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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

American theater may save the nation

Mellissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer

One of the courses I had the most fun teaching was the survey of American Theater.  From colonial days,  American literature has been a force in the cultural, social, and political development of the country.  A unique aspect of America literature is that no other country has been as thoroughly motivated and recorded in its development as the U.S. has in its literature.  The theater is a part of that literature that has the most direct appeal to people.  It deals with issues in entertaining rather than rhetorical ways.

Melissa McCarthy's portrayal of Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live was in the tradition of theatrical entertainment that satirizes some foibles apparent in American life but which on occasion makes an incisive parody of something more serious while still having fun doing so.  Such was the case as the press briefing sketch took on the issues of "alternative facts,"  dissimulating and deception with language, the White House relationship with the press, and the inane posturing of the Trump administration.  

The videos of Ms. McCarthy's performance have been viewed millions of times throughout the  world, and has been cited as comic genius.  She ignited and illuminated the sketch with her talent, and if there was a satire academy award, she would truly deserve it.

She adds to the portrayal of the Trump administration which has given SNL a boost in viewership with Alec Baldwin's portrayals of Trump.  

Alec Baldwin as Trump with Steve Bannon coaching him in being president.  
One of Ms. McCarthy's comic moments is when she hauls out a box of props to illustrate key words that come in press briefings.   It is an old bit of stage business used in vaudeville routines.  
Illustrating Musllm as Moose + Lamb

It is an emulation of the silly comedy of the prop comedian Rip Taylor,  who is known for showering his audiences with confetti and showing a bunch of mousetraps sewn on a brassiere with the quip "booby trap."  Silly.  But we giggle.  
Rip Taylor

These comic moments on SNL portray some insidious actions and thinking by powerful political figures, but bathed in the light that parody can shine on potentially deadly human misdeeds.

The stage comedy, however, overshadows the work of writers who create the scripts that McCarthy and Baldwin bring to life.  When Melissa McCarthy picks up the podium and charges a reporter with it,  it is silly but captures the belligerent hostility with which Spicer and Trump treat the press.  Writers come up with the ideas and make the scripts that the actors use to create their portrayals.  The writers for SNL are currently Kent Sublette, recently named head writer, Sarah Schneider, Chris Kelly, and Bryan Tucker.  It is their brains and senses of humor that supply the occasions for the actors to exercise their talents.

One of the moments in the Spicer sketch that captured an absurdity in the Trump cabinet was the portrayal of Betsy DeVos by Kate McKinnon.  McKinnon's classic deer-in-the-headlight look when DeVos is asked what is the best measure of education captures the vacuous responses DeVos has given at her Senate hearings.  
Kate McKinnon as Betsy DeVos

Our country has diminished in its literary understandings of late, largely because, at the behest of conservative school boards, those courses which  acquaint students with wit and verbal competence have been under attack and eliminated from curricula.  Still, the  literary underpinnings are presented in comedy sketches which satirize as did early plays in American theater.  They present occasions to examine the values in the things said and done in our culture.

One of the ways that comedy helped President Obama happened when conservatives attempted to stereotype him as an angry black man.  Some comedy writers and comedians came up with Luther, the anger translator, to make of fun of the stereotype but also to make the point that there were things to be truly angry about.  At a White House Correspondents' Dinner,  Luther came out to interpret how someone in the black culture would receive Obama's words.  It was comic gold.  And it was in an old American theatrical tradition.   

Luther the Anger Translator and President Obama

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States