The AFL-CIO debuted a new series of comedy videos at Netroots Nation as part of a website they’re launching about collective bargaining. They’re a useful illustration, I think, of how to strike a comedic balance in critiquing corporate power—and of how much harder it is to use comedy to sell ideas rather than to criticize bad ones. Take this first video, with a Snidley Wiplash-esque corporate board discussing how to implement a new “Maximum Fun Workday” with extended hours and declaring, “We are discriminating against Americans under the age of 12 who should have the right to work should they so choose.” You can practically hear the moustache-twirling:
Now, contrast that with Portia di Rossi’s performance as Veronica on Better Off Ted:
The things the character is saying are much, much more ridiculous than the evil executives in the AFL-CIO’s video, and they’re funnier because of the utter sincerity of di Rossi’s delivery. She isn’t aware that she’s an avatar of corporate evil, and the juxtaposition of her evident conviction with the craziness of her ideas is simultaneously disconcerting and hilarious. It’s the same thing with Jack Dongahy on 30 Rock: his conviction that inventing dangerous microwave ovens or turning children orange is part and parcel with the American dream is a lot scarier than if he didn’t believe any of it and was just pure evil.
But any negative depiction of corporations is a lot easier to make funny than it is to make union organizing look wacky and hilarious. For a long time, the union narrative was essentially a dramatic one: life or death stakes, organizing as a means to reclaiming human dignity. That’s still the brand. Wacky things might happen along the way in a union campaign, whether it’s sexier-than-intended signs in Made in Dagenham or Pilar Padilla sneaking Adrian Brody out of an office building in a giant wheeled recycling bin in Bread and Roses. But the mechanics of the story are essentially dramatic ones, the power of the brand in stuff that’s tear-jerking.