If George S. Kaufman was right when he said that satire is what closes on Saturday night, Andrew Cohen, the embattled auteur of the San Francisco police videos, has just had one nightmare of a Saturday.
After a decidedly modest opening for his satirical sketches about life on the force at Bayview Station — a reported 250 hits on SFPD Officer Cohen’s personal Web site, where the videos were posted — the closing was a doozy. Last week’s press conference, which trumpeted the news and content of the videos around the country and beyond, was aglow with steely rhetoric and theatrical focus.
Mayor Gavin Newsom, his thumbs tensely fiddling, panned Cohen’s Follies with an unsparing litany of adjectives: Shameful. Offensive. Sexist. Homophobic. Racist. While promising fairness to some 20 suspended officers, Newsom shook his finger and declared a “zero-tolerance” policy. Police Chief Heather Fong, looking like a character straight out of “The Scarlet Letter” in her sober black garb and dour mien, led with her best line: “This is a dark day — an extremely dark day — in the history of the San Francisco Police Department.” The show-within-the-show featured ample clips from Cohen’s camera.
One skit depicts officers ignoring a radio call while they read the newspaper (the Examiner, no less) and practice mincing martial arts moves. Another mocks the vanity of an officer ogling a woman on a traffic stop. Suggestively wriggling tongues dominate a “Charlie’s Angels” parody. Emmy Awards are unlikely.
There was, right from the start, a weird, double-vision divide about this story. You had to squint, in the glare of all the press attention, to sort out the sober and the self-righteous from the downright silly. Real life, as usual, trumped satire.
For the mayor, as the commentators noted, it was a “scandal,” the biggest test yet of his two-year administration. The city’s homicide rate is at a 10-year high. The culture of the police department had been revealed and laid bare for all to see, many said or thought. All that thumb-fiddling looked like the behavior of a man whose hands were figuratively tied. Newsom’s outrage was preordained.
Not so fast, countered Cohen. Making his case on national TV and in local interviews, he supplied his bona fides as a Berkeley liberal with two biracial children and a track record of making sensitive training tapes for the department. Cohen defended his latest mini-opus as a harmless, in-house morale booster. “I don’t have a racist, prejudiced bone in my body,” he told The Chronicle. Maybe Newsom should put a film critic or literary scholar on the blue-ribbon commission he’s promised to sort out the nuances of authorial intention and effect.
All this, let’s remember, was touched off by a scruffy batch of amateurish, sophomoric pranks that come off like video versions of a note passed in the back of class. There’s nothing worse, as any red-faced student can tell you, than the teacher getting hold of the note and reading it aloud to the whole class. Things that seemed larky and hilarious in private can sound baldly embarrassing, lame and distinctly unfunny in public.
Then again, maybe that’s part of the thrill of passing notes (or making videos) in the first place. Can anyone, these days, film and/or post anything on a Web site and not realize, at some level, that the whole world might soon be watching? Ask Kirk Reynolds, the public-relations man for the San Francisco 49ers who was fired earlier this year after his embarrassing videotape made as a training tool for the team came to light. Technology has made anything transparently available. Meaning, somehow, just keeps getting murkier.
Much of the blur and static around the police video caper has to do with the unstable nature of humor across the cultural spectrum. Satire and parody, especially, have gotten swept up in an engulfing tide of mockery and scorn. In today’s accelerated media swirl, things no sooner happen in the world than they are minutely minced by everyone from radioheads Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken to the Comedy Central tag team of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to an army of instant-response bloggers. Supreme Court nominees are thoroughly deconstructed before they get nominated. New movies are buried (or exalted) before they open.
Traditional stand-up comedy, once the province of skilled social satirists, has become a kind of anarchic free-for-all. Sometimes that can be recklessly exhilarating, in a self-aware way (“The Aristocrats”). Often it’s just numbing. “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic,” the current concert film, includes a number in which Silverman sings to an audience of senior citizens: “You’re gonna die soon.” Among her other subjects: Martin Luther King, a 7-year-old lesbian and her own anus.
Satire, certainly, can and often should be scalding. The death of Richard Pryor summoned up memories of a consummately gifted comic artist who held back nothing when it came to the hot-button topics of race, drugs or sex, but reserved his most withering scorn for himself. There was, in his work, an underlying humility, a sense of things that mattered being at risk.
At its heart, satire is meant to mend rather than destroy. The ancient Roman writer Horace viewed satire as a means “to tell the truth, laughing.” For John Dryden, the 17th century English poet, “the end of satire is the amendment of vice.”
No one’s about to mistake Cohen’s police videos for classics. The humor is lumpen and the music (“The Love Boat” theme) unforgivable. One scene in which a homeless woman gets run over by an inattentive cop may be a textbook example of tone deafness. But the spirit, however bungled it is in execution, is benign rather than bitter. Yes, the traffic cop “objectifies” the woman he stops when she’s asked to parade in front of him. But she skewers him right back. “Why don’t you get some gel when you have some hair?” she taunts, a line he’s too vain to hear. In another clip, that homeless woman gets up after getting run over and gets in the last scabrous word.
The jokes, finally, are on the cops, on the challenge and grind of their work and their own abundant imperfections. But at a time when even the entertainment world seems charged with accusation, impatience and aggression, satire is a dangerous weapon that nobody quite knows how to use. Laugh, these days, at your own risk.