AUGUST 5, 2009 5:41PM

"Mouthpiece Theater": The death of unfunny

Rate: 8 Flag
By King Kaufman Dear Chris Cillizza and Dana Milbank,

I am in receipt of your separate, not terribly sincere apologies for "Mouthpiece Theater," your Web video series on the Washington Post's Web site, which the Post has now killed.

I appreciate and accept the gestures, however wan, but for me they weren't necessary. The joke about Hillary Clinton liking Mad Bitch beer was "inconsistent ... with the Post brand," as you wrote, Mr. Cillizza, and was certainly something to regret, as you said you do, Mr. Milbank. It was a sexist insult. But you know, as the kids say, whatever.

You boys seem to think that your offenses at "Mouthpiece Theater" had to do with you stepping over some line of decorum or risking the reputation of the paper or of yourselves as Beltway commentators. You may have done all those things, but really, nobody cares about them. Or at least, nobody would have cared about them if you'd been funny. That was your crime, gentlemen. You were just flat not funny.

You know what would have been funny?

No. You don't. Clearly. That, boys, was the issue with "Mouthpiece Theater."

"I'm sorry about the reaction it's caused but I think it's important to experiment," you said to your Post colleague Howard Kurtz, Mr. Milbank. "The real risk to newspapers is not that they take too many risks, but that they don't take enough risks."

Mr. Cillizza, you wrote, "For those who have counseled me to 'stick to your day job,' I say this: my day job, like every reporter in the Post newsroom or in the journalism business more broadly, is changing rapidly, and I am committed to trying to change with it."

Good for you, fellas. We can all do without the "pearls before swine, the world just wasn't ready for us yet" tone, but you're right, it's important to experiment. And let's be clear: It's no crime to try something and fail!

Except when you try to be funny and fail as badly as you did. That really is a crime. No, really, it is. I don't mean that in some figurative way. I mean, if I were in charge of things, you'd be in jail right now. That's how not funny you were. You wouldn't have to do serious hard time or anything. But you'd do a little.

What was not funny is how you thought you could turn on a video camera and do some weak jokes and that would be good enough. Here's a mistake people make all the time, especially people like you, by which I mean newspaper people: They think the Internet is easy. They think that because something's online, somehow the standards are lower. They think they can get away with crap because, hey, it's not the big room. It's just the Web.

This is of course exactly backwards. Shovel some crap into the newspaper and you might get a few letters, a guy might turn to his pal on the bus and mention that lousy piece he read in the paper, and in a day or so your story's looking up at the business end of a parakeet somewhere.

You put some crap online, you run the risk of becoming the target of the whole Web's ridicule -- I don't have to tell you this, anymore, right boys? -- and it can go on for days, even weeks or months.

Another mistake people make is to think that being funny is easy. This is why comedies rarely win the screenwriting Oscars even though they're often better written than the heavy dramas that do win. It's because people think comedy's easy."Dying is easy," the British actor Donald Wolfit said. "Comedy is hard." And then he died, which is funny, a little.

What's not funny is you two. Because you made both of those mistakes. And mistakes like that don't add, they square. The Web is hard and funny is hard. If you want to be funny on the Web, you need to really bring it. You, gentlemen, did not bring it. You, I suspect, would not know it if it threw a pie in your face.

I really do accept your apologies and I encourage you to keep experimenting. But it doesn't sound like you've really learned your lesson, which wasn't anything like "Don't call the secretary of state a 'mad bitch.'"

It was: Respect this world. Respect the medium. Respect the audience. I'm sorry if it sounds brutal but this is the way it is: This is the Internet. The days of mailing it in are over.

Respectfully,
King

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I would also say they need to get out of the Eastern timezone once in a while. And no, Chicago does *not* count.
King - well put, sir. Having watched Milbank and Cilizza on Kurtz's Reliable Sources more times than is mentally healthy to do so, anticipating their complete lack of funny was an easy guess. Can't even approach as complex a joke as "Pull my finger."
They really need to bring it. There should've been an interlude with a cat playing a piano.
So now that the Post's reporters have insulted Sec. of State Clinton is Katharine Weymouth going to have a dinner party where the Post pays itself 25K to attend so it can regain access to Clinton?

This is being quite the year for Millbank, first the pouty lipped pissing match with Nico Pitney from the HuffPost and now this.
WORD.

I was talking to someone in the comedy business recently about humor and offensiveness, and the consensus was -- funny is the bottom line. (This after repeating a Dan Mintz joke about Roman Polanski that I think turned my hair white:
http://www3.timeoutny.com/newyork/tonyblog/2008/11/new-york-comedy-festival-bj-novak-and-friends/)

It's so not about anybody's perceived sensitivity. There's plenty of outrageous, envelope pushing humor out there, and if it makes people laugh, it's successful. A cheap lazy gag is just a cheap lazy gag.
There are, perhaps, a couple of logical fallacies at work here.
1) If something unfunny is posted on the Internet by two guys who work for a newspaper, is that really enough on which to hang an argument that it's a result of newspaper people in general failing to understand the Web? Thousands of folks who know the web inside and out post really unfunny crap every moment of the day. So maybe there's something beyond these guys' sad connection to a dying industry at play in their tragic unfunniness.
2) What is this bit HAD, somehow, been funny, or perceived by millions of Web users as funny? Would that have prompted a post about how lazy MSM crap-shovelers are finally getting the Web? Or would it have just been another instance, like the wedding entrance video pointed to here as a lesson for journalism's future, of catching lightning in a bottle online, which is occasionally going to happen, even sometimes with less than stellar stuff (LOL Cat, anyone?)
That reminds me of a joke: A journalism blogger, two guys in smoking jackets and a cat dancing to "Forever" walk into a bar...
""Dying is easy," the British actor Donald Wolfit said. "Comedy is hard.""

Excellent article again. This is the same problem Fox's 1/2 Hour News Hour suffered from. It just wasn't funny. Being funny is a craft that takes hours and hours and hours of practise to hone. Many comics spend a lifetime trying and never succeed ... it's not often that two people who have no background in comedy can step onto a stage like that and take the comedy world by storm. It does happen, but you have to be a whole lot better than Mouthpiece Theatre to even have a hope in Hell.

Rated ... would have rated it a dozen times if I could, just for the line "The Web is hard and funny is hard. If you want to be funny on the Web, you need to really bring it. You, gentlemen, did not bring it. You, I suspect, would not know it if it threw a pie in your face."

For the record Milbank and Cilizza, THAT is funny.
Mary: After a few years in the comedy business, I can vouch for what you say. I can say ANYTHING I want as long as it is funny. I can be incredibly offensive, as long as what I am saying is at LEAST equal parts funny as it is offensive. In contrast, if I am not being funny, it doesn't take much at all to offend a crowd. If the crowd is laughing, they will cut you a WHOLE lot of slack ... but if they aren't laughing, that slack gets pulled back REALLY quickly and abruptly.