Pop Prof #2: The politics of comedy

Quick note: I wrote this before Thursday’s “Halloween Surprise,” which has none of the problems I describe here and is overall an enjoyable episode.

I love the modern era of NBC smartcoms, and Parks and Recreation is no exception. The show began its long upward swing in quality early in Season Two, reaching euphoric highs in the network-shortened Season Three before coming back to earth in an overlong but still entertaining city council election plot in the back half of Season Four.

In short, I was looking forward to the show’s fifth season this year, which finds Assistant P&R Director Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) pulling double duty as the newest city council member of Pawnee, Ind., a charming-yet-eccentric town of obese, clueless residents. I admire comedies that aren’t afraid to shake up the situational status quo, and moving a show’s protagonist to a different area of government certainly applies.

However, the first four episodes have also introduced an element to the show that it has somehow has been able to avoid for the last four years: political preachiness.

For a show about government, going four years without soapboxing is an admirable feat, but that just makes the recent lapses more frustrating. P&R has made hilarious and occasionally thought-provoking episodes in past seasons about topics as diverse as gay marriage, personal health freedom, obscenity in art and even the “Birther” controversy, and it’s almost jarring to see the ball so suddenly dropped in the early going this year.

The trouble got started with episode two, “Soda Tax,” which attempts to replicate the lunacy of season four’s excellent “Born and Raised” (the aforementioned Birther episode) with a similar ripped from the headlines approach, this time with the controversial New York City soda ban. In Pawnee, Leslie proposes not an out-an-out ban, but a sales tax on large sugary drinks, hoping along with cigarette tax advocates everywhere that financial penalty will result in reduced health problems.

This isn’t new ground for P&R, as similar material was given a more nuanced and funnier take in Season Two’s “Sweetums.” This time, however, the show contented itself with setting up and knocking down straw men instead of engaging in an amusing dialogue.

A key moment in “Soda Tax” involves Leslie confronting what I assume is Pawnee’s fast food lobby, pulling out and displaying large soda cups of increasingly ridiculous sizes (one, called “child size,” is known as such because it’s the size of a theoretically liquefied child). It’s a funny scene, but it’s one that not-so-subtly establishes Leslie’s position as the only reasonable one. In P&R’s new world, it’s not a question of whether banning sugary drinks denies personal freedom; it’s simply a question of whether Councilwoman Knope can handle the political fallout. When she ultimately votes for the bill, she’s portrayed as an unequivocal hero for sticking to her ideals, and the other side of a very real argument gets no play.

“Who cares, so long as it’s funny?” you ask, and I hear you. But it’s possible to bring the laughs without losing the respect and balance that’s integral to Parks.

Consider “Sweetums,” in which Leslie fights the local candy manufacturer’s deal to stock park vending machines with a ridiculously unhealthy “energy bar.” There’s still plenty of ridiculous humor (an office-wide sugar high is a highlight), but there’s also a lot more understated stuff in Leslie’s interaction with libertarian boss Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). They fundamentally disagree, but the down-to-earth Swanson is still given respect while spouting great lines like, “The whole point of this country is if you want to eat garbage, balloon up to 600 pounds and die of a heart attack at 43, you can! … To me, that’s beautiful.” In “Soda Tax,” Ron is an afterthought, content to boorishly drink large sodas around Leslie and urge her to go with her gut in a climactic moment – even though what’s in her gut would surely offend even Ron’s hardy constitution.

To be fair, the political subject of “Soda Tax” is one I strongly disagree with Leslie on, and I’ll admit, not every subject the show tackles needs to have a multifaceted discussion. In fact, the other Season Five episode I have a big problem with, “Sex Education,” would only suffer more if it took time out to allow the pro-abstinence-only education forces a moment of clarity. Instead, “Sex Education’s” A plot flopped just for being so dang preachy.

In “Sex Ed,” Leslie takes it upon herself to help teach safe sex to Pawnee’s horny senior citizens, many of whom never got the comprehensive “talk” when they were in the prime of life. She is quickly interrupted by Pawnee’s resident moral panic coordinator Marcia Langman and her husband Marshall, who may be struggling with some repressed urges of his own.

Though the tired “sexual morality advocate as homosexual” trope has truly become the “Barack Obama is a secret Muslim”-esque ad hominem of the left, the episode’s primary crime comes in Leslie’s appearance on the normally delightful talk show of local TV personality Perd Hapley. There, she engages in a very preachy and non-amusing speech about how, yes, abstinence is the surest way to avoid STDs, but safe sex needs to be taught for those who are sexually active, etc. It’s a position I’m certainly on board with, but I’m not on board with something this dry and self-righteous appearing on one of my favorite TV comedies.

Perhaps showrunner Michael Schur and company simply found the new format too ripe not to do this kind of thing. The writing staff this year seems primed in early goings to tackle matters that would normally be discussed at state or federal levels while ignoring much of the inherent humor that could be found on the city council of a small town (as a former city council reporter, I can attest to the potential in the premise).

P&R’s early struggles this year underlie the difficulty of translating political issues to humor without stopping the laughter or coming off as snide. From stand-up to movies to books to TV, there are two possible solutions: either give the other side a sense of dignity, or make sure you’re funny all the time.

This is an inherently subjective topic, even more so than many of the other things I write about in this space. To some, the line between David Cross’s stand-up (which I hate) and South Park (which I appreciate or enjoy, depending on the episode) may be thin or non-existent, but to me they’re miles apart. Neither allows their targets a modicum of dignity, but South Park is funny, not whiny, and it punctuates its obvious anger with jokes and smarts.

Similarly, the difference between “Soda Tax” and “Sweetums” might be slight to some viewers, but they feel like completely different shows to me. One had the show’s trademark silliness paired with its distinctive niceness and character respect, and the other was just smug. Let’s hope Season Five finds a less annoying theme in short order.

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3 thoughts on “Pop Prof #2: The politics of comedy

  1. Pingback: The Best (and Worst) of 2012 « Matinee Culture

  2. At first I was disagreeing with you (Perhaps because the idea of a Child-size drink is one I found hilarious), and while I still don’t have a problem with making Pawnee or the Sweetums corporation a cartoon, I agree that it’s not fair to the show to sell out Ron Swanson. The contrast between season 2 and season 5 here is sharp. I do think that it’s just a slight misstep for the show though, which I still find wildly funny.

    I am also annoyed by the “sexual morality advocate as homosexual” trope, though less so on tv than in real life, where everyone sniggers about Marcus Bachmann like he’s clearly in the closet…

  3. Pingback: Pop Prof #7: Why Leslie Knope should have been recalled | Matinee Culture

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