Crossballs Puzzle

Why don't the guests on Comedy Central's fake debate show get the joke?


"Pac-Man's homophobic," says a video game critic wearing glasses, a sweater vest, and a tie. "The ghosts are homosexuals: They wear garish, bright colors and dresses, and they rub up against each other in a box. Think about it. Is the Pac-Man going to…let them be homosexuals, let them get married? No, he's going to eat a power pellet and then go chomp the ghosts….If we had power pellets in real life, there would be no gay culture right now."

On the other side of the desk, a defender of video games is momentarily stunned. "It's laughable," he says. "No reasonable person would make that connection."

True enough: His opponent is not a reasonable person. He's a character played by the comedian Jerry Minor on the Comedy Central series Crossballs. The show's premise is straightforward: "comedians posing as experts…debating real people who don't know the show is fake."

Crossballs is at least as edifying as the typical TV debate show — and a lot more entertaining. But it poses a serious puzzle: Why don't the real guests realize the fake guests are fake?

One possibility is that the positions staked out by the comics pretending to be experts are what we've come to expect from TV pundits: strong beliefs backed up by little more than bold assertions and bluster. When a marijuana activist played by Matt Besser (the show's co-creator and executive producer) begins a segment about drugs by declaring, "I think we all agree that pot is good for everyone," his debating style does not seem very different from what you can see on The O'Reilly Factor any given evening.

Likewise, the easy resort to ad hominem attacks is familiar to viewers (and guests) of real debate shows, so it does not seem so strange when a Crossballs guest calls an opponent "crazy," "stupid," a "schmuck," a "right-wing fascist type," or "no better than Dr. Mengele." In fact, all those insults come from real guests who think the show is on the level.

Still, as the impostors' comments become more and more outrageous, you'd think the dupes would realize something is amiss. When Besser's pro-pot character talks about doing "research" on local kids, getting them alternately high and drunk before sending them out to drive around the neighborhood, can anyone seriously believe him?

Yes, it turns out. Marilyn MacDougall, executive director of the Orange County, California, group Drug Use Is Life Abuse, is outraged. "You're a jeopardy to society," she tells Besser (to which he retorts, "You're a Wheel of Fortune to society").

With her '50s-style hairdo and high-necked, long-sleeved dress, the stiff, humorless MacDougall is a perfect foil for Besser's character — who, it becomes clear, got high before going on the air. MacDougall, in fact, is suspiciously good at playing her part, but she is indeed a real person. The explanation for her credulity, I think, is that she assumes anyone who opposes the war on drugs is an irresponsible druggie, just the sort of person who would get high before going on national television or encourage teenagers to drive while intoxicated.

Similarly, Wiley Drake, a Southern Baptist pastor invited on Crossballs to condemn homosexuality, takes it in stride when Besser, playing a gay rights activist, discusses his "polyamorous relationship" with six other men, including his brother, and insists, "You can't be pro-family only so far, Wiley. There is nothing more pro-family than incest." Drake even buys Jerry Minor as a spokesman for the "Animists' Rights League" who asks, "If we as a society are making it so hard for two human beings of the same sex to get married, then what does that say to a woman who wants to get married to a table, or a man that wants to get married to a tree with a woodpecker hole?" (Minor's character, it turns out, is in a loving relationship with "a cup of minestrone soup.")

Or consider biotechnology critic Luke Anderson, who begins a Crossballs debate on genetic manipulation by charging that his opponents are "techno-utopians" who want to create a world in which "those of us who don't have artificial chromosomes" will serve "the gene-rich." He seems to think no idea is too ridiculous for biotech supporters to believe. So he does not guess that Crossballs is putting him on when a futurist played by Andy Daly envisions using locust genes to create "potatoes that unearth themselves when they're ready to harvest." Or when a space enthusiast played by Besser proposes sending poor Guatemalan children to the moon so they can do the digging for the first lunar colonies.

"What is so dangerous is that these guys clearly sound like raving lunatics," Anderson says, "and yet they're in charge of huge amounts of money in the most powerful country in the world." Perhaps what is so dangerous is that we are so quick to believe the worst of those who disagree with us.