The Joke’s On the Right

An inordinate amount of attention has already been paid to the announcement of Jon Stewart’s departure from television’s “Daily Show,” and we have nothing to add to all the fawning that’s been going on. The smart fellows over at The Atlantic Monthly have seized the occasion to wonder why no conservatives have achieved such satirical prominence, however, and we can’t resist the opportunity for our own lofty rumination on the sorry state of political humor.
Our answer to The Atlantic’s rhetorical query, which they seem not to have considered, is that the people who have the opinion-making power to elevate a satirist to Stewart’s otherwise inexplicable prominence are disinclined to bring any conservative to such heights. Less convincing is the magazine’s theory that “proportionately fewer people with broadly conservative sensibilities choose to become comedians.” The article contends that an abundance of cable channels should surely offer entry to a worthy conservative comic, as if all those channels weren’t run by the same handful of big media companies and a half-hour on any one of them is worth having without expensive promotion on all the others and plenty of hype from the big print and internet media owned largely by the same companies, and it notes that liberals also predominate in academia, journalism, and other writing professions, as if there was no organized resistance to conservatism in any of those fields, but does not explain why “broadly conservative sensibilities” would be less likely to crack a joke. A comedy career requires “years of irregular income, late hours, and travel, as well as a certain tolerance for crudeness and heckling,” the article offers, but we can’t help noticing the same rigors have not conservatives from notable success almost everywhere else in the entrepreneurial world.
Our own broad experience of humanity and comedy and the indistinguishable difference between the two finds little correlation between political inclination and a sense of humor. We have known some conservatives who closely resembled the popular stereotype of a humorless right-winger, and like the article’s authors we have even known some who failed to realize that Stephen Colbert’s tiresome right-wing schtick was parody, but some of the very funniest people we have known derived their excellent humor from the unflinching postlapsarian realism that is the essence of Judeo-Christian-Hellenic-Burkean conservatism. We have shared many a heart laugh with left-wingers, some of whom make for surprisingly pleasant company, but we have also often encountered the living embodiments of the famous stereotype of “that’s not funny” feminists, those whose racial sensitivities are so refined they can’t laugh at “Blazing Saddles,” and plenty of low-information sorts who won’t recognize any joke unless it involves George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, or the term “tea bagger.”
Despite the ideological prejudices of academia, journalism, late night cable television comedy, and the rest of the writing professions, Evelyn Waugh and Robertson Davies and George Orwell and Kingsley Amis and Tom Wolfe still enjoy literary prominence despite their “broadly conservative sensibilities.” In Wolfe’s case his reputation was cemented before the critics noticed that between the lines of his pop art prose was neoclassical politics, and that his straightforward and factually true reportage was devastatingly arch satire, and in recent years the best of conservative humor that has filtered through the popular culture has been as sly. Those of us who like our humor as dry as the perfect martini find this an endearing trait of the better right-wing wags, and we offer it as proof that the highest humor is not incompatible with “broadly conservative sensibilities,” but we ruefully acknowledge it is it not to the public’s taste. Still, we not convinced by the liberals’ ideologically inconsistent and oh-so-smug argument that the market place has spoken. Stewart’s viewership in most markets is less than the equally vulgar left-wing agitprop on the “Family Guy” re-runs, his much-ballyhooed numbers in the much-coveted youthful demographic suggest the susceptibility of his niche audience, and the rest of his supposed influence seems to be his popularity with the more influential media. We’re left wondering if someone who could read tele-promptered jokes about Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or liberalism in general with the same smirking superficiality would do just as well.
Nor do we concur with The Atlantic Monthly’s pondering that “Political humor, in particular, might have an inherently liberal bias.” The article quotes the author of a book titled “A Conservative Walks Into a Bar,” which we have to admit is a pretty good title, as saying “Conservatism supports institutions and satire aims to knock these institutions down a peg.” As much as we like her book title, the woman is clearly delusional. The federal and state local governments and academia, journalism, late night television comedy and the rest of the writing professions, not to mention the public service unions and K-12 establishment and the group identity political organizations and what’s left of the music business, are by now combined as the most powerful institutions in the country, and conservative humor strives to take them all down more than a peg. The institutions of family, church, and individual liberty that conservatism seeks to conserve have all been knocked out of view by the past 100 years of institutionally-approved ridicule, yet a “Daily Show”-sized audience seems not to have noticed that the cutting-edge satire has become mere chest-thumping triumphalism. The audience is invited to share in the victory and membership in hipped crowd, and when accompanied by a knowing smirk that always gets a laugh.

They won’t come right out and say so, but the smart fellows at The Atlantic Monthly seem to believe that a conservative comedian is handicapped by the fact that there’s just nothing very funny about liberalism. They suggest that President Barack Obama, for instance, “is a more difficult target than his Republican predecessor: He was the first African-American president, which meant comedians had to tip-toe around anything with racial connotations, and his restrained personality has made him difficult to parody.” Had the authors known any humorists of “broadly conservative sensibilities,” they would have noticed that it’s impossible not to step into the carnival of white guilt that has sustained the president’s career, and that his “restrained personality” is prone to speaking with his chin aloft in front of styrofoam Greek columns and issuing alternately lofty and harshly partisan pronouncements on the way to the golf course. For those satirists so daringly iconoclastic as to proceed without tip-toeing around anything with racial connotations, the man is a gold mine rather than mine field. Don’t get us started on Hillary Clinton, as we’ve got material for two shows. We’ve got even more on the rest of the Democratic party’s presidential field, but none have the name recognition that would ensure audience understanding. If the cable channels aren’t interested, we suspect there’s something more than afoot than market forces.
We wish Jon Stewart well in his inevitable next endeavor, and are confident there will always be an audience for his knowing smirks, but we can’t help hoping that something a little more anti-establishment might come along in his wake.

— Bud Norman

Comforting the Comfortable

There’s an old newspaper adage that a journalist’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Journalists are so fond of such nonsense that if you spend any amount of time with them you’ll soon grow weary of hearing it. After 35 years of working with newspapers we have vowed that the next time we hear anyone repeating this balderdash we will immediately go in search of a sockful of horse manure with which to pummel him.
It’s not so much how the adage negates a superior notion that a journalist’s job is to accurately report what is going on in the world, without regard to who is comforted or afflicted or by the truth, but rather that it’s so very out of date. The phrase apparently originated with Finley Peter Dunne, who wrote an Irish-accented column as “Mr. Dooley” way back in the good old days of yellow journalism when ethnic humor was respectable and journalists were not, and we wonder what the ink-stained wretch would make of the oh-so-comfortable scribes in attendance at this past Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
You’ve heard of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, of course, even if you make a point of avoiding all that boring political stuff in the news. The annual black-tie event has joined the Golden Globes awards and the global warming alarmist movement as one of those things that every self-respecting celebrity simply must do, and it now receives the same saturation coverage as any other show-biz event. This year Vanity Fair rushed to the internet with pictures of the “Hollywood A-listers and Washington-insiders” who attended the magazine’s after-party bash at the Kalorama residence of the French ambassador, and even the most staid news outlets were similarly star-struck. New York Magazine found it newsworthy that the First Lady wore a Lacy Monique Lhuillier gown, which is apparently some sort of fancy dress, and it  could not restrain itself from adding that “damn does she look good.”
Each year’s dinner features a monologue by a well-known comedian who is expected to poke fun at both politicians and reporters, thus allowing both groups to demonstrate what good sports and regular folk they are, but tradition also dictates that a gentler brand of humor be employed regarding Democrats. This year the honor went to late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien, who hewed rigorously to tradition. One of his few Obama jokes made mention of the fact that both he and the president attended Harvard University, and he ended with a heartfelt thanks to the president for helping his hometown of Boston “heal” from the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Whatever healing powers the president exerted might not have been necessary if the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been less sensitive to Muslim sensitivities when following up on Russian warnings about the bombers, an aversion to Islamophobia that has been imposed from the very top of levels of government, but O’Brien’s partisan fun-poking should have been expected. We well recall that during the Bush administration O’Brien used to regale his television audiences by doing a presidential imitation that involved mimicking a mentally retarded person and saying “duh,” a Swiftian sort of satire that the proud Harvard man could have just as easily learned on the playgrounds of Kistler Elementary School.
The president also spoke, which is another yearly feature of the event. Tradition dictates that the presidential monologue be self-deprecating, but Obama seems unable to make fun of himself lest it be considered racist. He acknowledged an embarrassing 2-for-22 shooting performance on the basketball court during the White House Easter egg roll, but only as a set-up for a joke about the NBC ratings, and most of the jokes were aimed a political opponents such as a wealthy Republican campaign donor. The watchdogs of the press politely roared, of course, and by all accounts everyone seemed very comfortable.

— 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 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

L’Commedia e Finita

These are hard times for the left-wing humorist.

The observation is prompted by a story over at the invaluable’s Big Hollywood site, gloating over the surprisingly paltry ratings for “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” both of which are attracting fewer viewers than such fare as “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” “Bad Girls Club,” and professional wrestling. The paltriness of the shows’ ratings is surprising because both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are widely hyped by other media, and their stars are often lauded as the modern days heirs to Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain, but upon reflection it is not difficult to believe that the shows have a limited appeal.

Left-wing humor has been a rather smug and self-righteous genre since at least the late-‘60s heyday of Lenny Bruce, The Smothers Brothers, Dick Gregory, and Mort Sahl, but in recent years it has become especially tedious, predictable, and downright mean. The left-wing comic continues to think himself a brave and intrepid iconoclast, challenging the stale conventions of an uptight and conformist society with devastating wit, but they never challenge the assumptions of their like-minded audiences nor seem to notice that it’s no longer the 1950s and that all of the conventions of that era have already been quite thoroughly demolished. Lenny Bruce did indeed run afoul of the law by dropping a few naughty words into his stunningly un-funny routines back in the pre-cable days, and has been hailed as a champion of free speech ever since, but these days an equally un-funny comic such as the execrable Louis CK can devote an entire set to a stunningly vulgar rant about Sarah Palin’s daughter having Down’s Syndrome and instead of an arrest he gets an invitation to address the Radio and Television Correspondents Association.

The past three years or so have been particularly tough for the left-wing comic, not just because they lost their favorite whipping boy in George W. Bush but because it’s so glaringly absurd for a comic to pose as brave and cutting edge while speaking truth to the out-of-power.

One of the last episodes of “The Daily Show” we bothered to watch was during the early days of the Obama administration, when the euphoria of hope and change was still rampant in the popular culture, and we tuned in merely to see how Jon Stewart would continue his anti-establishment pose now that his hero had become the establishment. The big headline story of that day was Obama’s executive order to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and we were curious to see what humor he might find it that. Predictably enough, the joke was that there were still a few Republicans left in Congress and they were so laughably absurd as to raise questions about the decision. The show aired some footage of a Rep. Pete King wondering if the prisoners would be set free to continue their terrorist activities, transferred to an American prison in a community that would become a natural terrorism target, tried in a court with the defense given access to top-secret anti-terrorism protocols, or some other problematic solution, followed by a cut back to Jon Stewart responding with one of his “can-you-believe-this-guy” stunned expressions. The audience howled at this Swiftian riposte, but we couldn’t help thinking that King had raised some reasonable and not at all funny questions, and we now can’t help noticing that three years later the best and brightest minds of the Obama administration are still trying to come up with better answers than a comically stunned expression.

Stewart probably hasn’t noticed, his attention no doubt being diverted by a Republican primary campaign that has undeniably provided some grist for the left-wing comic to mill, but he’d probably find some good material if he were to look at his side of the aisle from time to time. Of course there would probably be boycotts, denunciations by respectable society, and presidential phone calls to the targets of his barbs, but at least he’d be able to claim he was an iconoclast with a straight face.

— Bud Norman