Television

Pull the Plug on This Program

No matter what happens in a State of the Union address, the opposition's official response is going to feel pathetic.

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The State of the Union address is traditionally followed by a response from the opposition. Wednesday night's Republican reply was anything but traditional, though: It was filmed before a live audience, which clapped and laughed at the expected intervals with all the robotic reliability of the crowd at a taping of Two and a Half Men. As Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell delivered his party's statement, he was flanked by figures representing a calculatedly diverse assortment of races and sexes; they nodded and made thoughtful faces every time McDonnell made a point, even one as banal as "We were encouraged to hear President Obama speak this evening about the need to create jobs." It felt like a weird, ersatz State of the Union, the sort of thing a couple of consultants might throw together with just enough of a budget to hire some extras and buy an applause sign.

Still, you can't blame the GOP for trying something new. If there's one constant in the recent history of the State of the Union address, it's this: No matter how lethargic, long-winded, dishonest, or dimwitted the president's speech may be, the reply will feel like a pathetic rejoinder put together in someone's rec room. A politician—possibly a party leader but often a "rising star," i.e., someone most viewers won't have heard of—stares at a camera in an apparently empty office, reciting a set of talking points. In the State of the Union speech itself, an immensely powerful man sets an agenda. In the response, no matter what the speaker says, the takeaway message for anyone still bothering to watch is that he isn't setting the agenda. In Great Britain, the opposition gets to confront the prime minister on television every week. In the United States, the opposition gets to borrow the camera after the president has left the room.

Every now and then, someone tries a different approach. A few times in the '80s, for example, the Dems decided to fill their slot with what amounted to infomercials for the Democratic Party. These tone-deaf programs reached their nadir in 1985, with a show hosted by a young Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton. Just two months before, Ronald Reagan had defeated Walter Mondale in a landslide. The stars of the State of the Union response were a series of purportedly typical Democratic voters, each of whom seemed to have been selected to appeal to those young, upwardly mobile Americans who wished the party had nominated Gary Hart instead. Indeed, the evening's only reference to Mondale came when one of the interviewees attacked the candidate's pledge to raise taxes. A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee explained the strategy to the press: "We needed to tell the American people we were wrong."

Did it work? That spokesman's name is Terry Michael; these days he considers himself a libertarian and occasionally contributes to Reason. "I think it was really dumb," he tells me. "In the aftermath of the slaughtering we took in November '84, there was this zeitgeist within the party 'leadership' that we were being out-communicated by the Great Communicator and his communication wizards." Aside from backing down from Mondale's suicidal tax pledge, it "never occurred to our brilliant thinkers that it was the message, not the medium, that did us in."

That said, the medium wasn't helping either. Even fewer people than usual watched the Democratic response that year: While CBS and NBC showed the program, ABC preempted it for Dynasty. By the time ABC got around to transmitting it a night later, the other networks were screening counterprogramming of their own.

Given all the limits of the format, and given that hardly anyone bothers to watch it anyway, is there any good reason to keep the opposition response at all? It's a relatively recent invention—the first one was aired in 1966—yet it already feels stuck in time. No matter how ridiculous the cable talk shows can get, their guests' reaction to the president's speech will be livelier and more effective than the officially allotted reply. So why not just bag it?

We probably should do just that. But in the meantime, let me fantasize about the sort of response I'd like to see, one that would not just reply to the points in a president's speech but would undermine the gravitas that gives the event its power and by extension makes the responses seem so puny. It would take its cue from the '90s, when TV experimented constantly with ways to puncture its own pretentions—when programs like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Pop-Up Video were on the rise, allowing broadcasters to fill their shows with rejoinders to the events onscreen. Instead of delivering your response right after the president's address, wait a day and then air the speech (or some choice highlights from it) again. But this time cover the screen with pop-ups every time you want to correct the president's math, to point out a contradiction, or to suggest an alternate approach to a problem. For extra fun, you could pick out one of the speaker's more aggravating rhetorical ticks ("there are those" would work for the present president, or maybe "let me be clear") and have a counter in the corner that goes up every time he says it.

Chances are tiny that either party would do that, and chances are even smaller that they'd do it well. Fortunately, we don't have to rely on them to get it done. The Internet is already filled with people willing to mash-up, remix, and annotate everything the political class does on camera. And if those annotators are independents trying to set some facts straight or wiseacres trying to score some laughs instead of partisans crafting a sales pitch for their party—well, then so much the better.

Jesse Walker is Reason's managing editor.

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95 responses to “Pull the Plug on This Program

  1. Pull the Plug on This Program SOTU addresses.

    FIFY

  2. You know, I think they should grab some random name from the phone book and let him/her respond. I mean, it’s all about us the people, right?

  3. I want to be entertained god damn it!

  4. If the President can put on a stilted forgettable flop, there is no reason the other side can’t put on a stilted forgettable flop, too.

    1. ENTERTAINED!!!

  5. But do they have to preempt good TV? Wait, only network TV preempts. Never mind.

    I kid, I kid, there are actually one or two good shows on network TV. Lost is not one of them.

    1. You know what would be fun? If the GOP hired an actor to handle their response. In character. Say Hugh Laurie as Dr. House.

      1. No… I… must… be… The One!

        1. If Shatner gave the SOTU and the respnse, I would watch. But only then.

          1. Dear God, that’s genius. Though I must admit that I’d watch even if he only did the SoTU or the response. But both–that’s be more awesome than something really awesome.

            An alternative would be for him to do one, and George Takei to do the other.

            Another alternative is for Hugh to do one as Prince George, and Rowan to take the other side as Blackadder.

            1. How about having Adam West give the response? He does have governing experience, being the mayor of Quahog and all…

              1. Lewis Black. Hands-down. In fact, make him White House spokesman.

                1. Long as Shatner is forbidden to sing, I’m cool with some variation of the above.

                  1. Dude, Shatner singing is the best part.

                    “No tears for Caesar…”

                    1. Sorry to disagree, Epi, but when Shatner sings, he makes me want to pull out my own spleen and beat myself to death with it.

                      Speaking, that’s no problem. I love his over-the-top scenery-chewing-uppery. But the man just irritates me when he bursts into song.

                    2. But he speaks-sings. So what’s the difference between him speaking or “singing?” I guess in the latter case there’s a soundtrack, but that seems okay to me.

                      If I were broadcasting the SoTU, incidentally, I’d add a laughtrack.

                    3. I likes my cheese, but sometimes it grates against me. Ba-dum-dum!

                      Honestly, I don’t know why it bugs me so much. Fer Chrissakes, I can sit through an episode of T.J. Hooker without flinching.

                    4. Opening theme music:

                      Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam

                      Closing theme music:

                      Primus – either Pudding Time or The Return of Sathington Willoughby off The Brown Album.

                    5. MR TAMBOURINE MAN

                    6. I’ve always said that if I become president, I’m gonna have AC/DC perform “For Those About to Rock” before my first SoTU. Live, in a totally darkened Capitol.

                      Yes, with cannons. Naturally.

                    7. Replace the audio of any C-SPAN coverage with Frank Zappa’s “I’m the Slime”. Should fit at least 90% of the time.

                    8. Presidential souvenir lights for the audience?

            2. Eddie Izzard and Jeremy Clarkson!!! Don’t care who does which one…! AWWWWWWWWSOME!

            3. Personally I’d like to see good Shatner and evil Shatner give opposing addresses. All he’d need to do to switch is adopt a sneer and, perhaps, a goatee.

      2. No, I want Tim McInnerny in his Lord Percy Percy character.

        1. No Lord Flashheart?

          1. How about having Joe Flaherty reprise his “Count Floyd” character?

          2. Lord Flashheart could do the response.

            1. Hey girls, look at my machinery!

      3. They already have an actor. Just send Arnold out strapped to a chair and having say, “Give diz people aiah!”

  6. I admire the way the GOP demonstrated its longstanding concern for women and minorities by keeping a black woman visible onscreen at all times.

    1. I’m tod they were his staff. What’s he supposed to do to make you happy? Hide the darkie?

      1. Being an urban Yankee white chick, Jennifer has an irrational fear of what she guiltily thinks of as “Niggers”.

        1. Being an urban Yankee white chick, Jennifer knows the score for women.

    2. Three of the four on screen were members of the Virginia Cabinet.

      1. Then my admiration grows greater!

        1. Don’t be hating …

      2. I wanna know who the hottie was over his left shoulder. I smell a sex scandal.

        1. You mean the military guy? Don’t ask, don’t tell.

    3. figures representing a calculatedly diverse assortment of races and sexes

      keeping a black woman visible onscreen at all times

      As others have pointed out, those people were McDonnell’s staff and cabinet members.

      Why the fuck is there is ridiculous, baseless and immature stereotype that Republicans are all racist and use women and minorities only as tokens to show how they’re not racist, but the Dems truly are the inclusive ones? Reality and fact simply do not bear this out.

      1. Why the fuck is there is ridiculous, baseless and immature stereotype that Republicans are all racist and use women and minorities only as tokens to show how they’re not racist, but the Dems truly are the inclusive ones?

        Don’t put words in my mouth, Bill. I think both parties use women and minorities as tokens to show they’re not racist.

        1. Heh, heh. I saw this scrolling from the bottom up and thought you were doing Takei responding to a SoTU presented by Bill Shatner.

    4. There’s always been a double standard with the GOP and the Dems on this. No one would ever accuse the Democrats of the same, yet they always tout the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, two men who haven’t ever contributed anything to society and have yet to win any political office. I think just assuming that the GOP uses minorities as props, while not having that same opinion of the Dems is unfair.

  7. I like the Pop-Up Video idea for the State of the Union replay, but I would put the comments in Joe Biden thought bubbles.

  8. A Mystery Science Theater 3000 format. Brilliant! They should use the same two robots and maybe Bob Dole as the human commentator. The would triple the audience for the SOTU address.

    1. Bob Dole likes the sound of that!

    2. Hey, now, I hold the patent on that:

      66. The Vice President and I will host a weekly TV show called Mystery Congressional Theater 2009, where we will review, rate, and mock major Congressional speeches and bills over the past week.

      1. Pro, you and I need to talk…

        1. I bought off Mike.

          1. Who gets to play The Mads? Is Tv’s Frank still available?

            1. Why the president and his staff, of course. Who else?

              1. Actually, I want either an intelligent response, or one that will make me puke my socks up from all the gut-busting laughter.

                1. Why not both?

                  1. Ya got me there. Okay, toss that salad!

                    Er, something like that.

    3. Lol, I did that on my own sans robots and Bob Dole.

  9. Instead of delivering your response right after the president’s address, wait a day and then air the speech (or some choice highlights from it) again. But this time cover the screen with pop-ups every time you want to correct the president’s math, to point out a contradiction, or to suggest an alternate approach to a problem. For extra fun, you could pick out one of the speaker’s more aggravating rhetorical ticks (“there are those” would work for the present president, or maybe “let me be clear”) and have a counter in the corner that goes up every time he says it.

    Exactly the kind of corporate shilling that needs to be banned in MacCane-Finegold Part Deux! 😉

  10. Maybe the SOTU address and the reply should be combined into a U.S. version of Question Time (though one time a year should be sufficient).

    1. In Great Britain, the opposition gets to confront the prime minister on television every week. In the United States, the opposition gets to borrow the camera after the president has left the room.

      …and, of course, I didn’t notice earlier that Jesse also referred to it.

  11. What you describe as the solution is like what Current TV did with the debates- allowing viewers to put their comments on the screen, in real time, via twitter. It was a fantastic way to watch (for the ones that were relevant, at least).

  12. Hell, in the age of youtube, everyone could give a response. Let the market (number of views) decide which should stay or go.

    1. We’ll know the singularity is near when the number of views of a particular SOTU response is greater than the number that actually watched the SOTU.

      1. Kind of like how Democrats can get more votes than there are registered voters?

  13. Reason TV should do a response to the state of the Union Address….why does it have to republicans who respond to a democrat or a democrat who responds to a republican? And why can’t there be multiple SOTU responses?

    hell why does there have to be only one SOTU? Why does POTUS have to give it?

    1. By the way the reason TV responder should be who ever looses the drinking game among the reason staff.

      1. joshua corning, “responder should be who ever looses the drinking game” My guess is the jacket is the loosest in the bunch. Isn’t that the name of a porno?

  14. Does the LP respond?

    1. I thought this thread WAS the response!

      1. I’d agree, except that only we happy few are reading this thread.

    1. Okay, why didn’t I see that on one of the networks? Notwithstanding the fact that I didn’t watch the SoTU or anything remotely associated with it.

      1. Because we have a two-party system: the left wing of the Social Democrats, and the right wing of the Social Democrats.

        1. The left side seems a little stupider and a little more delusional, perhaps, but, otherwise, I can’t tell the difference. Each seems to have a steel-toed boot on my face.

          1. Well, they can’t help you unless they’re in close proximity. You sound ungrateful and anti-social. And un-bipartisan.

          2. If they didn’t keep both their left boot and right boot on your face, they would lose their balance and fall down. You wouldn’t want them to hurt themselves, would you?

            1. That’s fair.

  15. The GOP has plenty of minority employees. I’m sure their maids and nannies are minorities too. The weird thing is there don’t seem to be very many minorities among the GOP’s elected officials and voting base.

    1. People of color within the GOP don’t see themselves as minorities but as Americans. Democrats are the ones who classify everyone into categories and demagogue the issues so much so for example Blacks now segregate themselves on campus.

      1. Democrats actually care about the endemic problems associated with historical racial discrimination. Republicans want to pretend it doesn’t exist anymore and they certainly don’t want to own up to the fact that they are the ones who have historically perpetrated it.

        Anyway, there has to be a reason the GOP is overwhelmingly white. Your claim is one form of the same argument I’ve heard a hundred times: minorities are just too dumb to realize the GOP is the party for them.

        1. Wait…you mean slavery? That was the Democrats. KKK? That was the Democrats. Segregation? Democrats again. Intimidating blacks at the polls and preventing them from registering to vote? Democrats once again. Holding up the Civil Rights Act for racist reasons? The Democrats. Calling every African American capitalist an uncle tom? Democrats.

          If Democrats care so much about problems associated with historic racism such as disparities in education, why did they jump at the chance to end Washington DC’s voucher program despite majority support for it?

  16. Oh fuck yeah. Joel Hodgson should cover all the political events.

  17. This 30 second video could have easily replaced Obama’s SOTU.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BkIh1R5utY

    Forget “the One” etc… its “President Leon” from here on out. 🙂

    1. Courtesy of Leon, heres Obama’s assessment of Obama.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_thpzKuhOo&NR=1

  18. The American people are so uneducated that they are ready to give up their 1st Amendment rights. The Obama administration is taking full advantage of these people and here is a video to prove just how dumb people are. You will just shake your head in amazement!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…..r_embedded

  19. If this editorial launched a trial balloon, consider the thing airworthy. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; Reason’s Retort to the State of the Union Address. Who says the most publicized response to the executive branch’s official line has to be from a political party or the state itself?

  20. Why don’t they pick someone funny like Thaddeus McCotter to do the “rebut” However I would choose the drinking game option, everytime the Pres. says “inherited” you do a shot.

  21. reason needs to get it together to have a pop-up video response to the sotu. even if it came out a month from now, that would still be great.

    and tony, when you said repubs have historically perpetrated the racial discrimination , you really had your mind on autopilot, didnt you?

    easily one of the most demonstrably false accusations ive seen

    unless you were just furthering the stereotype that all repubs are just the racist southern rednecks that used to be dems.

    if that was your argument, you werent just spouting autopilot partisan race-baiting nonsense, you were just being a stereotyping bigot.

    which one was it, tony?

  22. Can Illinois do the same as in Massachusetts and bring our country back from socialism?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nEoW-P81-0

  23. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke.

  24. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke.

  25. Why don’t they pick someone funny like Thaddeus McCotter to do the “rebut” However I would choose thereplica omega drinking game option, everytime the Pres. says “inherited” you do a shot.

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