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On Presidential Comedy, as Intended or Inadvertent

Comedy is the most subjectively judged of all the lively arts, and there’s no accounting for what one laughs at.
We’ve always considered Laurel & Hardy comedic geniuses, and always thought The Three Stooges boringly low-brow and grotesque, even though they were telling the same profoundly true and universally funny slapstick joke about some poor schmuck getting hit on the head with a two-by-four or falling into a deep hole. One of our formative childhood heroes was W.C. Fields, whose cynical and sneering and subtly self-loathing sense of humor used to show up on the late-late-shows we were allowed to watch during summer vacations, but for the most part we find the cynicism and sneering that dominate today’s comedy shallow and self-righteous and unfunny.
So it is with the related yet significantly different matter of presidential wit. Presidents aren’t expected to be stand-up-comics-in-chief, nor should they be, but rhetoric is required for the job, as is establishing a personal connection with the people, as well as having a realistic grasp of the absurdity of one’s self and the world one lives in, and a certain amount of sense of humor is essential to pull that off. The job also occasional entails speaking at such events as the Al Smith Memorial Dinner or the Gridiron club’s annual review or the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, or other events where a few moments of ghost-written comedy is expected to be delivered with a certain panache, but in these cases one can usually account for one’s tastes by one’s political opinions.
President Donald Trump’s most loyal fans have always found him downright hilarious, cracking up at his mocking mimicry of a reporter’s physical handicap or nicknaming a shorter rival “Little,” but we always rolled our eyes under our high brows and heaved a sigh and lamented what had become of both comedy and the presidency. Trump’s impolite and unfunny routine at the campaign season’s white-tie-and-tails dinner in New York City during the campaign, which crossed the long-standing tradition of gentle joshing and to “Crooked Hillary is so crooked” jokes, which the oh-so-polite crowd of fellow well-helled New Yorkers booed, and although the hicks in the sticks loved it the reviews were mostly negative. After that Trump skipped his administration’s first White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner, where all the “fake news” media invite some smart-ass comic to lampoon the president and expect his to respond gentle joshing and self-deprecation. Trump did accept an invitation to the Gridiron Club’s latest annual schmooze-fest, though, and he got surprisingly mixed reviews.
The gathering Gridiron Club of elite Washington correspondents is more discreet than the White House Correspondents’, whose nationally televised dinner rivaled the Golden Globes for ratings during President Barack Obama’s years, but of course Trump knew that his performance in front of an audience of journalists wasn’t going unreported. He eschewed the Crooked Hillary bits, never once mentioned “fake news” in his gentle joshing of the press, and generally disarmed his knife-sharpening critics. He reportedly got a deservedly big laugh from the tough room by saying that his staff worried he couldn’t pull of self-deprecating, but he assured them that “Nobody does self-deprecating humor better than me.”
Which is pretty darned funny, because it was heretofore so untrue, and we give credit to whomever came up with the line, and expect that it was Hope Hicks’ parting gift to talk Trump into saying it, but the hard-core fans probably prefer such golden oldie punch lines as “Build that wall” and “Lock her up.” They won’t notice, though, as the self-deprecating shtick wasn’t videotaped, but maybe this does signal a pivot to the old humble routine. After all the cynical and sneering late-night comics had a ball with footage of the wind and Marine One’s rotors blowing Trump’s careful comb-over away and revealing a large and unusual bald spot down the back of Trump’s head, the president recently regaled an actual rally crowd but turning around to show off his more carefully-coifed neck-to-forehead, and the audience ate it up, and the critics were largely disarmed.
This surely won’t end Trump’s endless shock jock insult comic shtick, though, and none of it rises to our admittedly old-fashioned standards of presidential wit. We’re old enough to remember President Ronald Reagan’s amiable and downright Andy Griffith-esque homespun humor, even after he’d been shot in the chest, and we’ve read enough history to regard President Abraham Lincoln as the gold standard. Lincoln was the fellow who came up with the “You can fool some of the people some of the time” aphorism, as Trump lives by in his condensed reading of the text, and the teetotaling Trump would have never come up with the line about buying all the Union generals whatever brand of whisky Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was drinking.
The several-inches-taller-than-Trump Lincoln didn’t resort to calling the diminutive Democratic incumbent Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas “Little Stevie” during their famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, but instead mocked his gangly appearance with the stilly-wide quoted “A man’s legs should be just long enough to the reach the ground.” Many years later the then-hilarious Woody Allen wrote a droll piece for The New Yorker that had Lincoln’s gag writer suggesting a man’s legs should be just enough to reach his torso, as the visual image of the disembodied torso reaching toward the earthbound legs was funnier, and although we consider that an improvement on the original we don’t expect either level of wit these days.
Trump also had a line about a North Korean overture to start talks on the scary nuclear situation over there, and his arguably brusque response, but no one was quite sure if that was meant as a joke or not. Trump frequently blurts out things that sound quite scary at first listening, but another news cycle later the White House press secretary explains that c’mon, he was obviously kidding, and the die-hard fans crack up, and we roll our eyes under our high-brows and sigh about what’s become of comedy and the presidency.
The night before the Gridiron Club’s fancy-schmantzy show Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago resort in front of a crowd of steep-dues-paying fan club members, and riffed about how his good friend Chinese dictator Xi Jiping recently repealed China’s term limits on dictators, and how we ought to try that here, and of course the knife-sharpening critics made something of that. He was just kidding, of course, so the critics looked slightly ridiculous, but Trump has often said that he’s not really kidding when he’s kidding, and both the die-hard fans and that knife-sharpening critics both know that.
There are some things that more traditional presidents don’t joke about at all, except maybe in the mot private circumstances, but somehow it seems to be the conservatives who want to do away with such essential traditions. As much as we like Trump’s recent self-deprecating turn, we worry that it doesn’t reflect any serious self-evaluation of his mean cocksure soul, and his die-hard fans are no doubt hoping the same thing.

— Bud Norman

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Defending Miss Schumer

We long ago cut off our cable television connection, and do our best to keep the rest of contemporary popular culture out of the house, but we must admit that we have succumbed to the comedic charms of Amy Schumer. She’s suddenly quite controversial, of course, and the criticisms are yet another example of how very humorless the modern left has become.
If you were not already aware of Schumer’s existence, it was bound to happen sooner or later. We only heard of her a few months ago when a friend recommended her work, following one of our frequent rants about the sorry state of comedy, but since then she’s become a full-blown media sensation. Her eponymous “Inside Amy Schumer” is a hit on the Comedy Channel, with the best of it showing up free and widely watched on YouTube, she has a new movie out that’s been heavily hyped, and her hard-to-define style of satire has inspired countless think pieces in the the more high-brow publications. In the old days of Lennie Bruce and Ed Sullivan the controversy would have been about her exceedingly profane language and shockingly frank sexuality, but these days that’s unlikely to raise any eyebrows and instead all the tsk-tsking concerns her occasional heresies against the left’s received wisdom on the holy trinity of race, class, and gender.
An adjunct professor of African-American history and an associate professor of something called “critical culture, race, and gender studies” teamed up to write an op-ed for The Washington Post that found a few of Schumer’s stand-up comedy lines offensive. One was an observation that “nothing works 100 percent of the time, except Mexicans,” which strikes us a vast improvement on the old Jose Jimenez routines and their now-outdated stereotypes of the siesta-taking Mexican that the Sullivan show used to feature. Another was Schumer’s confession that she used to date Latino men but decided she liked consensual sex better, which does seem to imply that Latino culture is more tolerant of rape, but the professors seem to make the same point by claiming that 80 percent of the Central American women and girls who illegally immigrate to the United States are raped while en route through Mexico. Another joke included in the montage of offense that accompanies the article has Schumer talking about “hanging out with literally all my black friend,” whose name is “Tamimba or whatever, Tapestry, something wild,” and includes a very stereotypical impersonation of a white girl acting like a stereotypical black girl and a throwaway line about black people being noisy at the movies, but to us the joke seemed mostly about herself.
Thus far Schumer has largely avoided any criticism on gender grounds, partly because she is a woman, albeit a white woman, and partly because she skewers the most boorish aspects of dude culture with such savage wit she is routinely described as a “feminist comedian,” but we expect that will last only until her fans get the bigger joke. Not long ago one of the world’s foremost scientists, Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, was forced to resign from his post at University College London and a committee seat with London’s Royal Society because of a brief public jape that seemed to imply women are too often overly emotional, which of course caused many women to become overly emotional and demand that his distinguished career of making great advances in the live-saving field of biochemistry be halted, but Schumer seems to be making the same point in a masterpiece sketch titled “How to Fight Like a Girl,” and she seems genuinely sympathetic to the men who have to put up with it, yet her feminist credentials remain temporarily unquestioned. She has a sketch about football and rape that is traditionally feminist yet still very funny, and another very funny sketch about a beleaguered secretary back in the beleaguered secretary days, but she’s more likely to turn her satirical sights on the fairer sex. Like Mary McCarthy and Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark and Dorothy Parker and all the great distaff literary wits, Schumer is a keen observer of the peculiarities of other women, with hilarious takes on the unexplainable tendency of modern young women to respond to every compliment with a self-deprecating denial, their one-upwomanship over such matters as whose “rescue dog” was rescued from the most heartbreaking circumstances, the age-old cattiness of womankind’s inhumanity to woman, and of course women’s more recently liberated sexuality.
Schumer convincingly plays a wide range of roles in her skits, which are much better than her stand-up comedy, but her usual comic persona is that of an alcoholic, narcissistic but insecure, not very bright, and recklessly promiscuous modern woman, which is apparently confusing to many of both her most ardent fans and dissatisfied critics. Several young women we know don’t like Schumer because they don’t like alcoholic, narcissistic but insecure, not very bright, and recklessly promiscuous modern women, several men we know are fans because her character seems an attainable ideal, and we think both are missing the joke. Perhaps we’re reading more into a late-night cable sketch comedy program than is actually there, but to us Schumer is casting an observant eye on the post-sexual revolution American culture and rightly finding it ridiculous. Her account of a one night stand, and the wildly divergent reactions of the man and woman involved, is another scathing satire of dude culture but comes down even harder on the naive young women who go along with it. Another sketch, charmingly titled “Gang Bang,” is first-rate satire about the second wave feminism’s strange notion that sluttiness is somehow empowering. An encounter with God during a herpes scare is a surprisingly funny reminder about the other problems that come with her comic persona. We don’t know what to make of Schumer’s “Time Travel” skit, except that she’s always self-deprecating and smart. None of this sort of sexual counter-revolutionary humor is exactly feminist, at least not as the term is now understood, and we eagerly await the maelstrom when her fans figure this out.
When they do, we expect there will be the usual charges regarding class. We have no idea about Schumer’s background, but by now she’s surely rich enough to expect some criticism regarding that. She’s an attractive woman, with blonde hair and a round face and a pleasingly plump figure that the friend who introduced us to her work describes as “hot, but in a realistic way,” and her debatable appeal is a recurring joke in her comedy, and already she’s getting criticized for making jokes that only attractive women can appreciate, which Schumer’s comedy convincingly suggests is also a class issue. That should give the left another reason not to laugh, no matter how funny the jokes are, and another reason to insist that all the laughing stop unless the approved targets are in the punchline. It’s no way to make comedy, or run a society, but we’re glad that a few counter-revolutionary humorists are still out there.

— Bud Norman

A Chilling Effect

Please be forgiving if our ordinarily precise prose dissolves into a stream of consciousness, but a severe case of cabin fever is making us delirious. Brutally cold air and an amount of snow sufficient to shut down the city have kept us almost entirely homebound for the past week, and even for such avid indoorsmen as ourselves it’s becoming quite tedious.
We briefly ventured out into the elements once, heading a few blocks to the home of a friendly neighbor with cable television to watch the Wichita State University Wheatshockers basketball team grind out a hard-fought win over a feisty Indiana State University Sycamores squad and improve its season record to a perfect 24 and 0, but nothing else has come up to justify such Jack Londonesque derring-do. We have otherwise been left alone with our thoughts, which is a chilling prospect in any weather, and forced to make do with whatever entertainments are at hand.
With great foresight we had stockpiled an extensive supply of old books and 33 rpm recordings of ancient American music in case of such an emergency, so at least we have not been relegated to contemporary pop culture. The internet machine informs us that Jay Leno broadcast his last Tonight Show, for instance, but Willie Nelson was singing “Hello, Walls” on the stereo so we didn’t bother to tune in. Leno always seemed an affable sort of fellow, far more so than his time-slot rival, but the talk shows have lost their luster along with the rest of show biz since the days when Frank and Dean would schmooze and smoke and make risqué with Johnny. Toward the end of his run Leno endeared himself to conservatives by cracking the occasional joke about President Barack Obama, which somehow made the white-haired comic the most daringly transgressive artist in mass media, but for the most part he hewed to the Hollywood line. Over the course of a long career Leno let loose with some good jokes, but it’s hard to do so consistently within the Hollywood line.
Two other comedy-related stories we’ve come across the past week make the same point. One was an interview with Lorne Michaels, who has produced the Saturday Night Live since it premiered on the old Dumont Network back in the silent television days, and his admission that the show has tended to ridicule conservatives more often than liberals because conservatives are willing to laugh at themselves and liberals respond angrily. This same cowardly approach to comedy explains why show biz prefers to ridicule turn-the-other-cheek Christians rather than slay-the-blasphemer Muslims, and why Saturday Night Live and other contemporary comedies are so rarely funny. The other story was an interview with Jerry Seinfeld, who rightly took umbrage at questions about the lack of racial diversity of the casts in his programs. “This has gotta represent the actual pie chart of America? Who cares? Funny is the world that I live in,” Seinfeld said to CBS This Morning, “You’re funny, I’m interested. You’re not funny, I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that.” We suspect that Seinfeld was so obviously offended because he holds political views that are generally in line with his show biz peers, but his admirable willingness to set them aside during working hours is one reason that his work is so often funny.
The rest of the news seems to be about the Winter Olympics, and it has less to do with sports than matters of geo-politics and security concerns and homosexual rights and poor hotel accommodations. All of these seem to have culminated in poor attendance, although the television ratings might benefit from all the viewers homebound by a lack of global warming across the northern hemisphere. Olympic sports no longer have the old Cold War drama, and winter sports are far too cold for our tastes, but we might tune in if the ‘Shockers aren’t playing and we’ve run out of rockabilly.
We’re hoping that the city will get enough salt from nearby Hutchinson to make the streets drivable, and that tomorrow’s temperature to will climb high enough above zero to allow for the few blocks of walking to the Wichita Art Museum for the opening of an exhibit of some fine old George Catlin paintings of buffalo, but it seems frighteningly possible that we’ll be stuck here for as long as the pizza rolls and chicken nuggets hold out. Our friendly neighbor calls it Dr. Zhivago weather, and the political climate is starting to seem the same, but we need to get out of the house.

— Bud Norman

The Presidency and Other Joking Matters

Not long ago we heard the following joke: What’s black and white and red all over? Barack Obama.

The joke works better when told orally, as that troublesome homophone gives away the punchline when written, but it’s not a bad gag in any case. What’s most striking about the joke, though, is that it took nearly a full term for it to be told. It’s such an obvious idea, at least for those old enough to be familiar with the Cold War-era connotation of “red,” that it’s remarkable it didn’t occur to someone as far back as Obama’s “spread the wealth around” comment to Joe the Plumber in the ’08 campaign.

Hearing the late-arriving gag reminded of us how very rare are jokes about Obama, an absence that is conspicuous because presidents have traditionally been a major source of comedy. We thought that perhaps we had merely fallen out of the joke-telling loop, but the good folks at the Breitbart.com web site have found an audio tape of professional comedians Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey making the same observation. Both men were once regulars on the fashionably leftist “Saturday Night Live” television program, and although that was several generations ago they remain au courant enough on the comedy circuit that they surely would have noticed any Obama humor afoot, and both report that they’re more likely to hear comics taking aim at such outdated targets as Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum.

Neither of the comedians offer a satisfactory explanation for the lack of Obama jokes, but the reasons seem obvious enough.

One is clearly the American skittishness about anything that touches on matters of race, or might be somehow perceived as doing so because the subject is African-American, an unfortunate tendency especially pronounced among the supposedly brave and transgressive entertainment class. Carvey admits that in many of the venues where he performs his impression of Obama provokes only a nervous silence, and although he doesn’t venture to say so we suspect he’s savvy enough to understand that it’s the audience’s discomfort with hearing a white person imitate a black person. Although Carvey’s brand of humor has always been a bit hyperactive for our tastes he is a gifted impressionist, and his mimicry of Obama is quite convincing without the slightest hint of a stereotyped black accent, so the silence can’t be attributed to his failings as a performer.

There’s also a lingering effect of the worshipful regard that the youthful target audience on had for Obama, back when he was the messiah who would rescue America from the much-ridiculed George W. Bush. Although the adoration has faded as the youth unemployment rate has risen, the prohibition on Obama jokes is still vigorously enforced by the show biz powers that be. Lovitz, a fairly amusing fellow whose considerable talents as a character actor could have been put to good use by an earlier era of Hollywood filmmakers, recently found this out when he deviated from his longtime liberalism to jape about Obama’s soak-the-rich tax schemes and was pilloried by the press and his fellow entertainers.

This is not healthy for a democracy, a form of government that has kept its leaders in check with satire since the days of Aristophanes, and it’s downright deadly for comedy. If today’s comics can’t find something to laugh about in the preening, preachy, inept Obama they’re unlikely to find it anywhere else.

— Bud Norman