Updated: Aug 16, 2020
FAH's Political Humor: Getting into America in 43 Seconds
In an interview with RTÉ2fm, Foil described the process of writing the U. S. Immigration sketch before they traveled to the Kansas City Irish Fest to perform there: " we wrote one about our, kind of pre-clearance experience . . . which is always terrifyingly interesting. Yes, so we had mad problems getting into the States" (2016 YouTube video).
It might not seem possible that a 43 second video could include both a plot line, and a provocative lineup of political statements about the United States, but FAH have managed just that in their sketch, “U. S. Immigration,” which was first published on their YouTube channel on September 1, 2016. Indeed, this sketch fits right into what I’m calling FAH’s Micro sketch canon: 19 comedy pieces that they’ve written between 2012 – 2018, all 50 seconds or shorter.* This sketch, like Border Control (discussed in blog post #4), is a tightly written piece. FAH excels at short, clear, concise, and very interesting writing. This bit of comedy art, in particular, relies on quick exchanges, wordplay (a creative gift of the trio), and pushing the boundaries of political humor.
And while I know that FAH’s intention is never to be overtly political (they’ve said as much in interviews), in a: "we're taking a stand now, so listen up, and hear our statements" kind of way, I would argue that they are purposely using humor to introduce viewers to fairly provocative subjects concerning U.S. history and political culture. And in that sense, FAH seem to be asking us to think about and recognize these issues. Since this video is posted to YouTube and is of course, public, viewers have ample opportunity to engage and respond with the material, as I will discuss below.
Below is the U.S. Immigration sketch.
The plot is straightforward and simple. Two people, Foil and Hog, playing nameless characters, want to enter the United States and in order to do so they must have an interview with an Immigration Officer, Arms.* The first words we hear are from the Immigration Officer (or IO, for short): "Before granting you entry into the United States we have a few simple questions. It's just a formality."
Let's first examine Arms's accent in this sketch; he perfectly captures the tone of an American bureaucrat and sets up the structure of the comedy to come.* His vocal intonation and inflection of words is authoritative. There is a hint of a Southern drawl in his voice; this is a man who does his job and does it well. He is a rule follower and has no consciousness about what he is saying or why, he merely does what he is told and if he hears the right answers then the two people in front of him will enter the U.S. without any problems. It's that simple.
Thus, we are initially prepared for every person's nightmare: the anxiety, the fear, the worry, and the sheer panic of not knowing what the questions will be or whether we will pass inspection. Foil and Hog both emphasize this by creating a sort of "deer in headlights" look as the IO is asking them questions. Anything could happen, and they appear initially to be resigned to their fate and the outcome of his decision.
But then FAH switches gears - a strength that I've highlighted previously in other discussions of their work - and turns the table on the moment by undermining the role of the Immigration Officer. Now we are off on another route entirely and we're only 9 seconds into the sketch.
Immigration Officer: I'm actually Irish myself.
Immigration Office: No, I hadn't started.
Hog: Oh, yeah, sorry.
The pivotal exchange is, of course, between the IO and Foil. What does it mean for the IO to say that he is Irish when he is clearly an American?* FAH are smart here, they set up a stated fact: “I’m actually Irish myself” with a refuted fact: “false.”* We, as the viewers, understand that it is the American IO who is appropriating Irishness or Irish identity; he probably hasn’t been to Ireland or seen an Irish ancestor for at least two, or three, or more generations. Still, identity is incredibly complicated; one might want to identify as Irish for all sorts of reasons, but in this context, it seems that the IO's statement is both misappropriation of cultural identity, and a basic misguided attempt to connect to his interviewees.
Declaring the IO's statement to be "false" drives home the first joke, and as FAH often declare in their own live shows, this may be the best joke in the sketch. It is incredibly loaded with meaning, and it is very funny. It also makes FAH's premise of this video clear: we are now going to make fun of this process, and at the same time we're going to question the very identity of this person who is questioning us.
The rest of the sketch, all 34 seconds of it, concerns the interviewees being presented with a standard set of questions typically asked of foreigners entering the United States. FAH play around with their responses, at times giving answers that are clearly stereotypes of the U.S., or accurately citing really serious problems that have plagued the U.S. during its history as a country.
Interestingly, two of the stereotypes that FAH mention immediately seem to be pulled from the 1980's, Reagan era of American politics. Certainly the "gun lobby and big tobacco", though not entirely entities of the past, do not carry the same kind of political power in Washington D. C. that they once did. Now the big lobbyists are pharmaceutical companies and Facebook. It is unclear whether FAH are doing this on purpose, so as to not be too politically contentious - the sketch was written, after all, in 2016, an election year in the United States and as they make clear at the end of the video, they’re on their way to the U.S. to perform - but it strikes me that these stereotypes are as recognizable to international audiences, as American ones, and so don’t necessarily have to be that current.
The remaining questions are asked simply, and without particular fanfare, the first being about America’s “national holiday.” Humor serves its purpose here in illuminating that Black Friday has become a sort of unofficial national holiday for Americans in a kind of lampooned way; people make fun of it all the time, even if they participate in supporting the economic structure of it by going out at 3am the day after Thanksgiving to camp out in line at Walmart just to purchase a $75 TV or the most popular toy of the moment.
And then there's the observation about Chicago being in "the state of violence." This strikes me as a rather heavy-handed stereotype that unfortunately continues to propagate the idea that violence is only equated with urban living, high gun crime, and in turn a large African-American population. As this sketch was written in 2016, it is entirely possible to find statistical evidence that shows Chicago is hardly the city with the highest gun violence in terms of its per capita population. That honor goes to the city of New Orleans in Louisiana.* But of course if one is to see the humor in this moment it should be understood that FAH are playing with the word "state" here, meaning place and also a measure of time or emotion.
In terms of the other claims about America, creative wordplay inserts itself again with the question about the “most dominant race.” FAH sidestep the purely political here by telling us it is the “100-meter butterfly.” This humor serves to take away some of the tension inserted with the comment on Chicago and its equation with violence. And in fact, Michael Phelps, an American athletic swimmer, did win a silver medal for the 100-meter butterfly at the 2016 summer Olympics. FAH then insert an almost game show tone with the IO’s statement: “Quick fire round, finish these sentences. America is the greatest something in the world.” The answer, unfortunately, is that we are and remain the biggest arms provider in the world. Foil is spot on about this response.
Again, there is an attempt at humorous balance with the question: “Martin Luther King had a . . .”. The answer is extraordinarily complicated, but Hog sums it all up with “tough time getting equal rights.” This suggests that King was the sole activist involved in the fight for equal rights; however, anybody who has studied civil rights or even taken a gander over to Wikipedia knows that Martin Luther King wasn't the only person fighting for rights in the 1950's and 1960’s (he was assassinated in 1968), but he certainly was one of the primary champions of the cause.
And finally, FAH end with more wordplay. By using the word “founded” which implies giving a numbered date, Foil sets up the comedy fall by offering up instead both a critique of American history – “dubious circumstances” – and a piece of American history that many people would like to forget and bury under the rug, so to speak, about “land claims from indigenous people.” It is very true that indigenous people have had to fight a long and hard battle against the government appropriation of their sacred lands. And even a brief search on Google brings up much research material on this long and intense history between Native American tribes and governmental bodies in the U.S.
The final seconds of the sketch show Foil and Hog being welcomed to America with a handshake and a handgun. This final shot (no pun intended) drives home the idea that the U.S is a gun loving culture and welcomes foreigners who embrace that particular tenet themselves. But, of course, the funny part of this is that the interviewees are really excited to receive their gun, as if it is some kind of prize for getting all the answers correct.
Every FAH video on YouTube has fairly animated and engaged comments, but this particular video elicits some quite intense reactions from viewers. Interestingly, the responses coalesce around several main topics, but leave out both Martin Luther King and indigenous peoples. In the 521 comments posted so far (excluding those by FAH, who very briefly respond to people 15 times), discussions between and among viewers run mostly along the lines of cultural identity as it relates to Irishness, ethnic identity among all races, discussions about "America the greatest" and Trump, and long discussions, practically fights about gun ownership, gun lobbying, gun control, 2nd Amendment rights in the U.S., and finally 26 Americans claim that the sketch is entirely "accurate” across the board, with just a few dissenting voices remaining about the stereotypes that they perceive as negative in the sketch.
Though published four years ago, this sketch remains contentious with viewers who continue to have very strong opinions about the subject matter; people have commented as recently as two weeks ago (it is now August 1, 2020) on the material. It should be pointed out that these responses are from an international audience, and not just an American one. In responding to the video, people often say where they are from in order to contextualize their value system in their discussions with others. This micro sketch, at 43 seconds really packs a political punch and shows once again how incredibly powerful and thought-provoking FAH’s sketches can be, even when they’re this short.
Footnotes: *I searched through and watched all 323 FAH videos on their YouTube channel to find the 50 second and under sketches. And I read through all 521 comments three times to make sure that I was clear on the content and subjects discussed.
*Like some of the other sketches that I have examined in these posts, I am using FAH's stage names to reference their nameless characters, or I am calling them Immigration Officer (or IO), and interviewees, whenever possible.
*For a lengthy discussion of Arms's vocal qualities and strengths as a singer, please read my discussion of FAH's Border Control sketch (blog post #4). He is superb at doing accents and I believe this is because of his vocal training and his natural ability at impersonations. This moment in the U.S. Immigration sketch is no different.
*Interestingly, this same exchange resurfaces in FAH's 2019 sketch, The Green Card Game Show (in their Craicling tour), in which the American Host (Foil) of the game show tells the Irish contestant (Hog) that he is also Irish, and the contestant responds, "False."
*My information comes from a fact-based article showing Chicago’s gun violence rate for its per capita population in 2015, but published in 2016.