I totally get where the jokes are supposed to be in this “Dick Cheney: Behind The Music” video, which comes to us courtesy of Commentary Magazine, and was apparently played at the recent roast of the former Vice President. Threatening to shoot your guitar is hilarious! The folk scene is snobby and the idea that conservatives would participate in it is uproarious! Combining both of these ideas, Bob Dylan lyrics are funnier if you rewrite them to be about guns, a la “What kind of round must a man fire off before you can call him a man?” Disconcerting photoshop is disconcerting! It’s a weird eight-minute watch here:
But it’s also a good illustration of how extremely insular humor reads for a mass audience. Are the jokes about calling in an air strike on a guitar meant to suggest that drone strikes are overkill, or that the people who think they’re disproportionate are merely buzzkills? Is the fictional maharishi who teaches Cheney and his wife “peace through superior firepower” a riff on the idea of gurus in general, or on the peace-and-love philosophy the Beatles followed? Given the subject and the setting I’m sure it’s the latter, but the jokes are written to be deliberately esoteric, aimed at people who find the idea of bunkers and missiles swooping in from the air unexpectedly more endearing and sensible than sinister.
Roasts often come across as in poor taste, in part because testing the limits of the subject is the point, but also because they’re designed for folks who are already on board with the subject’s work and legacy, rather than anyone who needs to be convinced of the subject’s significance. They are, by design, insider events, and when they’re broadcast, they’re meant to make a viewer feel like they’re at an intimate event, both because of their frequent settings at dinners, and because of their content. In that context, this video makes a lot of sense. It’s playing to people who are already supportive of Cheney, and who presumably are showing up at a roast of him in part in solidarity with his version of his tenure, not anyone else’s. It’s not designed to showcase self-awareness or humility as Cheney’s critics would understand those characteristics to be expressed, because it has no interest in convincing those critics. They’re the joke, rather than being in on it.
But I also wonder if this isn’t a decent illustration of why conservatives often feel frustrated by what they see as their failure to gain traction in the larger popular culture. The tone of the video is simultaneously resentful of the tropes and sometimes-exclusionary nature of pop music, Dylan and Jimi Hendrix in particular, and fully cognizant of its power, and eager to siphon that power off to its own ends. Its creators are clearly aware of the tactics that make for a good meme: the use of photoshop actually reminded me a great deal of Gnarls Barkley‘s “Smiley Faces” video, though it’s cruder, and after a while, starts to be disconcerting rather than charming. And the values have a tendency to smother the jokes, rather than the jokes acting as swift vehicles for the ideas in question.
In other words, had this been a product aimed at a mass audience–and given its release by Commentary, there seems to have been some sense that it would resonate–I’d say it has all the ideas right, and the calibration all wrong. Lose the self-consciousness of the breaking-into-music metaphor, make the laughs the point, luring your viewers in rather than administering a values test at every turn, go broader on the pop culture metaphor (or at least give us a Nixon and Elvis joke if you’re going to go there), and be willing to self-deprecate a little bit more, and you’ve got something both genuinely conservative and genuinely funny. The key to being a success on a broad scale, rather than just with your home crowd, is that you have to care just as much about the latter as the former.