Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Gadfly Made a Video [Updated]

[Update: Today somebody over at Fordham apparently took a look at this and responded, a bunch, on twitter while I was busy teaching students about the past's intrusion on the present in Light in August. I mention that last part as an example of the odd juxtapositions that can happen when the interwebs intersect with the meat world. At any rate, while you might have been hoping that Fordham's tweets were some sort of epic thunder at my offensive mockery, they were more on the order of clarification and mockery of my mockery, which is of course only fair. At any rate, since this is my first go-round with a thinky tank, I've added some of that dialogue to the original piece where it can all be viewed in context.]

Mike Petrilli over at Fordham went and made himself a wacky video. And it Well, remember when your sad uncle used to get drunk and dance with the stuffed animals in your sister's room? This well, it has higher production values. And it tells us way more about these folks than they probably meant to share.

Petrilli is the junior half of Finn and Petrilli, the thought leaders who have steered Fordham Institute to a leadership role in education reform based on... well, based on something. They most recently scored big by getting a bundle of Gates money to examine CCSS and another bundle to help spread the word how awesome CCSS is. So kind of like one of those labs that does research on health effects of tobacco sponsored by R J Reynolds. I'm not going to unpack all of that here-- you can read a much more thorough account by the invaluable Mercedes Schneider on her blog.

Bottom line: these guys are members of the Masters of Reforming Our Nation's Schools club.

You can watch the video here. Or you can save that pleasure until after reading about it. Or you can just never watch it ever. I'm going to talk about what we can learn about these folks from this video, and while it may seem like I'm making some big stretches based on just a little 2:20 clip, it's becoming apparent over the course of this blog that that is what I do. So here we go.

I suspect that one motivation for making this video was to show that the Fordham gang are just as "fun" and "zany" as anybody out there. However, they tip their hand immediately.

First, we show a clip of the original source material ("What does the fox say") just in case, you know, people don't get it. It's the kind of thing you do when the only frame of reference you have is your own, like your annoying aunt or that know-it-all at the library or NBC news try to tell you about something cool that has been famous already for six months, but they only just learned about it and it never occurs to them that other people might know things that they do not.

There are only two possibilities here. Either nobody at Fordham thought to say, "You know, the original has 300 million hits and thousands of other parody versions-- I don't think we need to explain to anyone what we're doing," or they know that their audience is so disconnected from current culture that this will have to be explained to them the same way you have to explain Netflix to your great-grandmother.

But showing us the clip isn't enough. Mike Petrilli laughs at it. Specifically, he laughs at the jump cut to "What does the fox say." He means to laugh as if this reveal is the most hilarious things since Gene Hackman poured soup into Peter Boyle's lap. He actually laughs as if he is trying to imitate the way that "humans" laugh at things they believe are "funny."

So if the goal of this clip was to show that the Fordham folks are zany fun guys, just like the rest of us, that ship has sailed (and been blown up in the harbor) within the first twenty seconds.


Petrilli is interrupted by a phone call. It's from Mr. Broad (and we finally have confirmation, for those of who weren't certain, that "Broad" rhymes with "Toad"). Petrilli has a conversation with him as if Broad had never heard of Fordham before, all so that we can set up the lead in line, which really ought to be "What does the gadfly say"-- but Petrilli muffs it and so we get "What does Gadfly say?"

You might call that a small thing. But I'm a part-time hack musician as well as a hack writer, and I tend to automatically distrust people with a tin ear. And this is a very produced video-- it's not like we couldn't have gone back and done it right.

[Update: Pamela Tatz, editorial associate at Fordham, was late to the twitter party, but offered Since we're apparently tweeting you corrections...Mike meant to say "What does Gadfly say." We were trying to squeeze syllables. :). So it's an artistic choice. She alsocorrectly pointed out that SNL also opened their parody with a clip of the original. Since I am one of those old farts who complains that SNL has never been as good since John Belushi died, I had missed that and stand corrected. I stand by my critique of the opening line, but I will spare everyone the English teachery lesson on how meter is more important than syllable count.]

This sequence gives us our first straight on view of Petrilli's face. As an English teacher, you sometimes regret that you don't have more opportunity to use some really great words, like "unctuous" and "supercilious." Petrilli's face corrects that problem. Maybe it's just anticipation for the wacky shenanigans to follow, but he already looks damned pleased with himself. It's not quite Bitchy Resting face, but it's still kind of annoying.


I'll take back half of my deduction for tin ear, because while it might have been autotuned a tad, Petrilli's voice is more than up to the demands of the song. Kudos, sir. [Update: Joe Portnoy, media manager st Fordham, assures me via twitter that there is no autotuning. Fair enough. I thought I might have detected a faint autotunetang, but it could easily have just been a production artifact.And Mike Petrilli himself tweets that vocal credit goes to @brainofmatter & @VictoriaEHSears]

But the lyric itself is interesting, because it requires Petrilli to reduce the major players to a single simple sentence. So "Randi whines" and "Diane's become a kook." Criticism of the critics- no surprise there. But "Arne says 'sorry'"? Did Fordham just call Duncan an apologist? Well, maybe not, but it's fun to hear it that way. And it certainly wasn't a tribute to his stalwart leadership. "Michelle fires them all" is also an interesting choice of defining characteristic.

And then all musical holy hell breaks loose. Again, credit to Petrilli for swinging for the fences. He attacks the lyric with-- well, I'm not sure. Anger? Heartburn? Kind of like the awkward kid in school who isn't really sure why that other kid always gets a solo and he doesn't, so he's going to sing hard. So hard. He's going to sing like a boss. He's going to sing the hell out of this. He's going to kick each note like he's punching back at every jerk who ever gave him a swirly.

The office staff (mostly young enough to be interns) is game. We're all in shirtsleeves-- see? no sports coats on, just like the video = wacky relaxed shenanigans! The film editor is fast enough to keep the general awkwardness from really registering, but watch it a few too many times and you can tell that the think tank did not test for dancing skills when hiring. There is one piece of sound judgment here-- at no point do they attempt any of the backup dance moves from the video. And Petrilli looks very proud of his dance moves, but in his defense, he does not suck.[Update: Petrilli tweeted that last line and responded "I shall now die happy."]

At this point we're replacing the nonsense lines from the original song with nonsense lines from Fordham's policy recommendations, so I'm enjoying the parallel. Did Petrilli mean to suggest that "Smaller classes? We say no" was the equivalent of "Ringdindingdingdingdading"? Probably not, but I'm going to go ahead and draw that conclusion anyway.

Final effect? People making wacky shenanigans out of policy ideas that are being used to destroy public education? It's a hard thing to parse-- how would "Springtime for Hitler" have come across if it had been staged by the Nazis themselves? I am not meaning to suggest that Fordham = Nazis, but I do wonder what we're to make of people making themselves look more ridiculous that we could make them look on purpose.

It is part of the tone deafness problem. I want to shake them and say, "Did you not see this? Do you not know how you look, both awkward and opposite-of-cool, while making jokes about policies being used to destroy peoples' careers?" Somehow while shooting for cool and relaxed and with it, they've hit uncool and callous, thereby suggesting that they are imbued with so much hubris and arrogance that they either can't see or don't care (because only unimportant people will be bothered, and they don't matter). Perhaps Petrilli and his well-smooched tuchus have been insulated from honest opinions from so long that he just doesn't know. This is the education industry equivalent of those bankers' videos of obscenely wealthy parties, the Christmas cards from wealthy apartments, the total lack of understanding of what things are like out there on the street, because the street is just for the commoners who don't matter.

It's an oddly fascinating train wreck. Is it awesomely funny because it's so awful, or is it too awful to be funny? Whatever the case, it gives a strong 2:20 feel for what sort of attitude permeates Fordham, and it is just as bad as we ever imagined. Maybe worse.

[Update: I'll note that Michelle Gininger, media relations manager at Fordham (which is starting to feel more like a PR firm than a thinky tank) also passed along some of the tweetage. Additionally, Joe Portnoy tweeted "So far this wins for favorite negative review of #WhatDoesGadflySay." So Fordham's response to this blog fell somewhat short of full Darth Vader or even medium Donald Trump. Make of that what you will. At the very least, I think they showed better judgment in how they responded to the video review than they did in making the actual video in the first place.]


  1. Once again, you have clearly and succinctly articulated that which most deserved to be expressed. Thank you.

  2. i love everything about this post.