I had one of those quintessentially American experiences last week, walking down a muggy, gritty riverside street in New Orleans, home to this year's convention of the Society of Professional Journalists, on whose foundation board I sit.
I was about to walk right by Weird Al Yankovic. Had I not been enlightened by a colleague, I would have spent the rest of my life not knowing about this. The colleague stopped Weird Al, verified his identity and got a picture taken with him.
I relate this not because I have any particular interest in the man, other than having enjoyed some of his clever songs through the years. But the encounter got me thinking about politics, and life in general these days — which may say something about my own one-track mind.
Here was a man who made his mark cashing in on the age of irony, successfully parodying performers who themselves are, in some ways, reflecting a culture that likes to parody things that are sincere and good, and yet he could walk unmolested and nearly unnoticed in a major city.
Years ago I interviewed Foster Brooks, a comedian who made his mark imitating a typical drunk. He was a fixture on television "roasts" that often included Dean Martin and other entertainers of the day. But by the time I talked to him, in the 1980s, he was lamenting how the culture had passed him by. Being roaring drunk no longer was funny. It wasn't even politically correct on television.
In Weird Al's case, the culture hasn't passed him by. When we met him, he was traveling between gigs in Texas and Mississippi, still performing and twisting new works.
No, we're literally drowning in amateur Weird Als. The culture is so saturated with parody and irony that he literally can get lost in a crowd.
Nowhere is parody more of a staple than in politics, and among presidential candidates in particular. You don't have to look far.
As I write this, Politico.com has the headline, "Is Rick Perry dumb?" The Texas governor didn't get great grades in school, it turns out. The piece begins by noting, "Another Texas governor who drops his "g's" and scorns elites is running for president and the whispers are the same: lightweight, incurious, instinctual."
A popular joke, the piece says, notes that Perry is "like Bush, only without the brains." That's irony. Get it?
Mitt Romney, meanwhile, wants to shed the parody of himself as a highly educated and accomplished elitist who doesn't understand the common person. The New York Times recently noted that Romney recently tried the new Carl's Jr. jalapeno chicken sandwich and ate a Subway flatbread sandwich in an airport terminal. He has even flown Southwest recently, we are told, although one wonders whether he ever gets stuck in the B or C line for seating priority.
President Obama, meanwhile, has inspired a never-ending string of parodies since taking office, many from mass emails with doctored photos purporting to show either his lack of patriotism or his ignorance of presidential protocols.
He, himself, has resorted to parody in an attempt to pacify his liberal base, introducing a jobs plan that would "tax the rich" rather than reach for meaningful and workable economic solutions.
There is nothing new in all this. Image control and simplistic slogans have been a part of politics from the beginning. But they now seem to dominate, and very little meaningful substance gets offered for public consumption, with the possible exception of debates on cable channels that attract small audiences.12 comments on this story
We are to blame for much of this, of course. It is important to know whether a presidential candidate has the smarts to do the job, or whether he understands ordinary people, but we never really get satisfactory answers to those questions if we focus only on dialects and staged visits to fast-food restaurants.
It is much more important to understand issues, but that takes study and a level of competence many people lack even as they scornfully accuse others of lacking it, too. Snickering is so much easier than studying.
At least Weird Al is clever. That will keep him a step ahead of the parodying mob, even if he doesn't get noticed much on the streets.