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Parodied? Don’t Panic

Andrew C. Thomas

Calling any and all satirists out there: this could be your moment to shine.

I don’t know how many people broke out laughing when Fox News decided to sue Al Franken for the use of the expression “fair and balanced” in his new book “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right,” but the heartiest chuckles probably came from E. P. Dutton Publishers, Amazon.com, and Al Franken’s local bank.

The worst possible thing Fox could have done to defend themselves was to attract attention to the enemy of their spokesman, Bill O’Reilly, though the intelligent thing to do would have been to ignore the book in the first place. Thanks to Mr. O’Reilly’s fit of indignation, a copy of (hon.) Dr. Franken’s book is on its way to my mailbox.

Satire is notoriously difficult to write well, which is why so many comedians who specialize in straight talk, like George Carlin, or the odd, profane abstract though, like George Carlin, are often mistaken for satirists. Maybe that’s because there are so many easy targets out there, and that the targets themselves make it worse by taking it so seriously.

I suppose that’s how politicians and writers end up on the extreme to begin with. After all, it might not be that their positions on issues are all that different from their peers, just that they didn’t respond well to criticism.

O’Reilly, however, lives up to the straight half of Franken’s title, and was exposed as such by the humorist. O’Reilly had claimed that Inside Edition, his former show, had won several Peabody broadcasting awards. When Franken exhumed this skeleton, dusted it off, and presented it on live television, what could O’Reilly could do?

Well, he could have fessed up, but we live in a culture where mistakes taint careers. When even a suggestion of an admission of guilt from O’Reilly is taboo, all he is left with is his slingshot. That the author of “The No-Spin Zone” would resort to such tactics is worthy of a novel.

Along those lines, I thought I’d take this moment to announce the publication of my new work. “Freshly Squeezed: Original Ideas from High Places at MIT” will be hitting the Coop within the week.

In its many pages, you’ll learn the origins of some of the Institute’s brilliant marketing tools, the shocking yet apparent origin of which will make you wonder why anyone didn’t use them earlier. In it I ask the following questions:

Who decided that a compelling list of reasons, humorous or otherwise, would best be ranked in a list of 10?

Who came up with the idea for calling the orientation pamphlet “The Hitchhiker’s Guide”?

Who conceived of using the last three digits of the new class year to form a gun handle, giving new life to the synergy between ruthless professionalism and corporate jingoism?

Who thought that “2001: A [insert word of convenience here] Odyssey” could be the template for every activity during that particular calendar year, without exception?

Well, darn. Brilliant ideas, each and every one.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, having Professor Slocum’s 2.007 competition use the James Bond trademark year after year is tradition; co-opting it for the one-time deal of orientation is hack marketing at its most joyous.

I don’t know if they still use Top 10 lists during welcome activities -- they did when I was a wee froshling -- but if Letterman didn’t suck the charm out of them in his first year on the air, then Billboard magazine did.

I probably shouldn’t knock the Guide, since it’s not only a respected MIT tradition, but it’s also terribly useful. A purist would argue that the words “Don’t Panic” should be in large, friendly letters on the front, rather than included sheepishly on page 4. Maybe there’s an issue of copyright, but I don’t think the late Douglas Adams, a frequent visitor to our campus during his lifetime, would have minded.

Collectively, MIT’s sense of creativity must be mired in pop culture. Any other attempts at creativity manifest themselves as the new logo or Simmons Hall. This can only lead to more cynicism; we’d be lucky to farm it for comedy. It could end happily, though. For all we know, the view across the sports fields from MacGregor could produce the next Al Franken.