Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Talking politics - attacking Beck and Limbaugh

I'm probably about to wade into volatile waters here, so as such, I'm coming to this post armed with a bit more secondary sources than I usually do. Yes, friends... today we're talking politics.

There's been a specific sort of tertiary character who pops up in a fair amount of scripts I read, particularly those that fancy themselves political satire. That is the right wing blowhard and bigoted radio commentator. Yes, screenwriters love to mock that conservative fat jolly old elf himself, Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh, for those who don't know, is a conservative radio mainstay who is enjoying a recent resurgence in media coverage after losing a fight with relevancy somewhere back in 1995. Seriously. Until Obama got into the White House the last time Rush was of any relevance, Michael Moriarty was the lead assistant District Attorney on Law & Order. He's the angry voice of the disenfranchised privileged white man. You know, people who don't understand why everyone in Springfield is so hateful to that nice Mr. Burns. He's Archie Bunker without the likability or the sense of tact. (If you don't believe me, listen to the callers on his shows.)

From the time I started reading scripts in 2002 to about 2006, I rolled my eyes when a Limbaugh clone turned up in a script. Not because of any of my own political views, but more for the fact that deeming Limbaugh relevant enough to mock was an attitude about as timely as a Murphy Brown spec script that has been sitting in a drawer since 1992.

But Limbaugh has managed to shout his way back into the the wider public eye, so references to him again seem timely. Sharper writers have also moved on to mocking analogues for Fox News' Glenn Beck. For those uninitiated, Glenn Beck is like a batshit crazy Mr. Rogers. Both speak in simple sentences, both of them consider themselves educators, and both of them have shows that regularly venture into worlds of vast fantasy. The only significant difference between the two is that Mr. Rogers fantasy world is achieved by his putting his hand up a puppet's ass, while Beck's fantasy world is born when Beck puts his head up his own ass.

So I don't dispute that both men are eminently mockable. My problem is when there is zero artistry to the hatchet job. In the worst cases, the writer has stuck the most ridiculous dialogue in the Beck/Limbaugh character's mouth, as if to make the point, "This guy is so evil that he says the most offensive ridiculous things." They give the characters on-the-nose dialogue like "All blacks should be denied a vote if they're only going to vote for black men," and then call that satire.

I once read a script that had such a hard-on to attack Bush and the Republicans that literally every villainous character in there was spewing Republican talking points. Another script revolved around an election where the "evil" Republican candidate was running unopposed, so our hero ran against him and challenged his "vile" views. However the "hero" of the story ran not as a Democrat, but as an independent. (For you see, had he run as a Democrat or had a Democrat been in the race, the script would have been obliged to either show faults in Democratic philosophy or else reveal its bias.)

That script had one agenda - vilify the Republicans, and there was literally no low that the Republican candidates, the Republican media and the Republican commentators in the script wouldn't stoop to. I think the writer thought he was making some grand point, that he was dealing a serious blow to the Republican party. Instead, all he was accomplishing was making me roll my eyes at this painful straw man story.

It offended me greatly and I am NOT a Republican. The fact that the writer didn't appreciate the irony when his character took Fox News to task for only presenting one part of the story in furtherance of a larger ideological agenda also angered me. While I love political satire, I detest straw man arguments.

Even more annoying is when a Beck/Limbaugh character shows up so the writer can get a cheap shot in at Republicans and that scene has nothing to do with the larger plot. The whole script stops dead so the writer can get in a "I hate Rush" scene that can easily be removed. I think that's somewhat dangerous to do in a mainstream comedy. At least in a political satire, the audience expects that sort of gag to a degree. Drop it in a romantic comedy and all you've accomplished is getting half the audience to resent you. Bravo.

I don't like either of those men, but to dismiss them outright is to overlook how fascinating they and their followers are, and thus, miss a potentially greater source of satire.

Honestly, a year or so ago, I wouldn't have included Beck in this diatribe or even considered him worth mentioning. He seems so unbalanced, so disconnected from any semblance of reality that I had long assumed that those who watched his show did so ironically. That was before the town hall meetings and the Tea Parties last year, which showed that a lot of people believed utterly outrageous lies and show up to shout at government officials merely because Glenn Beck told them to.

How does one not find that fascinating? Real satire would not be putting these characters in and having everyone in the script roll their eyes at them. Real satire would explore how his followers latch on to his every word, lemming-like. What makes Beck credible in his audiences eyes? How does he cast that spell? How does he present his argument and his beliefs in a fashion that stokes his audience's passions?

You bring me a comedy or a drama that explores that in depth and you'd better believe I'm captivated by it - no matter how much I detest Beck. Don't go for the easy gag - understand why that easy gag exists.

It's amazing that Beck commands such a following that they accept his word so blindly that they don't even need to fact check, they just react. Honestly, when I hear something ridiculous, even from a news personality I trust, my first reaction is "That can't be right." Then I go to Google and let my fingers do the walking. Usually within five minutes I can find at least two trusted sources that can either debunk or affirm those claims.

It's the same with Limbaugh, only the scary thing about him is that he's more mainstreamed. Yet whenever I can choke down enough bile to listen to even part of his show, I find it riddled with inaccuracies, half-truths, false equivalences and blatant misrepresentations. We're talking about a man who once got duped by an article that was clearly labeled as satire! Then, after the truth was pointed out to him, he said he didn't care the quotes were fake, that he "knows" that's what Obama really thinks.

But take a look at just a few of the recent bullshit that has spewed from this man's mouth:

- He had a listener help him insinuate that Obama's reasons for directing those who wish to donate to the Red Cross Haitian relief fund to the link on the White House website. He stirs up paranoia that the Dems are going to use this to put those people on a list. In truth, all it was was a link to the Red Cross, and that link was placed there in part so that people wouldn't get duped by false charities that spring up during these tragedies. Then he vilely says, "We've already donated to Haiti, it's called the U.S. income tax."

- He distorted the facts on the ClimateGate emails.

- Perpetuated untruths about the Health Care bill, including the "Death Panels."

- He regularly race baits, though for some reason this quote is my favorite, even though it's probably one of the less inflammatory ones: "[I]n Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering"

- said it "seems perfectly within the realm of reality" that the H1N1 vaccine was "developed to kill people"

- Failed to appreciate the irony that the Hawaiian health care that saved his life when he suffered a heart attack is EXACTLY the same sort of heath care that his party is fighting tooth and nail. Then he tried to argue that had Obama's plan taken effect, he would have been denied that health care. (starting 3:00 in, Rush's quote is at 4:11).

To say nothing of the fact that when Limbaugh is on the losing end of an election, he claims that the winning party only has the right to 56% of their agenda - but then defines "Bipartisanism" rather uniquely. I would not want this man educating kindergartners, much less functioning adults. (Can you imagine Rush teaching kindergarten? He'd call a lecture on sharing "socialism," and then mediate disputes by encouraging both participants to fight it out, with the stronger participant declared the winner. Compromise is the same as pugilism in Rush's world.)

I don't like Limbaugh in the least, but I also don't like seeing him dismissed as just a pill-popping overweight shock jock who's whining about wanting to boot anyone less than 7/8ths Caucasian out of the country while calling for giant magnifying glasses to be placed in the Arctic specifically to melt the ice because it will piss Al Gore off. That's not a parody of Limbaugh, that's a cartoon.

I think most of the people who take shots at Limbaugh don't even listen to him. They have a vague sense of who he is and what he does, but they've never studied this man that they're attacking. That's just bad writing - bad research.

Just look at that list above - that's all the shit I found on him without even looking HARD! Use something like that as the basis for your Right Wing punching bag. Don't just look at the arguments - look at how he presents the arguments. Rush tends to set himself up as the victim, or he'll frame the argument in such a way that his listener's are co-tenants in his persecution complex. He'll say something racist and then attempt to head off that criticism by saying something that translates as "You can bet those black racists will try to twist that and make ME look racist."

I stop short of calling it masterful because too often I see those puppet strings, but the man does know how to twist an argument so that it overrides the brain with emotion. He finds the worst sides of his listeners' politics and fans that spark into a forest fire. I hesitate to call it charisma, but it is a skill of sorts. Yet in all my years of reading scripts with bad Limbaugh clones, I've never ONCE seen a writer truly capture this.

Propaganda is subtle and is rarely on-the-nose. Limbaugh and Beck are masters of it, but their counterparts in bad spec scripts are about as skilled in propaganda as the average editorial writer in a junior high newspaper. If you're going to play with those characters, at least make sure you're playing at their level. Otherwise, you're just wasting a lot of valuable time in your script just to tell me you think Limbaugh sucks. I know he does, but at least give me some substance to that argument.

(Before I get a host of comments wondering why I didn't go after any liberal commentators, the answer is simple - in seven plus years of reading scripts, I can't recall a single instance of a liberal ideologue being the punching bag. Not once. I've read enough war mongering Republicans and their evil cohorts to fill an entire book shelf, but the worst any writer does with an overtly liberal politician is have them cheat on their wife. Apparently Republicans are out to destroy the world, Democrats just want to get laid. Go figure.)


  1. Man I really hate your comment system. I takes two or three tries to save the damn comment and THEN it has to get through the CAPTCHA. Why don't you "upgrade" to DISQUS like everyone else on the interwebs. Naturally, after I wrote an awesome post, your comment system ate it.

    Anyway, the person hardcore libs should be (attempting to poorly) lampoon is Michael Savage. After all, he's one of the most influential conservative people (even above O'reilly) in the USA and although he has 10 million listeners and is the number three talk show in the entire USA he's was banned in England (despite the fact that his show does not air there) by a now disgraced ex-home secretary for nefarious political reasons.

    Savage was placed on a list of HARDCORE Islamic Terrorists and skinheads because his very presence in England would cause "Intercommunity violence," as apposed to the incredible peace and calm England experiences on a daily basis.

    Also, Limbaugh taped a session at Family Guy Studios for an upcoming episode this season which will feature him exclusively. Limbaugh already Lampooned himself in the first Family Guy Star Wars Parody on "Tatooine Radio."

  2. My grandfather used to say that it's tough to be around shit without getting it on you. He was an apartment manager and was usually referring to some white trash scumbag who had done some insane thing. It was his way of not having to think about why people are fatally flawed.

    Beck, Limbaugh and Hannity are kind of what he'd be talking about with the shit you can't help but get on yourself and can't seem to get off again. He had some other saying about not talking bad about people who you want to stab in the face, so maybe those three would fall under that one.

    There is a certain big mouth junior college drop-out mentality to all three. They all went to college and left after a short stay. They all were involved in radio prior to getting into politics. Hey! How about a Munchyourin Candidate movie about turning half-witted disc jockeys into Reicht Wing puppets? Whoa! I thought of it first!

  3. Couple movies who did approach this and kind of do it right, I thought, one was THE LAST SUPPER (a film that is, in my opinion, fun but flawed) ... which presented a whole host of neo-cons and killed them, but ended with a Rush-like character who wasn't as he seemed ...

    And V for Vendetta had an English version of Rush (albet a military man, which Rush wasn't) ...

    the hard thing is that real racists, Nazis, and hateful people (like Rush and Beck) and tea-partiers are never as interesting in real life as they are in the movies ... they're just ignorant and angry.

  4. Pundits and talk radio hosts get too much attention as it is. It's amazing that in this day and age of "the google" that so many people would believe distorted info, which is fundamentally propaganda to fuel ratings and a radical following. Facebook, blogs, and other mediums help these conspiracy theorists spread their myths.

    For example, a friend and enthusiast of the talk radio circuit was convinced his taxes would double if the healthcare bill passed. He did not know one single fact about the proposed program and was embarrassed when I went a simple Wiki link which explained it in a nutshell.

    As for use in a screenplay, I guess it's a good study in how dictators manipulate their subjects.

  5. I don't know this journalists (are they journalists or just angry people?), but we have one just like them in Spain. I think the reason why no one can capture their essence is because it is so darn difficult to listen to them. I can't stand him more than the time it takes me to realize I got the wrong radio channel.
    Great post. Great blog.

  6. @Joshua James

    I was totally scrolling through this article intending to post the same comment. I thought The Last Supper did an amazing job of satirizing the political pundit but also taking into account his intelligence and acknowledging that no one is as 2-dimensional as they appear on television.

    Obviously the scripts Bitter is discussing do a less-than-stellar job of this.

  7. I grew up as a liberal, raised by liberal parents, surrounded by liberal neighbors.

    Then I moved to another state, and now I have an aide who has been a devoted Rush Limbaugh listener since his radio program first went national. The fascinating thing to me is that she is, on most subjects, highly reasonable, logical, and respectful of other people.

    But once the subject turns to race relations, the environment, taxes, or social welfare programs, she repeats, as a knee-jerk reaction, comments about Liberal Conspiracies, and how the Government is out to get us.

    I have a hard time reconciling these two halves of her personality.

    But you're right: the whole phenomenon is complex and fascinating.

  8. Honestly, a year or so ago, I wouldn't have included Beck in this diatribe or even considered him worth mentioning. He seems so unbalanced, so disconnected from any semblance of reality that I had long assumed that those who watched his show did so ironically.

    Have you ever spent 5 minutes trying to endure Olbermann or Matthews?

    That was before the town hall meetings and the Tea Parties last year, which showed that a lot of people believed utterly outrageous lies and show up to shout at government officials merely because Glenn Beck told them to.

    That in itself is a lie. Good job.

    November is going to be interesting, to say the least.

  9. Rush and Beck are two of Americas greatest living actors. Neither really believes anything they say -- they would be crazy liberals if it made them more $$$.

    They are entertainers. That is what is so scary. They are almost doing exactly what Stephen Colbert mocks them for. That's why it took me a long time to get into Colbert because the people he made fun of where already funny enough.

  10. I enjoy political satire but it is difficult to lampoon people who are so clownish. In my mind they already lampoon themselves. On my political blog I find it hard to attack Rush or Beck because there is no there there.