Shirley, You Can’t Be Serious: David Zucker’s Praxis of Evil

Curator's Note

In October 2006, shortly after North Korea tested its long-range missiles, David Zucker of Airplane! and Scary Movie 3 and 4 fame released this political ad; he created it for the RNC, but the party deemed it "too hot" to officially endorse. The press, though, paid attention, and YouTube reports nearly a million views of the piece. Conjuring another highly controversial ad—LBJ’s apocalyptic 1964 "Daisy"—Zucker’s postmodern inversion stridently declaims that unless America votes Republican, it faces annihilation. The quaintly literal "Daisy" was the brainchild of the DDB agency, which, as Tom Frank has ably documented, is best known for inventing a very different marketing approach: the "rebel sell." Such ads make fun of advertising and encourage consumers to escape the conformity of mass culture by buying mass-produced products. And like product advertisers who appeal to young, cynical media-savvy audience members by insisting they don’t take themselves seriously, Zucker employs a similar representational strategy. There’s the Movie Trailer Guy voice over, the absurd Albright and Kim impersonations, the sexism and xenophobia, and the lead-heavy ideology. Zucker’s ad mocks its genre, hoping to capitalize on the illusion of edgy subversiveness of South Park and The Daily Show. But by exaggerating the very clichés it trades in—the Democratic party’s putatively effete security policy embodied in an obese and servile Madeline Albright—the ad subverts its own logic. It may read less like a Republican caricature of Democrats than as a Democrat’s parody of a Republican caricature of Democrats—as if choreographed not by Karl Rove but by Stephen Colbert. The images are so patently over the top that the ad’s meaning pushes the opposite direction. And yet the piece offers another, more disturbing meaning. Far from completely subverting itself, it replicates and reinforces precisely the Republican xenophobia that might make progressives laugh, while marketing it in a flippant form that would appeal to South Park Republicans. As one ascertains reading through the comments on YouTube, the hundreds of thousands of hits are not all from votaries of Jon Stewart. Perhaps by keeping it off the air and relegating it to the viral universe of the internet, the RNC knew precisely what it was doing.


I think the second interpretation is very's the "unreleased" or "too hot for TV" strategy, whether or not the RNC actually participated in it directly. I'm reminded of Nina Eliasoph's study of activist groups in the late 90s, and the use of sexist and racist jokes to create and affirm in-group and out-group status. Although one of the significant limitations of Eliasoph's study is her lack of attention to the construction of ideology and the community forming function of the media (a fallacy in which many sociologists participate, notably R Putnam), it's useful to note that reactionary rhetoric often functions in multiple ways and for multiple reasons. In this case I think you're completely right, Viveca...the irony of this ad is in fact its sincerity; like Bill O'Reilly, this ad becomes a caricature of itself. But also like O'Reilly, legions of fans are predestined to accept even the most insane ridicule as a REACTION to what they deem to be their own victimization (like in Seltzer's *Wound Culture* and Frank's *What's the Matter with Kansas*). Irony in its best cases relies on profound levels of dissonance in order to make its status as a rhetorical device clear...but we should remember that even the paragon of irony, Swift's *A Modest Proposal*, was taken as a serious and laudable suggestion by some of its audience.

Viveca,I think you are completely right that this ad is attempting to appear edgy and subversive due to its silly, comedic tone, but it cheats by pretending at irony when the intended meaning is actually a quite literal one. To me it reads simply as mean-spiritedness couched in a "can't you take a joke?" guise. Or am I simply incapable of appreciating its irony and humour because I am not part of the discursive community at which it is aimed?

The images are so patently over the top that the ad’s meaning pushes the opposite direction great analysis -- and fascinating therefore to see that the same clip can work as "legit" satire to some viewers (on the right) and as unintended parody to others (on the left). I think this ties in meaningfully with Jeff Jones's discussion of L'il Bush at Flow, too, since that show too, I'm sure, could be seen by some as a Republican's parody of a Democratic view of Bush and co., and it too is more interested in raging against Bush than in being ironic in a pretty way. As Jeff argues of L'il Bush, though, maybe it shows a prime function of some satre and irony -- to vent, and not really to be funny at all.

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