White-collar workers who face greater job insecurity, worsening wages and benefits, and diminished control of their jobs and influence with management will be the “next wave of union protesters,” according to a recent article from the Los Angeles Times. It is yet to be seen whether this mass movement of white-collar unionization will materialize, but the problems of the lawyers, judges and insurance agents profiled in the article echo many of reasons why WGAE members say they need the Guild in order to maintain a middle-class lifestyle.
A new video series from the Center for American Progress Action Fund demonstrates what union membership means for white-collar workers by profiling two WGAE members, writer Susan Kim and Vice President Jeremy Pikser.
We are all dealing with health issues, with family issues, with trying to save money for our retirement, with trying to save money when the job market gets really terrible and all the things the Guild does very much addresses these things. It draws a line in the sand so that everything we fought for over the years doesn’t get rolled back every time an individual needs to re-up a contract, because you have more power when you are bargaining collectively.
Unfortunately, union membership rates are at record lows—largely because the legal and political environment prevents workers from freely exercising their right to join a union. As unions have become weaker over the past four decades, the middle class has suffered, with the share of income going to the middle class falling along with the percentage of workers in unions.
Critics of unions like to argue that unions are a relic of the past and largely irrelevant in today’s economy. Still, last year, more than 14 million American workers exercised their right to participate in a union, thereby allowing them to maintain a middle-class lifestyle—that is, 14 million Americans used their collective voice to ensure that they are paid fair wages and benefits, receive the training they need to advance and are considered in corporate decision-making processes.
And increasingly, unions are helping workers respond to the shifting economy by organizing in growing sectors of the economy—including both professional workers and low-wage, service workers—and helping workers with non-traditional employment relationships, such as freelancers and independent contractors, win important benefits.
by Bob Schneider
Read ”Part I”
But first I had to get past the parentals.
The grunts in the Nam spoke of home as back in the world. The Lower East Side was my back in the world. And there I had been a latchkey kid. I fully expected to be so on Mongo as well. Womb and seed had a different idea. But after a lot of breath-holding and blue-turning, they relented and so, on a lazy Shabbos afternoon, they gave me a key and laid down a pair of categorical imperatives before releasing me into the wild: I was not to talk to strangers, and I must not conduct my cloacal business anywhere but home base—529 Ninth Ave.
As I left the house that afternoon, I was super-excited. In my hyperbolic mind I was Rob-it Magellan about to map my Brave New World.
One day in the twilight of the sixties, my Friend-the-Film-Critic and I were strolling the Deuce trying to decide between a blaxploitation double feature or a pair of spaghetti westerns, when we noticed that Freaks was headlining a theater on the north side of the street, closer to Seventh over by the porno Bijou and the Ilse-She-Wolf/Olga’s-House-of Fleapit. J waxed rhapsodic: Do you realize that Freaks has been showing non-stop on this street for the past forty years?
While what J said was not literally true, he totally nailed the it-ness and that-ness of Times Square: Freaks and the Deuce were made for each other, like Barnum and Bailey, like Martin and Lewis, like the turkey and the axe.
I stepped out of the house, turned the corner on Ninth Ave., walked a block north, crossed the street, entered the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I walked east past the Food Fair, past the Book Bar and Leisure Time Bowling, past the massive bank of elevators and the always-busy ticket windows, and past the vast newsstand opposite Walgreens. There I took an escalator down into the bowels of the 42nd St. station of the IND. I headed north toward the uptown turnstiles, past the umbrella and sundries kiosk and the Latin Music emporium; opposite Cushman’s—where I would later discover that the best chocolate-cream-covered devil’s food cupcake on earth could be had for a mere ten cents—I walked up the stairs and through the pocket penny arcade. The mechanical howling from the Shoot the Bear games served as soundtrack as I climbed the exit steps. Finally, I emerged again into the light and saw for the first time the tack-tastic grandeur of Times Square.
Thousands of miles away, Disneyland-ia, Walt’s wet dream, built on the bones of an ancient orange orchard, was under construction. He envisioned it as the final frontier of fantasy, where kids of all ages could enjoy risk-free adventure; could experience Tío Walt’s bucolic vision of tomorrow, today. But here, on Mongo, the theme park of the Hell Planet was up and running, kitschy and crowded, as vibrant as the neon lights that shone everywhere, and all the time.
The street teemed—there were people on the stroll and people on the go; there were people gobbling fast food, people gabbing to and past each other, people who looked as late and loony as the Mad Hatter. There were movie houses, ten of them all told, on both sides of the street, all claiming to be Cooled by Refrigeration. If it were a 50s Sci-Fi movie I had found myself in (I was on Mongo, after all), it would have been titled The Cinemas That Conquered the World.
Between the theaters were businesses, but like this nabe’s butcherias, they were heretofore unimaginable variations on the ones I was familiar with. Back in the world I went to restaurants—I had three delis that I frequented, the one on Rutgers for their French fries, the one on East Broadway for their pastrami and corned beef, and Isaac Gellis on Essex for their franks. If it was milchidigs or pareve I craved, there was always the immortal, much mourned Garden Cafeteria, where I would invariably get my ticket punched for a vegetable plate—mashed potatoes, baked beans, and creamed corn—and wash it down with unlimited seltzer from the communal fountain, a stainless steel tub affixed with U-shaped push taps beneath the spouts. Here on Mongo, things were very, very different. Bizarro delis like the Grand Luncheonette and Grant’s had flat-griddle franks, but they also had onions (onions?), cheeseburgers, and malteds. Grant’s even had beer on tap! There was the incontrovertibly treyf—a diner on the northeast corner of 42nd and Eighth was named Ham and Eggs! Flame Steaks smelled like char, Worcestershire, and A-1, and Romeo’s Spaghetti Kitchen had a vat of boiling water just inside the window from which pasta was pulled and sauced non-stop: it was meta-entertainment—an action set-piece, framed for viewing, on the grindhouse strip.
There was Hubert’s Flea Circus and Museum of Freaks, admission 25 cents, closed Tuesdays, (its denizens documented for posterity by Diane Arbus who said: Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats), and nearby, Fascination, a penny arcade whose back wall was Skee-Ball alley. Across the street were two stores whose inventory consisted solely of gravity knives, R&B 45s and 33s, and Holocaust porn—paperbacks with titles like Auschwitz and Treblinka—a couple hundred pages each of black-and-white atrocity photos.
© 2013 Bob Schneider
by Bob Schneider
1954 in The Naked City: You could lay down 15¢ for a subway token, take the AA or the CC to 49th Street, flash your G.O. card and pay just four bits for a side-balcony seat at an NBA doubleheader or a Rangers game; 15¢ was the going price for a slice of pizza or an order of fries—always fresh, never frozen; a quarter got you a frank, mustard-and-sauerkraut; a chocolate malted and a pair of pretzel rods would set you back 20¢, cherry lime rickeys were a dime, a 6-1/2 oz. Coke was 6¢ with a two-cent deposit (sodas were a nickel in subway vending machines); and who ate Hershey’s when you could get a Chunky, a Knickerbocker Bar or one of Hollander’s sublime full-sour pickles for the same price—5¢?
Although I lived in a tenement on Suffolk between Grand and Broome, and my family might be (generously) described as lower middle class, I always had enough gelt in my pocket to get anything I wanted—candy bars, cartoon marathons, comic books.
In 1954, the NBA introduced the 24-second shot clock, Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile, and in the World Series that year (The Jints swept the Tribe), there was The Catch—the Say Hey Kid chasing down a blast off the bat of Vic Wertz in deep centerfield, snagging it over his shoulder, his back to the batter, cap flying as he spun round, firing the ball back to the infield—a mindboggler even when viewed on a twelve-inch DuMont console.
In Creature Feature news, Gog was a killer robot, Them were giant ants; The Creature from the Black Lagoon surfaced, carrying a damsel in distress, while Gojira roared out of Tokyo Bay to claim the title “King of Monsters.”
My favorite adult-type TV show, which I watched on my DuMont with the religious fervor appropriate for a kid starting the second grade in yeshiva (Jew parochial school), was I Led Three Lives, in which Herbert Philbrick (Richard Carlson) found commies lurking like zombies ’round every corner. I rooted for him all the way, because in 1954 I was also quite concerned with the Soviet threat to our way of life.
And even though it wouldn’t impact me in a big way for a bar mitzvah’s worth of years later, I would have been very upset, very gung-ho, had I known that in 1954 Vietnam had been partitioned North and South along the 17th parallel after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, which signaled the end of French colonial rule in Indochina; and that it was also the year in which the domino theory, the conceptual foundation for our tragic, mass-murderous, military intervention in Vietnam (and the cause of my Indochinese tzurris those many years later), was first floated.
I was a proud member of the tribe, and a bull-goose Zionist as well, and I surely would have been out-of-my-mind pissed had I understood the significance attached to the fact that Nasser had beaten back the Muslim Brotherhood and grabbed the reins of power in Egypt, or that Alfredo Stroessner had taken over Paraguay and made that country safe for Nazi war criminals including Mengele, Auschwitz’s Angel of Death.
But what I knew all too well was that in 1954, the father-mother (see Creation of the Humanoids, 1962) moved the mishpuchah from our edenic shtetl on Suffolk Street to Hell’s Kitchen, so that we might live above the store which made possible for us that day, and all other days, our daily babka. It was our own melting-pot Downton Abbey, and I was little Lord Rob-it. We even had a pair of tenants. There was an enclosed kiosk attached to the side of the building where a jovial ginger named Red, of course, shined shoes, and an extension at the rear of the building with a barber shop presided over by Lenny the Tonsorial Artiste, where I had my first experience with the joy and majesty that was the tittie magazine.
All we had done to get there that muggy summer morning was take the D to West 4th and there change for the A to 42nd Street. But the moment I stepped out of the Port Authority, with its cavalcade of belching buses, it seemed more like we had boarded a Stratosled with Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov, and landed on the Planet Mongo.
The legendary Bosco Brother Butchers—where sixteen years later Peter Kubelka bought numerous haunches of lamb, schlepped them up to the Southern Tier, and cooked All Through the Night an unforgettable feast for a cadre of enthralled avant-garde film acolytes who had already been captivated by his masterwork Unsere Afrikareise (Our African Trip, 1966)—was first among a brace of butcher shops that dotted the nabe, unlike any I had ever experienced in the kosher precincts of the Lower East Side. These places overflowed with offal and other exotic cuts—chunks of fatback covered in crystallized salt, oxtails, whatever the hell they were; bloody pans overflowed with livers and kidneys and brains and sweetbreads from lambs, pigs, cows and calves. And hearts, hearts! They didn’t let anything go to waste. There were cows’ hooves and pig trotters; dead, furry rabbits hung from hooks by their little lucky feet, big floppy ears pointing straight down; outsized rounds of cheese hung right beside them. One had a pie slice cut out of it, had black flecks all through it. I asked my father what they were.
“Maggots, Rob-it, maggots. The Telainishe like maggots in their cheese, dey say it makes the cheese taste better.” (Many, many years later, I learned that the cheese was provolone, the specks were black peppercorns, and they were dee-lish.)
I subsequently learned that the Telainische were part of the Bad Element, which included anyone who wasn’t a member of the tribe, all of whom, in times of deep economic or military crisis, would show their true, genocidal colors and scapegoat the chosen people at the behest of some latter day Führer, whose coming they await with as much conviction as we do that of Moshiach (Messiah to you members of the Bad Element).
I had been programmed to never forget the six million from the time I was a zygote. Now I found myself living on Mongo among the Bad Element who were itching to add the nukes and me to the body count. I had no friends, nor did I have the prospect of any; I was a displaced person on an alien planet. Is it no wonder my survival instinct kicked in and I became determined to get the lay of the land I had been dropped into? And so I went exploring.
© 2013 Bob Schneider
On May 1, the 125th anniversary of the campaign for the eight-hour work day, WGAE led a march in New York City to Atlas Media, a nonfiction TV company known as a flagrant union buster and violator of overtime and labor law. Convening at Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, WGAE members and staffers joined ranks with hundreds of other union members to protest Atlas and other companies who are trying to suppress the fundamental right to organize and who are committing wage theft.
The rise of Nonfiction and Reality Television has been dramatic in New York City. While profits are being made hand over fist, many thousands of employees in the industry — part of the new freelance economy — are obligated to work 50, 60, sometimes 70 hours a week without overtime pay, healthcare, pensions, vacation, sick days or any basic protections. Atlas Media is one of the biggest offenders, with a notorious reputation as a postmodern digital sweatshop.
Atlas Media is well-known throughout the television industry as one of the worst places for producers and associate producers to work. That reputation has been earned from a history of overtime violations, low pay, lack of benefits or any basic protections — and a general disrespect towards employees. Moreover, to this rap sheet Atlas has added union busting as they have recently flouted labor law to suppress union-organizing efforts by their producers and associate producers.
“As the hundreds of activists made clear rallying outside Atlas’ offices, wage theft is wrong, it’s a crime, and New Yorkers will not tolerate it,” said Lowell Peterson, Executive Director of WGAE. “The company needs to stop exploiting its employees and it needs to respect their right to negotiate improvements in their benefits and working conditions.”
By Alex J. Mann
The pilot episode of my web series “Conversations with a Twitter Feed” (CWATF) was conceived, written, shot and edited in about 12 hours. I was working on a writer’s packet for a pop culture variety show that I was submitting for, and in the final section, I had to pitch and write a segment. I knew I wanted the segment to incorporate social media, because that’s what my background is in, and executives love the sound of “social” and “media” together.
I spend a lot of time on Twitter, so I poked around there, hoping for a breakthrough. At the time, the most important news of the minute was Kanye West’s rant about one of his favorite bad words. As I read Kanye’s Twitter feed, I commented on his tweets out loud to no one in particular. (I was by myself, but swear I wasn’t “talking to myself.”) Then, I had that thought that writers often have: What if I wrote down the narrative in my head?
I copied Kanye’s tweets into a document and wrote short, punchy responses to them. Eventually, I had reactions/responses to about 15 of Kanye’s b-word tweets. It was a one-sided conversation with a Twitter feed. Since it’s just the Internet, I decided to drop the “one-sided” technicality and call the segment “Conversations with a Twitter Feed.” I had the missing piece to my writer’s packet.
I pitched “Conversations with a Twitter Feed” in my packet as a recurring show segment in which comedians have conversations with celebrity Twitter feeds. In order to sell it, I wanted to shoot an episode. So about an hour after I wrote the script, I sent it to David Monk, a DP/editor I’d worked with on previous projects. A few hours later, we had cut a rough two-minute video of me responding to Kanye’s tweets. I put the link and script in my writer’s packet and sent it in. I was sure I’d get the job.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the job, but I found a solid web series premise. All I needed was more comedians who were interested in chatting with Twitter feeds.
As of writing this, we’ve released about 60 episodes of “Conversations with a Twitter Feed.” We’ve featured comedians who have performed on shows like Conan, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Comedy Central Presents and television networks like NBC, HBO, MTV, Comedy Central, VH1 and Adult Swim. The series has received some great press. It’s been written about in The Huffington Post, Splitsider, BuzzFeed, Thought Catalog and Tubefilter. Someone told me we were mentioned on one of the Nerdist podcasts.
Views and subscribers are growing. My goal is to continue to grow the series online and eventually get it to where I originally envisioned it: on television. I think that given the speed we can produce an episode, especially around topical pop culture stories, the series would be a great segment on a show like Best Week Ever, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon or Chelsea Lately. It’s cheap to produce (all you need is a comedian and green screen), and it uses social media. Executives love social media.
by Timothy Cooper
New seasons beget new beginnings. But apparently we, the 2012 Coed Slow Pitch Broadway Division Champions, like doing things the old, tried-and-true way; that is, by winning.
Our abrupt yet decisive comeback in our season opener “surprised us even more than it stunned them,” quoth Parnie, and he’s not wrong: A deficit of 5 at the top of the fourth didn’t prevent us from making a tremendous comeback in the back half of the game to eventually beat WABC-TV 8 to 7. The surprise was shared by literally all, as our skill of rotating in basically everyone was tested to its fullest extent, with 19 different WGAers playing at some point, somehow. Here’s how it went down:
The first hit and first run was by yours truly, eventually RBI’d in by Jo, but 6 straight runs by WABC went unanswered until I enacted a substitution bonanza in the fourth, like a corrupt governor handing out pardons the hour before his term ends. (The comparisons end there: No one has offered to corrupt me, and no end to my term is in sight.)
At that point, both Erik and I scored, with Erik and Parnie getting the RBIs. After Mike scored in the fifth and Erin, Erik and Tina (pinch-running for Jo) went home in the seventh, it was all tied up. A rather Purple Haze-y seventh inning took care of the rest of our business.
That’s right: The strong smell of Colorado’s top reason for tourism wafted over our dugout from unseen sources, threatening to destroy our motivation, but Emmitt was having none of it. After some feistiness with Mike the Ump and six innings of intense third-base coaching, Emmitt stomped in to take his one and only at-bat. With Lisa poised on third to score the winning run, Emmitt ripped into a pitch with the same force that a lioness rips into a young gazelle’s throat after it’s been culled from the herd. Much like that innocent baby mammal, WABC was exposed to nature at its most brutal, and may never recover.
A big welcome is extended to newcomer Alicia, as well as to returning veterans Mike, Lisa and Erin, who somehow look younger than when we last saw them. All played admirably. Doug pitched quietly and powerful, striking out several and forcing them to bat regularly.
- Marni’s roll at first base
- Erin’s triumphant return to second
- Scott and Erik looking solid at left; Jake extending reliably at first
- Zach and Mike forming a sharp outfield duo, albeit nonconcurrently
- Sharon finding out she was DH’ing after I said she wouldn’t get to play, in one of only 25 about-faces I made while creating a sometimes sketchy but ultimately victorious lineup
- And an impenetrable Stu and Other Stu and shortstop and shortstop, respectively.
Let’s play them all like this one: as a team, hitting those singles in the hole, holding onto the ball to be safe, and writing a storybook ending… with plenty of secondhand illegal substances.
The 2013 Softball Season is about to begin! Last season was a triumph, marking the first time we made it to the playoffs in two years, through a combination of tenaciousness, gumption, stick-to-itiveness, and other qualities probably mentioned in A League of Their Own.
This year, the majority of our opponents are brand new: In addition to WABC “Who’s Dave?” TV, there’s HipCricket “We’re Embarrassed to Work at a Place Called HipCricket,” Christie’s “We Only Sell Forgeries,” and ValueLine “We’re Probably an In-Flight Magazine” Publishing.
Our first game is NEXT MONDAY, April 8, at 5:30 (call time 5:10) at Heckscher Field #4. An Evite will be forthcoming. PLEASE RSVP to all Evites, whether yeah or nay; that’s the only way I can know whether you’re showing up. If I don’t know that you’re planning to be there, I might not be able to schedule you in to play. Not everyone can be scheduled in to play every game anyway, but I’ll try my hardest.
If you know anyone who wants to join (women; we have more than enough men), send them my way. If you don’t want to be on this list any longer, e-mail me and I’ll take you off.
Note that if you want to find out whether a game is canceled due to rain, I will send an email as soon as I know, but sometimes they don’t tell me before I get there. So to find out the official word concurrently or before me, don’t call me; call the Central Park/Heckscher Ball Field Hot Line: 212-628-1036. Then press some random numbers to try to hear the updated conditions for Heckscher (the extension is constantly changing, so good luck).
If you want a team shirt, I still have some; they’re $19 (cash, thx). Team shirts are required to play.
by Lowell Peterson
We have seen the future, and it is digital. This is what we read in the trades, hear on the radio, discuss over cappuccinos and beers—it’s what we fret about and plan for. I give presentations to writers both here and abroad, and I research the economics and technology of the “new media.” We still don’t know if the coming predominance of digital production and distribution will utterly transform the way Writers Guild members earn a living, or if it will instead require some adjustments in style and work schedules that are important yet entirely manageable. But we know for certain that the union and its members must be prepared and must actively participate in the development of the new creative and business structures, rather than sitting back to wait and hope.
To this end, the WGAE is pleased to present the next series of digital media training courses funded by the Consortium for Worker Education. This year, we have added workshops and classes on digital animation and storyboarding, on writing for video games, and on Avid editing, in addition to sessions on digital journalism, Final Cut Pro X, and legal issues faced by members who create their own projects. We designed this program after surveying members to determine what insights and skills would be most interesting and useful to them. Enrolment in some of the courses is limited, so I urge you to keep an eye on your email inbox—and the WGAE website—to get details and to sign up.
by Simon Apter
My bookshelf is my most prized sentimental possession, and I am convinced, after watching so many thrift-store appraisals and absorbing so many oddball-collector tips from Storage Wars, that it comprises the most financially prized objects in my house as well. (Once, after buying a virtual library in an L.A. locker, Dave Hester, the “Mogul” of Storage Wars, lined up the book-filled bankers boxes on the storage lot tarmac and then counted off in paces the serpentine’s length, declaring each literary step to be worth so many dollars as the SW cash-register sound dinged along.)
My shelf also comprises my favorite piece of “art” in the house, and not in the rather obnoxious way that people unctuously refer to high literature as high art (I’m looking right at you, ghost of Norman Mailer), and vice versa, but instead because I’ve arranged my books, from top to bottom, so that the spines form a rainbow. Red to violet from the top down, then whites, browns and blacks underneath.
One of my bigger disappointments in re-arranging the books this way was my discovery that I wasn’t nearly as well-versed in the Western Canon as I had thought—my bloc of iconically orange Penguin Classics was woefully smaller than I had expected it to be. A slightly bigger disappointment was my realization of just how few, exactly, of the textbooks held over from college I’d read or, in some cases, cracked open (What the Anti-Federalists Were For, by Herbert J. Storing, is as representative a volume of this collection as any, although I refuse to take complete blame for not having read this one. Upon registering for my rebels-versus-redcoats junior-year history seminar, “The American Revolution,” the instructor informed us—after it was too late to transfer out—that his class was actually supposed to have been called “Causes and Consequences of the American Revolution,” but that the registrar had deemed the title too long for the Bulletin. That, he explained, was why the syllabus had been stocked with so many excessively dry books).
But as much as I love my books, I’m afraid I may never buy another one again. For I’ve switched, you see, to tablet.
I’ll preface this by saying, mostly seriously, that I’ve gone electronic for medical reasons: the daily heft of lifting some combination or permutation of five or six books, magazines, and newspapers adds up, and after my second back surgery for a (re)herniated lumbar disc, I decided to lighten my load.
The early returns are promising. Never before have I been able to combine two of my four or five favorite activities—viz., browsing at the bookstore and lying around the house in my underwear—at the same time! Why risk getting kicked out of Barnes & Noble when I can now read the first ten percent of virtually any book I choose, in any room I choose, in any outfit (or lack thereof) I choose? Why spend hours at the store with a stack of books, vacillating Should I, shouldn’t I? when I can spend seconds downloading first chapters and then leisurely deciding what to do with my ten or twelve dollars (as opposed to twenty-five or thirty for a new hardcover title, yet another advantage of going digital) after taking in a generous sample?
But perhaps most inspiring is a rediscovered love of reading. Not of books—that affair has never flickered out—but with actual words-on-a-page, solid English prose. Just as one can hop around the Web via embedded hyperlinks in blog posts and articles–from Times science piece, say, to NIH study to university biology department–a tablet-reader can do the same with books. He can even purchase, for a mere $4.27—perhaps one-fifth what I paid in college—an electronic copy of Professor Storing’s What the Anti-Federalists Were For from Amazon’s Kindle Store.
My first electronic purchase, the memoir of the late Christopher Hitchens, led me to download samples of Arthur Koestler, George Eliot, P.G. Wodehouse (Attempts, naturally, to rectify that aforementioned Western Canon deficiency). Should, for example, it interest me after Hitchens’s last chapter as much as it did when he initially mentioned it in the first, I’ve got the opening chapter of Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey ready to go. And all of these siphoned into my device without the hindrance of classical consumerist tyranny of choice–or of pants.
So where do I go from here? Not to B&N, obviously, except for sentimental reasons. I don’t know what my paperless future will be like, but I imagine less weight, less boredom, and most important, more reading.
by Simon Apter
No offense to CNN or MSNBC, or even to SNL, The Daily Show, or Colbert. But my place for politics, as it has been since 1989, is Fox; Springfield, U.S.A.; and, of course, The Simpsons. Because I’ve seen this presidential campaign before, this exercise in quarter-truths, strawmen, and ad hominem attacks. And if you’ve watched any of the episodes in which Homer, Burns, et al. have gotten involved with politics, then you have too.
We’re living in a quintessential laugh-or-cry moment, a time that in its extremism and straight-up ridiculousness resembles the over-the-top satire that The Simpsons utilized to mock the American zeitgeist of the ’90s. Now, I’m not talking about the scathing social commentary that the show continues to make hay with in the 21st century’s second decade. What’s truly mind-blowing to me is how astoundingly accurate the show’s over-the-top spoofs of ’90s politics and culture have become. That is, real life in the ’10s is reprising Springfield life in the ’90s.
Take one of the show’s early foray into politics, “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish,” written by Sam Simon and John Swartzwelder. The show aired on November 1, 1990, just before Election Day. Mr. Burns runs for governor as a Republican candidate, only to be done in on the eve of election night during, naturally, a publicity stunt/media circus. In an effort to appeal to the common man, Burns ostentatiously eats dinner with the Simpsons, who’ve been primed by handlers and fed questions by party hacks. Example: Mr. Burns, your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why are you so popular?
Burns’s campaign comes to an ignominious end when Marge serves for dinner the three-eyed fish whose ocular mutation had been caused by pollutants from Burns’s nuclear plant. It’s all captured on TV.
But the most interesting part of the “coverage” of the event is the emphasis given to the visual of Burns’s spitting the fish out of his mouth in disgust. The “camera” slowly traces the ark of the rejected fish, watching it peak, soar, and ultimately plop onto the floor. And there you have it. The small piece of regurgitated fish, and not the candidate’s business practices that led to the disfigured fish, is what’s deemed important. The blatant pandering of the dinner-with-the-common-family event is now ignored, its idiocy replaced by proxy with the piece of fish.
I thought of this episode and its relationship to politics in ’04, immediately after hearing Howard Dean’s infamous Scream after the Iowa Caucus in 2004. Say what you want about his campaign, it was torpedoed by the Scream, which essentially became the metonym for the entire failed bid. In Dean’s cry was Burns’s fish with its sleeves rolled up, neck bulging, showing the wrong enthusiasm at the wrong time.
The Simpsons of course also featured the greatest campaign ad of all time, for Sideshow Bob in his mayoral candidacy against Mayor Quimby. “Sideshow Bob Roberts,” written by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, aired on October 9, 1994. The ad, which accuses Quimby of operating “revolving door prisons,” intones, “Mayor Quimby even released Sideshow Bob—a man twice convicted of attempted murder. Can you trust a man like Mayor Quimby? Vote Sideshow Bob for mayor.” The last sentence, of course, is ridiculously rushed, lest the naive viewer realize that the man twice convicted of attempted murder is actually the subject of the ad.
Like the three-eyed fish example, the play here is with the naivete that Bob’s handlers assume is native to voters. Surely, if you say “Vote Sideshow Bob for Mayor” quickly enough, people won’t notice that he’s a murderer. Surely, if the contemporary candidate wears the flag lapel pin, we can overlook his lukewarm commitment to upholding the Bill of Rights. Surely, if Mitt Romney throws in a few “y’alls” in Dixie, people will realize he’s actually a Bubba who’s only wearing a Northern square suit.
“Sideshow Bob Roberts” also features The Simpsons’s most prescient and most frightening political pronouncement. After he’s convicted of a “masterpiece of electoral fraud,” he warns the gallery:
Because you need me, Springfield. Your guilty conscience may force you to vote Democratic, but deep down inside you secretly long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king. That’s why I did this: to protect you from yourselves. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a city to run.
Of course, under similar pretenses, Newt Gingrich et al. were swept into Congress less than a month later in the epochal ’94 midterms.
This is the current GOP platform, this mandate to rule Americans like a king and to somehow protect us—especially women—from ourselves. And it was divined by a group of comedy writers almost twenty years ago. So I couldn’t watch the RNC in Tampa last month; I just didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.