One Last Request
And some love for Murphy Brown.
Recently, I had the enormous good fortune of seeing producers Norman Lear, Diane English, and Frank Rich discuss political humor with director Jay Roach. I was at the University of Southern California Comedy Festival, where I had earlier sat on a panel with Amazon head of comedy and drama Joe Lewis, among other creative humans (Lindsay Kerns, Ned Fulmer, Meena Ramamurthy of hit web series “The FOB and I”, Scott Zabielski, and Dave Goetsch). The pleasure of getting to sit on a panel like that and take questions from engaged, determined students is just the best thing ever. And the second-best thing ever is the fact that sitting on such a panel means you often get VIP access to other panels. Thanks to the generosity of the USC Comedy Festival staff and student volunteers, I got to sit front row at the political humor event. I never could’ve gotten into a fancy school like that with my high school grades, so this was fantasy camp for me.
During the course of the evening, I started to cry happily exactly three times but I got it together very quickly. I remain proud of this feat.
Now, I am reasonably chemically balanced these days. Thus, the question arises: why did I get so damn emotional at an event where television legend and Oscar nominee Norman Lear inquired of Frank Rich if they’re allowed to say “pussy” on Veep? (Yes, according to Mr. Rich, who added that he hated to tell him, but they get away with much worse than that. Mr. Lear seemed delighted, not in any lascivious way, but because he’s 94 and he’s been happily fucking with the gatekeepers and naysayers and hypocritical barkers at the Republican Faux-Morality Carnival for over half a century.)
I will add here that like Mr. Lear, I am an Emerson College dropout, ardent liberal, and fan of good hats. Of course, he dropped out and enlisted in the Army Air Corps and (like my dearly departed grandfather) became a decorated airman during World War II. On the other hand, I dropped out and worked in a gym in New Jersey.
But back to the topic at hand. Why, at a panel on political humor, did I feel so emotionally moved?
I am, first and foremost, a fan of words, and these people are notoriously good with the words. I am, secondarily, a student of politics. These people have engaged with politics in their work for decades. I am, third, a fan of comedy onstage, on television, on digital, on film, via games, and even in the magical world of VR. Fourth, I’m a writer (books, pilots, this blog, a screenplay, articles, essays, tweets, grocery lists) and these people are role models to me.
I watch and love “Veep,” where Frank Rich is a producer. I have watched and loved many Norman Lear creations, from “All in the Family” to “Good Times” and so on. A gap in my Norman Lear education is “Maude,” which I must watch — how did I miss Bea Arthur as an irascible feminist who has an abortion AND her own damn series? (The answer is that it probably wasn’t syndicated with the robust enthusiasm of his other work.)
And I am an eternal devotee of Diane English’s “Murphy Brown,” a show so fabulous and prescient that it gave us, in its fourth season, a successful single woman who chose, after a surprise positive pregnancy test, to become a successful single mother.
Now here’s where we really get into the politics of it all.
I was 11 when CBS aired a controversial and beautiful episode in which Murphy Brown gives birth to baby Avery. I remember Season 4 Episode 26, “Birth 101,” not just because Murphy goes into labor during a broadcast, but because it concludes with this tough broad singing “Natural Woman” to a baby she wasn’t even sure she wanted at first.
And, of course, that episode led to Vice President Dan Quayle lighting into the show in a speech in San Francisco that year. His denunciation of the character of “Murphy Brown” for being immoral (and, though he didn’t say it explicitly, slutty and dirty) became a topic of enormous interest across the nation. It dominated news broadcasts on more than one evening. And it led to the staff of “Murphy Brown” writing a gloriously vengeful response episode in which they incorporated actual footage from the Quayle speech, treating it as if the real-life VP had criticized the actual Murphy Brown within the world of the show.
At the USC panel, I asked a question from the audience, and also told Diane English I remembered that as damage control, the Bush Administration (or perhaps Quayle’s own handlers?) trotted him out and made him sit in a room with single mothers to watch that episode — a kind of penance for shitting on so many Americans who were single moms themselves or had been raised by single moms.
I also remember my own working-class paternal grandmother’s delight at Murphy Brown as a character, and at “Murphy Brown” as a show. My grandmother’s father worked for the railroad as a signalman. He died when she was young, and she was not able to attend college. She worked as a secretary for Mack Trucks for many years. She is (even today, in her nineties) an Irish Catholic liberal Democrat and she loved Murphy Brown. My parents, including my mother — also a woman from the working class, raised by a single mother — enjoyed the show. I was a middle-class child of a dual-parent household, I loved the show. It was just a hell of a program.
(As an aside, it turns out I am incapable of writing about the “Birth 101” episode in public without crying. My belated apologies to the staff and patrons of Little Dom’s in the Los Feliz neighborhood of the city of Los Angeles in the great state of California, where I wrote the first draft of this essay. I’m on a plane now and not crying.)
Anyway, the whole evening was great. And it reminded me not just of the pleasure of watching artists engage with politics in an intelligent and whip-smart fashion, but also the emotional response such work can evoke.
Today we have a robust and thriving Internet culture that did not exist in 1992. And the Murphy Brown controversy of today would be worked out in gifs and memes and tweets and Instagram posts and lengthy diatribes by your creepy racist in-law on Facebook. Ah, progress!
The Internet has played an increasingly important role in every national political race after that crucial ’92 election, whether as subject or as medium for expression and communication. And satire has been an invaluable role throughout. “Saturday Night Live” has long been the de facto center of national attention when it comes to political satire, but it is now one of a host of places a person can turn for solace, relief, or rage during any given national campaign.
This year has been a bitter, angry, racist year in media thanks to a bitter, angry, racist candidate, Donald Trump. Never before has untreated narcissistic personality disorder been so thoroughly enabled by a major American political party — by so-called “old-fashioned” Republicans like Sen. John McCain (who has himself benefitted from the racist right wing for quite some time and who didn’t disavow Trump until VERY late in the game), by the new breed of hip young Hatepublicans like Sen. Marco Rubio and beyond.
Ultimately, a vote for Donald Trump is a failure of imagination. It is a failure of one’s ability to imagine the feelings, emotions, and day-to-day reality of someone who does not live in your own head, in your own family, in your own community, and who would suffer greatly under his policies and under his presidency.
We may also call this a failure of compassion.
Trump got the nomination because he faced a fractious field of competitors in the GOP, and while they battled with each other, he relied on white nationalism, racism, nativism, and willful ignorance with a heavy dash of reality show celebrity to propel him to the nomination. He got a glorious assist from the legacy of Ronald Reagan, who in his particular genius recognized that playing to pastors was a wonderful way to get their followers to empty their pockets.
A pastor who tells his flock that there’s only one right way to find Christ, and who then tells them there’s only one party that loves Christ? That’s the fellow you want to woo. And the GOP has wooed these fellows (and gals) for a long time. Faith trumps rationale some of the time, and when one has been indoctrinated in a pseudo-compassionate, hateful faith system since birth, it is ingrained and can only be unlearned through great effort. In many ways, it mirrors the after-effects of physical and sexual abuse. When everyone in your family and community is pressuring you to stay the way you were raised, you have very little impetus to change, no matter how smart and kind you may be.
Like all the successful dictatorial personalities before him, Hitler included, he whips up a frenzied terror of immigrants and The Other ™ and uses it to make money and gain power. It’s basic shit. We’ve seen it before, over and over again.
I thought about the classic film “Dr. Strangelove” as I walked the grounds of USC with television producer and professor David Isaacs. I believe Mr. Isaacs mentioned the film in passing and I said that Donald Trump is a lot like a less competent General Turgidson. After all, at least the horny, apocalyptic Turgidson had actual military experience and some degree of know-how. Turgidson once memorably said that he wished the United States had “one of them Doomsday machines.”
Donald Trump is a human Doomsday machine.
Whether or not we elect President Donald Doomsday on November 8th (and I firmly believe that we will not, though it will be closer than it should be in any republic comprised of moral and decent human voters), life shall go on. And I have paid work to do that will hopefully continue regardless of who is elected president — screenplays ain’t gonna revise themselves, and I’m on a deadline, which happens to be Tuesday — and so this is the last political essay I’ll write here on Medium before the election.
I am sympathetic to my fellow queer friends who realize they have relatives who will vote for Trump. Someone who really loves you will not actively work to end your ability to form a family, to start a business, to work, to live in the USA. Theirs is a hollow love. They actively fight against our joy. This is a tragedy and it is difficult to comprehend, but it is real.
I do not empathize with Trump voters. I do not hate them. I understand them. I see them for who they are and what they are. I reject them as poison to a republic that functions on free conversation, free thought, and a free election. I reject them as enemies of my brown and black friends, my immigrants friends, and indeed of me.
I know a feverish minority of you found this because your cousin’s liberal sister’s daughter posted it on Facebook and you’re presently losing your racist mind because you think I’m a terrible journalist from the liberal hellmouth. I’m not a journalist, at least not in my capacity here. I’m a writer with an opinion. You have effectively stumbled on my blog. We clear? Cool. Please learn how the Internet works before you commence screaming and sharing your AOL forwards about how Hillary does abortions via emails stolen from the Saudis. Thanks. Also, you’re the in-law nobody likes, and you embarrass your kids at Thanksgiving because they’re not as hateful as you are.
Now, to proceed.
If you are a good and decent person with compassion, I hope you vote. Please vote for Hillary Clinton. Don’t vote for Donald Trump or a third-party candidate. Not in this election. Not this time. Not when it’s this close. Not when it’s this important. Because your vote, after all, isn’t really about you — it’s about all of us, the folks you know and the folks you’ll never know.
I recognize that certain third party candidates hold certain attractive qualities. Dr. Jill Stein sounded interesting for a minute — a powerful and well-educated, bold woman with allegedly progressive ideals — but I realized soon she just wants attention and probably a great lecture agency in future; that’s been clear for some time. She spreads the lie that Clinton and Trump are the same. She’s a craven attention addict who whips up a frenzy of fear in her own way (and dog whistles implicit legitimacy of anti-vaccine lunacy and wifi delusions) and she is of no use to us here.
On the other hand, former Governor Gary Johnson is a self-made man and a fascinating one, and while I do not agree with him on many points I do understand his appeal. I discussed as much with a relative I love, someone who considered a vote for Trump but who really does not represent the ideals of Trump in any way I can see. Trump is not the candidate of good and decent people. In some cases, Johnson indeed can be that candidate.
But the unfortunate reality is that if you cast a third-party vote for president, you do not help move us forward. In your own mind, you may believe you move you forward. You can boast that YOU were different. After all, you couldn’t stand either one of them. And who can blame you? Politicians are notoriously annoying at best — corrupt and damaging at worst. It’s a fashionable thing, to declare you hate the mainstream candidates. And you’re a fashionably non-mainstream person, right?
Dr. Jill Stein or your AOL email forward or your particular Facebook group told you the candidates were exactly the same (this is a lie; they are very different candidates — go to their websites, read their positions on various issues, and see that I am telling you the truth).
I do not particularly care if you personally can sleep at night. In fact, I would much prefer that you stay awake and deeply consider what’s really best for this country.
I care if the country moves forward effectively overall.
And what about the rest of us? Do you abandon us so you can wear your Stein t-shirt, your Johnson t-shirt, your whoever else t-shirt while we see our marriages rendered null and void, while we see the gulf between our paychecks and our male coworkers’ paychecks grow? Do you celebrate with your Green party button and your fulminations against the corporate police state while the rest of us watch mass deportation of our friends and family?
Regardless of your opinion of her other attributes and aspects and your well-founded criticisms, a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote to protect marriage equality, equality in pay, a sensible path to immigration, protections for military families, and comprehensive mental health care for all Americans.
A vote for Donald Trump will take us back in time. A third-party vote will function as one less vote to widen the margin in what will likely be a squeaker of an election.
I recognize that I have focused largely on Clinton’s domestic advantages and policies. You may not approve of Clinton’s past foreign policy decisions. I have not always agreed with them or approved or them or loved them or liked them. There are very real and anguished and terrible results of some of these decisions.
And some of these decisions have been wise. Do not forget that this is the Secretary of State who helped finally — finally — hunt down Osama bin Laden.
That ain’t nothing.
And the other option — the only other real option — is President Trump.
Do you really think his policies overseas would be more forgiving? Do you think they would be more intelligent? Do you think they would be more compassionate?
We live in reality. It ain’t pretty, but here we are. It sucks, right? And it’s great, too, sometimes.
I’m on a plane to New York City. It was important to me to be there, somehow, in the home base of these two candidates. I love where I live now and I prefer Los Angeles greatly. But there is something about celebrating or mourning in the streets that the City of New York does in a special way that I need right now.
Let’s remain vigilant, always. It’s a pain in the ass but I swear, it’s worth it.
You can elect a president who will listen to you sometimes or you can elect a president who will listen to you never.
You have value and dignity regardless of how you vote. Please vote as if you believe that others have the same worth.