Bad Craft

Zachary Martin

Apr 06, 2012

Greetings, and welcome to another year of the Gulf Coast blog! We here at the magazine are pleased to be back, and are very glad you're reading. We'll be offering new posts twice a week through the fall and spring semesters, courtesy of our diligent, brainy editorial team, so we hope you'll stop back in regularly. (You can also follow us on Twitter or Facebook, too, to get the latest updates and be notified of new posts.) --the Gulf Coast Online Team • "Let's try to avoid talking about politics on the blog," J.S.A. Lowe, Gulf Coast's new Online Editor, told all of us on staff recently, and I want to listen to her. She's such a good editor, so kind and patient. I want to listen to her so bad, but at the risk of watching her throw up her hands in disgust and walk out on the journal, I have to bring up a recent incident from politics. And then I'll tie it in with writing and, that way, try to save Gulf Coast from losing a much-needed staff member. The incident is this: two weeks ago, Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair on national television. You likely saw it, shook your head, laughed perhaps--either with Eastwood or at him--and then moved on. I haven't. I keep coming back to that moment, trying to wrap my head around it, asking if it really happened. Like watching a double rainbow or hearing that Night Ranger is still touring, it's difficult to believe your senses afterward. During the Republican National Convention, I was in Boston visiting two married friends who perform in an improv troupe. We watched the Eastwood speech in its entirety, our mouths agape, and then one of them turned to me and deadpanned, "That's the worst game of 'Prop Tag' I've ever seen." If you've ever been to an improv show or watched Whose Line Is It Anyway?, you've probably seen Prop Tag played: a box of props is thrown out on stage and cast members take turns trying to get a laugh by using the objects in unexpected ways. Watching Eastwood play his own version of the game in the national spotlight, telling the empty chair, "What do you want me to tell Romney?...He can't do that to himself," was painful, but more painful still was the knowledge that Eastwood had time to prepare his remarks. There were writers available to him--what speechwriter in the Republican party, what scribe in Hollywood, would not have gladly come to his aid?--and he either decided against using them or, worse, that lame chair bit was the best thing his writers could come up with. Much of the discussion of Eastwood's speech in the days after the convention seemed to focus on partisan politics, on which party you needed to belong to in order to "get the joke." I'm reminded of the famous "Yada Yada" episode from Seinfeld, in which Jerry gets suspicious when his dentist leaves Catholicism and starts spouting Jewish jokes. Jerry goes to confession:
Seinfeld: I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he's converted to Judaism purely for the jokes. Priest: And this offends you as a Jewish person? Seinfeld: No, it offends me as a comedian!
In other words, I'm not trying to express a political bias here. As Steve Almond points out in a recent article in The Baffler, the left is also guilty of "jokes" that pander to target audiences, for the purposes of ad revenues and empty political actions, and I'm sure that everyone who played the same Joe Biden drinking game as me--take a shot whenever he misused the word "literally" during his Democratic National Convention speech--also had to sleep wherever they were when he left the podium. What I am talking about is the use and misuse of language. As someone who has chosen as a profession the cultivation of language, I'm deeply offended. If the goal is public discourse of the sort that might help repair our national rift, then the lack of earnestness--the lack of precise speech that has the potential to draw us together as a polity--is distressing. If the goal is humor, well, try crafting some better punchlines. Whether delivered by a legislator or an armchair pundit like Clint Eastwood or Jon Stewart, political discourse this fall seems like a whole lot of careless "yada yada" without much substance--or good humor--behind it. What's clear in this election season is something every good writer already knows: when you don't put in the time at the writing desk, it shows in the final product.