When it works, it hurts to laugh

Special to The Times

THE gimmicky question being used by the filmmakers to whip up interest in the Robin Williams-as-president comedy “Man of the Year” is: What if a crowd-pleasing, government-needling TV comedian wound up in the Oval Office? Sounds up-to-the-minute enough, if you consider that Jon Stewart is a news source for many and even corralled the leader of Pakistan to appear on “The Daily Show” recently. But the real question may be whether the movie will seem funny, weirdly prescient or even relevant a few election cycles down the road. (Especially when Williams already seems like yesterday’s clown.)

For politically minded comedy to work (whether it’s hopeful or dark), it has to pull off the delicate trick of being exaggerated enough to make viewers laugh, yet realistic enough to evoke the things that get under their skin -- short-attention-span news channels, say, or the outrages that surface on muckraking partisan blogs. In other words, Warren Beatty’s senator in “Bulworth” (1998) sporting hip-hop threads and rapping was high-concept nuts, but everything about the corrosive influence of money he spouted in his awkward rhymes felt like an accurate picture of the political landscape.

It also has to be topical yet timeless, but that’s not so hard to do when the hot-button issues -- jobs, corporate greed, scandal, war, oil -- never go away and a Jay Leno cameo is readily available. “Wag the Dog” and its distract-the-populace construct about a president in damage control over a sex scandal was considered prescient since it hit theaters just before Monicagate. Now, its point-by-point depiction of war marketing as a spirited let’s-put-on-a-show yarn makes it feel like a Bush administration primer.

Similarly, writer Jerzy Kosinski and director Hal Ashby’s 1979 comedy “Being There” was both commentary and prediction. Its smiling, TV-addled simpleton (Peter Sellers) falling up the ladder of governmental power initially felt like a wipe-the-slate-clean coda to the fractious Watergate era of a schemer-in-chief, but then seemed to weirdly foretell (for the left, anyway) the “I like to watch” presidency of Ronald Reagan. And while nobody seemed to care about “American Dreamz,” a satire this spring that offered up a nonreading prez (Dennis Quaid) who suddenly discovers newspapers, a few months later we were all being told that the supposedly incurious Bush devours books.


Probably the eeriest of these movies to revisit now is the 1976 film “Network,” writer Paddy Chayefsky’s screed-like tale of news anchor and “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale (Peter Finch), whose on-air rantings brought fortune to a last-place network and his own demise when ratings fell.

What was lampoonish then about television has in many ways been surpassed in the 24-hour “reality"-obsessed media world, making the film play like a profane history lesson instead of zonked-out satire. Although there aren’t politicians per se in the film, “Network” set the modern standard for depicting the nexus between truth-telling, spin and popularity. Its influence can be felt in films including the everyman-running-the-country farce “Dave,” which took the rosy view of a common-sense impostor righting wrongs in the White House; “Bob Roberts” and the kind of media manipulation that turns a dirty-dealing archconservative millionaire into a folksy, populist troubadour; and “Bulworth,” which, like “Network,” outrageously posits that for a public figure to have the guts to explain the world for citizens, he must first be suicidal and insane.

“Man of the Year” doesn’t make protagonist Tom Dobbs a mental case -- it’s ultimately too feel-good about the rallying effect of a court jester hero to have real bite -- but it wants its political downer bona fides, hence a subplot about a sinister Diebold-like corporation with scarily buggy electronic voting machines. Ouch. And therein lies the paradox of enjoying political comedy: wanting to be entertained, wanting our views reinforced and sincerely hoping none of it comes true.