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Theaters next stage for political theatrics
THEATER, BY BOB ABELMAN
Theaters next stage for political theatrics
In warfare, the word "theater" describes a specific geographical area where conflict occurs.
Anyone watching television or listening to radio these days knows that the United States is involved in an all-out, no-holds-barred conflict, but the theater is not Iraq, Libya, Pakistan or Afghanistan. The theater is TV and radio, and the conflict we are talking about is ... talking.
There is a war of words happening in this country. While much of it addresses Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan, hot-button topics such as global warming, the deficit, abortion, gay marriage, health care, the president's true nationality and everything else on the respective agendas of political conservatives and liberals is open for discussion.
No, not discussion. Or debate. Diatribe.
Although America's political rhetoric has been toned down by career politicians since the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, this is not the case for either party's unelected, unofficial spokespeople. In fact, public affairs programs with hosts who are rabidly partisan have been growing in number, volume and fervor. And no matter where they stand on Darwin, their venues have evolved.
In the 1990s, the war of words went from the podium and bully pulpit to the public airwaves. Conservative talk radio became America's alternative media universe, providing listeners with a counterpoint to what was believed to be a liberal mainstream media.
AM radio was dying, and the Fairness Doctrine, which required that a commentator's opinions be matched by "equal time" for opposing positions, was abolished by the Federal Communications Commission. With available and unrestrained airtime at his disposal, Rush Limbaugh was among the first -- and eventually among the most popular -- of the outspoken conservatives to take to talk radio.
He was soon followed by Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Neil Boortz, Mike Gallagher and, most recently, comedian-political commentator Dennis Miller.
Although conservatives dominate the radio airwaves, there are a few prominent liberal talk-radio personalities. Thom Hartmann, Bill Press, Ed Schultz, Mike Malloy, Sam Seder, Rachel Maddow and Randi Rhodes maintain a beachhead on old-time broadcasting.
Mostly, liberal pundits found their way to television. In 1993, comedian-political commentator Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" landed on cable and then moved to ABC, until the talk show was canceled for being too politically incorrect. Its next incarnation, "Real Time With Bill Maher," is currently a hit on HBO.
Other programs, such as the faux-news show "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and a faux-conservative talk show "The Colbert Report," took up residency on the Comedy Central network. Collectively, Mr. Maher, Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert serve as a primary source of news, information and perspective for young progressives.
The conservatives, in turn, have laid claim to the Fox News network as their latest stronghold, with "The O'Reilly Factor" leading the charge. Dennis Miller, who for years was host of the "Weekend Update" on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," has hosted a string of talk shows on HBO and CNBC and is a regular guest on Fox programs, including "The O'Reilly Factor." He has, in fact, become the acerbic poster child for young Republicans and right-leaning independents.
Now that the war of words is escalating, the theater has moved to the theater.
Bill Maher is on tour, bringing his smart, sardonic and some say smug brand of political humor to cities across the country. He was recently in the Palace Theatre at Cleveland's Playhouse Square for a two-hour one-nighter.
While the show looked like a typical stand-up comedian's gig, with a single microphone stand, a single white spotlight and a bottle of water at the ready, the punch lines were the tea party, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, gun enthusiasts, Sarah Palin and Mr. Maher's favorite pet peeve, organized religion.
"I'm just an advocate for common sense," said Mr. Maher, "speaking my mind."
On his mind that night were all things political. Mr. Maher explained to the audience the significance of the American debt, which he attributed to reckless spending by the George W. Bush administration, though Republicans blame Barack Obama. "Let me illustrate for you how much $14.26 trillion really is," offered Mr. Maher. "Take the value of your house, and add $14.26 trillion."
Mr. Maher commented on the state of the union, citing research that found our country ranking 10th among the world's nations in terms of social and economic mobility. "The U.S.A.," he reported, "is now 10th in the American dream."
And, of course, he uniformly dissed, dissected and dismissed each and every Republican with a hankering to be president.
This is theater, all right. Here is staged activity that appears spontaneous, comedic storytelling with a poignant and cleverly crafted undertow and seemingly innocuous fare laden with the intention to move an audience emotionally and intellectually.
Since the days of Aristotle, theater has been a political forum. Now it's a war zone.
And, as with all theater, a different show will be opening soon. Bill O'Reilly, the godfather of in-your-face right-wing television, and Dennis Miller, the king of literary references and bemused socio-political rants, are teaming up and touring. Effective Aug. 20, their "The Bolder and Fresher Tour" hit the road and hit it hard.
Dates have not been finalized, but, since they are doing Bill Maher damage control, it is a good bet they will be bringing the theater to a theater near you.
What's next as we inch closer to election year? Perhaps "Mitt Romney: The Musical."
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