The latest national punch line: North Carolina

Kamsas City Star
Latest national punch line: North Carolina
April 10, 2016


If it only hurts when you laugh, you must live in North Carolina.

In its encounters with controversial social issues in recent years, the state has become a punching bag for mostly liberal comics. No matter how you feel about gay marriage, abortion, guns and now transgender bathroom access, there’s no denying that North Carolina is now the butt of a lot of jokes.

How funny you think they are probably depends on your politics.

At a time when political campaigns are increasingly being waged online through paid advertising and other formats, it’s hard to escape the amateur videos, snarky tweets and Facebook diatribes that join the fray along with national TV comics.

It has been especially so since the legislature approved, and Gov. Pat McCrory signed, a bill precluding ordinances that extend civil rights protections to transgender people.

Just this past week:

▪ Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” featured host Trevor Noah raising the specter of bathroom police in North Carolina, and scoffing at arguments that bills like House Bill 2 are about religious freedom.

“It’s like proposing a law to kill all kittens and calling it the Bird Protection Act,” he said.

▪ Over at NBC, “Late Night with Seth Meyers” did a lengthy piece that concluded with the host comparing McCrory to former segregationist governors George Wallace, Orval Faubus and Ross Barnett – their photographs grouped together.

Shuffle reshuffled

▪ Saturday Night Live” posted to its “Digital Exclusive” website a four-minute video that was a takeoff on the “Super Bowl Shuffle” rap recorded in 1985 by the Chicago Bears. The SNL spot, called “The Establishment Shuffle,” is a long musical diatribe about everything the GOP has done, with 22 seconds slapping around our governor. In it, cast members impersonate various politicians, including McCrory.

The digital skit isn’t necessarily destined for the weekly TV show.

“I passed a law for you and me, so trans people can’t watch kids pee,” the McCrory impersonator raps. “… If you like Trump because he’s insane, he ain’t got nothing on this crazy train.”

▪ The popular online satirical news site The Onion also jumped in with the headline, “North Carolina Residents Terrified After Hearing State Passed New Law.”

“RALEIGH, NC – Saying they didn’t even want to think about what the legislation might possibly authorize or prohibit, North Carolina residents expressed feelings of deep-seated terror Thursday after hearing their state had passed a new law.

”˜Oh God, this can’t be good,’ said Raleigh resident Jennifer Mathis, echoing the sentiment of overwhelming dismay felt by citizens across the state upon learning their legislature had passed a bill and their governor had subsequently signed it into law. ”˜I read the words North Carolina Passes Law and my heart just sank. …’

“Several reports indicate that after skimming the first line of an article, the residents of North Carolina had quickly shut down their computers and backed away in fear.”

Better than Mississippi

▪ Here’s how The New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz opened a short humor piece:

“In a historic ceremony at the state capitol, on Friday, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory swore in a thousand officers charged with enforcing the state’s new public-bathroom regulations.”

▪ The entertainment website Funny or Die weighed in with a spoof video from the N.C. “tourism board”: “Ah, North Carolina,” says the female narrator, “Home of beaches, mountains and an extremely homophobic governor.” Watch it here.

Funny or Die did a similar hit in a Mississippi tourism video, ending it with, “We’re even worse than North Carolina.”

▪ Singer Bette Midler waded into the war zone that is Twitter on Thursday and didn’t emerge unscathed.

“North Carolina lost the NCAA title. Guess they should have spent more time practicing, less time worrying about who’s using which bathroom,” her account tweeted to her nearly 1 million followers.

“Oops, my bad!” the account tweeted a couple hours later. “Sorry Tarheels, I shouldn’t lump the kids @UNC with the knuckleheads in the State Legislature!”

▪ Plenty of amateurs have weighed in on YouTube, including a lengthy interview between McCrory and TV psychologist Dr. Phil that never actually happened.

More political noise

Not everyone finds it all so funny.

“What’s really funny is anyone from Hollywood lecturing North Carolina about its bathroom policies,” McCrory’s campaign spokesman, Ricky Diaz, said Saturday by email. “But it goes to show you that the coordinated national effort by everyone from Washington, D.C. special interest groups to the national media is aimed at smearing and hurting North Carolina for their political purposes.”

Those political purposes, of course, run both ways for politicians and entertainers. The top-rated TV comedy shows are must-stops for candidates for national office and provide the sole source of “news” for some viewers.

An article in a scholarly communications journal two years ago studied the rise of social media in politics. “One overarching finding is that political comedy appears to promote more cynicism toward politicians, the government, and the media, but also tends to empower citizens to think they can contribute to and make a difference in politics,” the authors wrote.

The article also observed that “words such as ”˜satire’ and ”˜parody’ may not do justice to the different types of humor evolving in public affairs.”

Sometimes there are actually consequences to the digital gag-fest.

Last year objections from big companies and national criticism helped lead Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to ease up on a controversial religious freedom law that opponents said could discriminate based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Language was added to clarify that the law wasn’t intended to allow discrimination.

Late-night talk show host David Letterman, who lived in Indiana for 27 years, had joined the dialogue, saying during his show that Indiana was no longer the state he remembered as a child.

But who sees these televised and digital jokes? If the audience skews younger, they might inspire more liberal voters. But while there has been a slight uptick in younger voters in North Carolina over the past four years, that’s offset by a larger increase in older voters.

It’s possible that it all just becomes part of the political noise and ultimately doesn’t sway opinions.

John Llewellyn, an associate professor of communications at Wake Forest University, says the new North Carolina law is a typical political calculation aimed at stirring up the conservative base. Making fun of the governor isn’t going to change those minds.

“The people this was done to appeal to are not great devotees of satire,” Llewellyn said, “even if it winds up on ”˜Saturday Night Live’ and everybody gets all enthused about how easy it is to ridicule. Even if Lionsgate (studio) takes a hike and all the college professor smarties ridicule McCrory and his gang, they’re not going to vote for him anyway.”

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