Review: The Bugle (Podcast)

TimesOnlineComedians John Oliver and Andy Zalzman

With the Writers Guild of America still on strike, the absence of late-night commentary on politics has been missed. Though the quality of the commentary was rarely exceptionally high, late night comedians did provide a useful and informative diversion for those less tempted to read the papers (like myself, most of the times).

So while looking for new podcasts–something I do habitually–I noticed a a picture of The Daily Show‘s John Oliver, attached to a podcast called The Bugle, which calls itself “An audio newspaper for a visual world.”

Because it’s associated with The (London) Times, one of Rupert Murdoch’s many media properties, I was moderately fearful that The Bugle a would suffer from the same awkwardly conservative bent that doomed Fox New’s The 1/2 Hour News Hour to a lukewarm death.

Alas, such concerns were unmerited. The Bugle is a usually delightful, witty, and deadpan satire that has, since I discovered it, softened the blow caused by the absence of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert from the airwaves. The transatlantic chat show, with The Daily Show‘s John Oliver in New York and the new-to-America Andy Zaltzman from England, ranges all sorts of topics and is frequently full of biting dry wit that is unequaled in my recent memory.

As just one example Mr. Oliver, the Englishman living in America, ridicules Mr. Murdoch’s Fox News Channel saying about the recent California wildfires:

Now Fox News has speculated that there may even have been a terrorist link to this. You can now officially blame the terrorists for anything. Now I burnt my toast this morning, and I think that’s the terrorists at work. They must have broken into my apartment and turned the setting up half a notch. There’s no other explanation for this.

If you viewers have had anything happen to you that you’d like to blame on terrorism, please do email that in.

This is funny, but not The Bugle at its best. They easily venture into inanities discussed with a delightful seriousness. Mr. Zaltzman on the same topic:

But I think George W. Bush has to take a lot of blame for this because he’s been very weak with the environment this year. Now, traditionally, he’s always been heroically strong in the face of the threat the environment poses to the world, saying that we must stand up to the environment, we can’t negotiate with it because that would make us appear weak. But even he, this year, has given into the environment. He signed up to the G8’s non-binding verbal agreement to think about the environment at least once a week from now on. He does now have a picture of a tree on his desk, so it does appear that the leopard is now starting to show its spots. And it’s a snow leopord, so the joke stands.

As with all comedy (and especially satire), The Bugle is hit and miss. Some of their jokes are over-written, others feel like they would have been better if they’d been written at all. They repeat jokes to the point of meaninglessness. Their “audio cryptic crossword” is just one example of an interesting idea that has already gotten old over the mere five shows they’ve recorded.

They also seem to stretch the transatlantic connection a little past its breaking point. Their recurring–if chronically delayed–“Ask an American” segment isn’t without humor, but it tacks too close to stereotypes and sacrifices some great jokes in the process. Another of their favorite bits is to run down a current–but not well-known–event in British politics, and then ask the self-evident question “is it known in America?”

On the whole though, The Bugle is an admirable stand-in for those suffering from satire-about-current-events withdrawal. It is certainly funnier than any satire I’m either watching or not watching during the strike.

american society, review

Review: Idiocracy

Released with almost no notice in late 2006, Mike Judge’s (director of Office Space, King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead) Idiocracy is a lowbrow satire about one possible American future. Judge’s plot is a little rough, feeling like it was constructed with Duplos when Legos were truly needed. Nonetheless, the movie is a sometimes-fun journey into a true pessimist’s version of America’s future.

Idiocracy tells the story of Joe Bauers, an average American played by Luke Wilson, who is frozen in time by the military and wakes up in the year 2503. In the future, he finds an America full of what are best described as dumb people. This has occurred because, according to Judge, dumb people multiply like rabbits, while the educated never do. Thus, the “logical” outcome is that America becomes full of people who’s favorite television show involves nothing more than seeing a man hit in the crotch over and over and over.

With this simple idea, Judge paints an interesting, if incredibly simplistic, moral tale. His basic message is “Think.” Judge encourages his audience to aspire to more than the most mundane trivialities of life, though he uses a sledge hammer to drive the point home.

Judge doesn’t let all the blame fall to non-thinkers however, he also decries corporations (not the least of which is Fox) and the lies they tell to sell merchandise. Allegedly, it is this insult to the film’s producers at Fox, that led to the film’s small-scale release. And Judge pulls no punches, even when the result is exceptionally banal, like the morphing of the Fuddrucker’s hamburger chain into the most obvious double-expletive.

Judge plea that even average people think more, is inspired by Bauer’s role in the future. It’s surely no accident that Judge chose for America of 2503 to be saved by an “average” man, and not a modern genius.

What Idiocracy lacks in clarity and tenderness, it tries to cover for with a few jokes. Though the jokes are never side-splittingly hilarious, they are worth a chuckle or two.

Overall, though Idiocracy is coarse, it’s not terrible. It’s slightly simplistic, in both its humor and its message, but it does manage to entertain. And for a movie that was essentially neglected by its studio and given the most limited release they could muster, that’s not so bad.

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Review: The 1/2 Hour News Hour

Fox New’s Half Hour News Hour is a half-hour “fake news” show. It’s been on for some times, but I had neglected to check it out. This past weekend I finally saw it, review follows.

Half Hour New Hour LogoThough comparisons with Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show are easy, they aren’t really accurate. The Half Hour News Hour is much closer to a shortened version of Saturday Night Live with a “Weekend Update” as its central bit and a more conservative bent. They appear proud of this fact proclaiming during the opening that, “The following program contains satire and humor aimed at targets not normally skewered, mocked, or ridiculed in the major media.” The intro goes on, but is decidedly not worth quoting.

This episode, aired July 8, started with an incredibly long ad. The ad is presumably for Hilary Clinton, with words praising “her” experience during eight years as the First Lady. The words are nebulous enough that they could be about Clinton but clearly aren’t (this is Fox after all); it feels too long to reach obvious punchline… Nancy Reagan for President–though I will admit I was expecting Laura Bush.

Rather than going with a single strong anchor like The Daily Show or many of Fox’s own shows, the format is very much like the current “Weekend Update” format: two anchors, one male and one female, sparring with short twenty second quips based on well-known news stories. It’s not a bad format, but it’s decidedly different than the Daily Show which thrives by showing and chastising absurdity in politics and the media.

The jokes during this portion are largely those you would expect from Fox News. Jibes at Al Gore’s son, John Kerry, and Barack Obama are common. These were followed by a “resident expert” who is strangely a male feminist–I was surprised Fox News would allow that there could me male feminists. But alas, he is a blatant chauvinist. The bit is reasonably humorous, though it’s not clear that the target is feminists and not chauvinists.

Other stories they showcase are less clearly political, or funny. They point out that most journalists who make political donations made them to Democrats (ha!). They skewer iPhone owners for having no friends. And they claim that all English-speaking Americans are happy about the defeat of the immigration bill (apparently nearly 50% of Americas only speak Spanish). Other targets were slightly stranger–in one memorable joke, they make fun of the oldest man to ever climb Mount Everest, claiming that he went out to get the morning paper and ended up on top on the highest mountain on earth. “Old People!” the hosts yell, then chuckle at themselves. Continue reading