be entertaining or entertainment newsworthy? Should politics be played for some laughs? And more specifically, should PR follow suit and get into the funny business – especially in the age of new media?
For starters, I looked no further than funny man Jim Meskimen. I worked with Jim on a video to launch HELIO, the wireless joint venture between EarthLink and SK-Telecom. Among his many credits, Jim did the voice-overs in the now famous JibJab videos from the 2004 elections featuring President Bush and Senator Kerry.
Dan Greenfield: I hear you are a funny guy. How funny are you?
Jim Meskimen: I’m so funny that my own crow’s feet beg me to stop.
Greenfield: You were the voices behind the JibJab videos in the 2004 election mocking both President Bush and Senator Kerry. Have you no respect?
Meskimen: Not really. I can’t afford to. I’m the Marni Nixon of the political world. I also voiced Cheney, Edwards, Michael Moore, Al Gore, Rush Limbaugh, McGreevy, John McCain, Clinton, Schwarzenegger and Dan Rather. And I can only assume that they make fun of me, too.
Greenfield: Do you think humor was a bigger factor in the 2006 elections because of videos like the one you did in 2004? Did you see more instances of humor?
Meskimen: I saw a lot of JibJab wannabes. The thing is that nobody can match Evan and Gregg’s (the Spiridellis brothers) dedication to making superb animations. They make it look easy, then you see some of the copycats and go, “Oh, I understand. This stuff ain’t easy. In the words of our Commander in Chief, “It’s hard work!” Now, the Daily Show, that’s something else. Man, that stuff is funny. And they get to use the actual footage, so they don’t need to make brilliant animations. But is it art?
Greenfield: The Daily Show, Bill Mahrer…how is humor changing the tenor of political discourse?
Meskimen: Humor has always been a major language tool in political discourse, as far as I can tell. I got my first taste of it with MAD magazine, which was, in the sixties, INTENSELY political. They did what JibJab does, and skewered everybody, regardless of political affiliation. The thing is, politics is always, always, ALWAYS slanted in some direction, and so it will always have a surplus of untruths, hypocrisies and falsehoods tagging along. These are usually strung out behind any political figure and are exposed, just waiting for someone to come along and take a potshot or two at them. It’s a bit like Hollywood that way; it’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel.
Mark Twain was a brilliant political humorist, too. I think humor gives us a socially acceptable way to discuss a very volatile subject, and anything that facilitates that is okay by my book.
I actually don’t discuss politics much. Any of the big social problems I am very confident will NEVER be solved by the political arena, but by caring and informed individuals. If politicians can stay out of the way of these more noble sorts, then they will have done a great service.
Greenfield: Is the public expecting more humor in their news and from their candidates?
Meskimen: I have no idea. For me, the humor is already there in many cases, if you can listen or watch with a discerning eye. Unfortunately, the things that would be most hilarious and ironical in the world of politics do ACTUALLY have a negative impact on the lives of real people like you and me. Then it’s not so funny.
Greenfield: How much do you love YouTube? How is the Internet changing what you do and how you do it?
Meskimen: I like it, but I don’t think it is organized very well. I am a bit wary of it, because it is so uncontrolled; for instance, anything I do as an actor can wind up there to a massive audience. That’s fine, if I’m proud of it and if anyone can actually find it. I’m not getting paid, but it is free promotion… but what if my car gets hit by a train and anyone can watch me get splattered over and over again? It’s kind of creepy to think that with all the cameras around, pretty much anything is available, even the things that human dignity would suggest be best treated with privacy. Hey, what a funny interview, huh? Man, cheerful stuff!
Greenfield: If the Internet were a joke, what would be its punch line?
Meskimen: I don’t know. But if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has an email address, is it mailto:Netanyahu@yahu.net?
Greenfield: Thanks Jim.
To me, the likes of the Daily Show, E! News and YouTube are raising (or lowering) the stakes – turning news into “newsotainment.” What does this mean for PR folks when an interview with Jon Stewart may be more impactful that one with Katie Couric? And in a nod to ABC News, what does it mean that many Americans get more of their news from the Daily Show than from any other source?
Now I make a distinction between celebrity news (E! News) and parody (the Daily Show) whose “news” formats serve to blur the distinction between news and entertainment and YouTube where featured video clips make their way to mainstream news. These clips are often entertaining even if the subjects of the videos were not intending to be (e.g. the Comcast rep caught on video falling asleep on a service call). YouTube’s popularity only guarantees that more embarrassingly funny true moments of real people (and possibly our clients) will find their way into the news cycle. We now are all actors in our own lives. Is news the new Hollywood?
We, the keepers of the PR tradition, have decisions to make. Do we continue playing it straight or do we start infusing some humor into our press releases and pitches? Do we start producing podcasts and YouTube videos with entertainment in mind? My advice: tread carefully. As Jim pointed out, humor is “hard work.” Being unfunny, when trying to be funny, may be funny but not the way you intended.
Let me get back to you.
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