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Stranger, and Worse, Than Fiction

Pity the poor fool who tries to write a legal potboiler or political satire novel these days. The most fervid imagination might devise a plot that combines Russian intrigue, Playboy centerfold models and a pornographic video actresses, ruthlessly efficient prosecutors and comically inept defense attorneys, a petulant and impulsive president with plenty of other subplots, and a slew of conspiracy theories to explain it all, but the publishers will find it hackneyed.
The combined talents of John Grisham and Jonathan Swift couldn’t top the last couple of days of headlines in your local newspaper.
Acting on a tip from the special counsel investigation looking into the “Russia thing,” federal agents have lately executed an extraordinary search warrant on the president’s longtime lawyer and “fixer” who has admitted paying $130,000 to a pornographic video actress in exchange for her silence about an affair the president denies ever happened. The payment can be construed as an illegal campaign contribution, as well as a reported similar payment of hush money to a Playmate centerfold model through the National Enquirer tabloid, which no fiction writer would have ever thought of, and there are reports the lawyer was also suspected of illegally dealing once-lucrative New York City taxi medallions, but what they find in the voluminous records that were seized from Trump’s longtime lawyer and “fixer” might also shed some light on that “Russia thing.”
The petulant and impulsive president griped at length about it in front of all the network news cameras on Monday, prior to a cabinet meeting ostensibly about a response to Syria’s recent chemical attack on its own people in a Syrian civil war that Trump had earlier announced we’ll soon be pulling out off. He criticized his own Attorney General and deputy attorney general and pretty much the entirety of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as the independent judiciary that had signed off even those extraordinary search warrants and indictments. He repeatedly used the words “disgrace” or “disgraceful,” hinted that people might be fired, and later “tweeted” that he was the victim of “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!”
You don’t have to delve into the depths of right-wing conspiracy theory sites to to hear sites to hear sympathetic arguments. Several of the hosts on influential Fox News network and several prominent talk radio hosts argue that a raid on a lawyer for information about one of his clients is an egregious violation of the sacred lawyer client-relationship, and is further proof that the “deep state” of professional employees in the DOJ and FBI and elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy are conspiring are conspiring to overthrow a duly elected American president. It is highly unusual for a search warrants to be executed any old defense attorney, there is indeed a more-or-less permanent federal bureaucracy which doesn’t much like the president, and all of them have their flaws, so there’s something to it.
Being the sorts of old-fashioned conservative Kansas Republicans that we are, though, we’re not at all convinced that our duly constituted system of government’s carefully considered laws and the independent judiciary that enforces them is more a “disgrace” than our petulant and impulsive president. So far as we can tell the legal concept of lawyer-client privilege is still well respected by the system, and that the duly-appointed prosecutors had to provide some pretty damned convincing evidence to the duty appointed judges to get such a warrant on the highly unusual exception where criminal activity by the lawyer is involved, and we note that almost everyone involved in the process is a Republican of longer standing than the president.
We’ll not dare venture a guess about what comes next, but the president is conspicuously hinting he’s going to fire people, has made quite clear that his longtime lawyer and “fixer” is on his own regarding that hush money to the porn actress, and he’s short another inept lawyer against those ruthless prosecutors who have thus far won warrants and indictments and guilty pleas from the independent judiciary, and has been having trouble finding suitable replacements. There’s no telling how this stranger-than-fiction tale might turn out, but our limited imaginations can’t see how it turns out well.

— Bud Norman

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The World’s Foremost Authority, RIP

It was quite a surprise to see Professor Irwin Corey’s obituary in Wednesday’s news, because we thought he was dead. That’s an old and rather rude show business joke, but we mean it respectfully and hope he would have appreciated the absurdist humor. By the time Corey died on Monday at the last laugh old age of 102 most of the youngsters out there didn’t know the name, but back in the days of variety shows and PG-rated celebrity roasts and smoke-filled late night talk shows he used to crack us up, and his passing marks an end to a subtler and slyer and slightly less angry era of American comedy.
Corey was a left-winger even by show business standards, but that wasn’t readily apparent from most of his comedy. He grew up in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum, worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps, got his start in show business with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union’s annual musical revue, and carried the resulting political perspective through the rest of his days, but his humor was mostly apolitical and altogether too convoluted to figure out what it might imply. By the time we started catching his act on television in the late ’60s and early ’70s the high school drop-out had reinvented himself as an eminent professor of some unnamed discipline, always introduced as “The World’s Foremost Authority,” and he would present himself in a black swallow-tailed coat and string tie and high-topped Chuck Converse All-Stars, his gray hair running wilder than Albert Einstein’s ever did, then starting spewing the most inspired academic-sounding gibberish. He’d throw in jokes about how heat expands and cold contracts and that’s why the days are longer in the summer, and how if we don’t change direction we’ll wind up where we’re going, and he had a great bit of physical humor where he’d forget what he was going to say and eventually reach for his notes and then crack up at whatever he’d written, which he’d never get around to reading, and he’d usually begin these monologues by saying “However.”
Any youngster who comes across these routines on YouTube might take them as brilliant satire of the meaningless mumbo-jumbo that today’s liberal academia spews out, but at the time he started to develop the act way back in the ’40s it probably worked just as well as spoof of the meaningless mumbo-jumbo of the more conservative academia of his youth. There was a distinctly vaudevillian flavor to it, like the even older comics who were still killing on TV, but also something very modern, like the sophisticated younger comics in the suits and ties who were starting to take over, and something as anarchic as both the Marx Brothers that had come before and the National Lampoon punks who would come later. Put in any context it was pretty funny stuff, and a sly warning about the world’s foremost authorities that has always been and ever will be worth heeding.
The variety shows disappeared and the celebrity roasts went on cable and started featuring raunchy women talking about their privates and the late night talk shows weren’t booking acts with roots in the ’40s, but Corey would still occasionally show up over the decades. He did get more explicitly political, and his lifelong leftism descended into conspiracy theorizing that was hard to distinguish from his more deliberate attempts at absurdism, but he’d still crack us up during our occasional encounters on the internet. He kept performing into his 80s and 90s and even his early 100s, but apparently his last performances were on behalf of the New York City sidewalk passersby that he would panhandle. He didn’t need the money, as the inveterate anti-capitliast had invested his earnings well enough to enjoy a comfortable retirement in a fashionable Manhattan neighborhood, so he’d donate all the proceeds to a favorite charity, but he and the better senses of humor among his unwitting sidewalk audiences reportedly got some final much-needed laughs from it.
It also occurs to us that with Corey’s passing we now inherit the title of “World’s Foremost Authority,” having previously been “World’s Second Foremost Authority,” and we will do our best to carry it with an honor worthy of the man.

— Bud Norman

The World’s Comics Vie for Second Place

All of the late night comedians took most of the Obama years off from political humor, but they’ve been back at it with a vengeance since Donald Trump took office. So far Trump and his staff and most steadfast supporters are unamused, but they’ll have to get used to it. Trump ridicule has become an international phenomenon, and it’s been interesting to see what sort of jokes the various countries have come up with.
Trump’s pledge of “America First” has sparked a competition amongst the rest of the world’s comedians to come up with the funniest reasons why their countries should be second, and much of it is not bad. Some comedy show in the Netherlands was the first to provide an “official” video by one of its late comedy shows explaining why their little-known country should place, and it went “viral” pretty much everywhere, and several of our most begrudgingly pro-Trump friends had to admit it was pretty funny. Apparently everyone in the Netherlands speaks English better than the current American president, as it’s all very ‘merican-sounding and without any bothersome subtitles, and they’ve all been following American politics closely enough to have noticed Trump’s penchant for hyperbole and boasts and saying “believe me” an awful lot. The filmmakers boast about the great ocean the Netherlands built between itself and Mexico, and how effective it’s been at keeping Mexicans out of the country, and how you can see it from space, and how everybody says that the Netherlands builds the best oceans, but it’s also rather endearingly self-deprecating. There are a couple of gags that you apparently have to follow Netherlands pop culture to get, and we don’t even follow American pop culture, but much of the humor is apparently universal.
The late night comic with a reputation as the edgiest in Germany followed suit, with some self-deprecating jokes about how he was admittedly stealing the premise from the Netherlands, and it’s also pretty good. There’s the same emphasis on Trump’s hyperbole and boasts and “believe me” verbal tic, but some more barbed Nazi jokes and a self-deprecating plea that Germany should be second because “Who more deserves a third chance?” By that point the late comics in Belgium, Denmark, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal and Switzerland had joined, with the German comic placing them all conveniently on the same web site. They’re all pretty much the same jokes about Trump’s bombast and poor English skills and nationalistic fervor, and by now everyone in the world is apparently aware of Trump’s “locker room” about grabbing women by the wherever and his apparent affinity for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, but they all throw in some local humor that demonstrates what each country likes to kid itself about, which is interesting to learn even if we don’t know anything about Lithuania’s or Luxembourg’s pop culture.
Trump ridiculed his way to the presidency with such witticisms as “Low Energy” for Jeb Bush and “Look at that face” for Carly Fiorina and a “tweet” that unfavorably contrasted “Lyin'”Ted Cruz’s wife’s looks to his own third bride and an impersonation of some pesky New York Times’ reporters degenerative bone disease, and he’s had plenty to say about past presidents of both parties, so he should have expected some return fire. So far the comedians around the world are coming up with better material that he has, so he needs to either get serious or start being a whole lot funnier.

— Bud Norman

A Weekend Off From Politics, as Far as Possible

The past weekend and its relatively pleasant weather here on the plains provided plenty of diversions from dreary politics, but of course there was no avoiding it entirely. Still, we found hope some for personal refuge from it all.
After a good morning of sleep and a lazy afternoon of slothfulness the Saturday evening entailed a much needed party at the Fabulous Tahitian Room, located in a dear old friend’s refurbished-in-Tiki-Bar-style barn well south of Wichita and just north of the hilariously small town of Peck, and everyone in attendance were dear old friends. They’re all longtime Republicans, one of the many things we have in common, but a couple of us were sticking to our old-time free-trade guns and another couple were trying to defend President Donald Trump’s protectionism, and despite all our convivial years of friendship it occasionally got a bit heated. We wandered off into more personal topics, and found it more interesting and gratifying. The middle-school aged son of some old friends was there with with his dad, and we’ve much enjoyed a friendship with him his whole life, and we were pleased to catch up with him again and find out that he’s still coming along nicely. His mother is a friend of the wife of the former local congressman who has recently become head of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the former congressman and current CIA head’s wife adores him as much as we do and had arranged for him to get a special tour of the White House a couple of years ago, and we kidded him about how how he had now an “in” at the CIA. In the ensuing political arguments the kid was the only other one at the bar who knew what the “L” in “ISIL” stood for and what the Sykes-Picot Agreement had to with the current Middle Eastern situation, and despite his slightly too enthusiastic support for Trump that gave us hope.
A happily long-married couple who were friends of ours even before that started were rather vehemently arguing for Trump’s protectionism, although we suspect they wouldn’t have been nearly so enthusiastic about President Bernie Sanders’ protectionism, but after all that they also caught us up on their daughter, whom we’ve also adored since the day she was born. She’s getting to married another woman soon, and the romance has apparently been quite complicated, and they both sort of shrugged as they talked about the honeymoon they’d agreed to pay for, and the kidding about it at a small party of longtime Republican old friends was friendly and infused with best wishes, and at this point we wouldn’t be surprised if that crazy mixed-up kid we’ve always adored winds up voting for Trump’s re-election.
We still managed to find ourselves in the pews of of our low Christian church on the westside where we worship Sunday mornings, and the hymns and the Holy Communion and a sermon straight from the Gospel of John were a profound diversion from more inconsequential matters. The sermon referred to Pontius Pilate’s famous query, “What is truth?,” and our very sound preacher linked this to the “post-truth” era of the millennial generation, but we couldn’t help thinking it how it was also echoed by the “alternative facts” of the last Baby Boomer president.
A nice nap followed, and then a rousing performance by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, with tickets from a friend of the folks’. There was some nice Handel and Bach in the first set, and the rest was a fabulous rendition of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” featuring the very talented and utterly charming guest soloist Rachel Barton Pine on violin, and we left with a happy sense that the seasons will come and go according to God’s plan until its purpose has been fulfilled, Trump and all those liberals notwithstanding.
Not long after that there was a meeting way over on the east side with the local media’s satirical song-and-skit revue we’ve long been involved with, so there was no avoiding politics there, but there was beer and wine and pizza and plenty of intriguing personal talk and for the most part it all went well. There was a general agreement that there’s no avoiding Trump in a satirical revue, but that there are also more local and apolitical topics to be burlesqued, and we expect that it will also be worked out in some way or another. Today is Monday, though, so there’s no telling what might happen.

— Bud Norman

Our Annual State of Satire Address

Some of the time we usually spend perusing the news and composing our thoughts about it has been taken up this past week by our annual appearance in an amateur theatrical production, a revue of skits and songs spoofing local and state and national newsmakers, so we hope you’ll forgive any resulting lack of our usual depth of analysis and gloominess you might have noticed over the past few days. The show has been a rather desultory affair this year, and as usual all the money is going to journalism scholarships that we don’t approve of, so on a slow news  day that and an infuriating speech by “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau have set us to thinking once again about the sorry state of satire.
The other folks involved in the show are mostly a swell bunch, and we highly recommend the brief camaraderie that amateur theatrical productions provide to anyone who is looking for a once-a-year hobby, but of course there are always what we show biz folk call “creative differences” involved. This year we were limited to a few lines in a skit about a recently deceased cast member, which got some nervous laughs on opening night, and a more featured role in our own script about a poor fellow who just wants to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks without being subjected to a meaningful conservation about the state of racial relations in America, which got even more nervous laughs, and perhaps that was for the best. There’s an entirely apolitical bit by one of the veterans about dealing with computer tech support robots, a version of “Mein Herr” from “Cabaret” about Bruce Jenner’s sex change that would be considered egregiously transphobic in more enlightened communities, and a sharply partisan skit about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and what might be on them, all of which we found very funny, but the rest was mostly about Kansas’ Gov. Sam Brownback and Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and we weren’t in on the joke.
Those of you who are out of state and also not in on the joke need only know that Brownback is a sexually repressed Puritan who gleefully slashed the state’s education budget to such levels that the poor urchins in the state’s schools cannot afford the alphabet, and Kobach is such a racist that he does not want illegal immigrants to vote in Kansas elections. All the right people here in Kansas seem to think so, so audiences are grateful to be let in on the joke, but even that exquisite frisson of blessed conformity that comes with thinking like all the right people and being let in on the joke can’t quite square those creative differences for us.
Having known Brownback since we were 18 and working as summer interns for the now-venerable Sen. Bob Dole, and having run into him often on the campus of Kansas State University when he was student body president, and having run into him again here and there on campaign trails and at Kansas State Fairs during his other stops on a long career of public service, we know him as a nice guy and decent family man, and although he would probably be sympathetic toward any baker who didn’t want to bake a same-sex wedding cake, and he did support that stupid “sin tax” to raise revenue on the backs of smokers and beer-drinkers and other fine Kansans we know,  otherwise we can assure you that he does not seem to harbor any sexually-induced neuroses that might affect his duties as governor. As for the education cuts, we note that the average school district in the state was spending around $13,000 per pupil the last reported year, which for some reason doesn’t include the generous bond issues that voters have approved, and which is around the national average, and with the lower-than-average cost of things around here that means we’re still ahead of the rest of the country, and we’re ahead of all the countries in the world except Sweden and Norway, and we’re way ahead of countries such as Japan and South Korea, which seem to have better math students, and there’s no denying that the Catholic schools around here do a better job for a lower fee, and a friend of ours has a kid in this “classical school” who is clearly getting three times the education at nearly one-third the cost, and we guess that all the right people who are in on the joke just don’t know this.
Neither do we get the joke about Kobach hating Mexicans because he doesn’t want them to vote in Kansas elections, any more than we feel the least bit hated because the Mexican government doesn’t want us to vote in their elections. Such policies have been a fixture of representative government since its inception, and consistently poll more than 70 percent approval, which is more than same-sex marriage or the latest Spielberg movie or the First Amendment gets, and it was enough to win Kobach an easy re-election just last November, but apparently all the right people who are in on the joke think otherwise.
All the right people who are in on the joke, we have begun to suspect, are the wrong people to do satire. This suspicion was heightened by reading Trudeau’s speech accepting Long Island University’s George Polk Career Award, which is as annoying a piece of drivel as we’ve come across lately. The award is named in honor of a journalist who died in the line of the duty, yet Trudeau took the occasion to criticize the editorial staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for publishing the cartoons that offended their murderers. Poking fun at the sort of radical Islam that would murder the staff of a satirical magazine is “punching down,” said the once-edgy Trudeau, noting that it satirized a “powerless” and “disenfranchised” minority rather than “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” The Muslims are France are not disenfranchised, of course, and their growing demographic strength will soon make that fact unhappily apparent at the polls, even if a French Kobach should somehow emerge, and they are not so powerless that they can’t slaughter the staff of any magazine that offends their strict notions of proper respect for their religion, and enlist the support of award-winning and well-heeled and oh-so-respectable cartoonists and other gullible examples of the right sort of people who are in on the joke, and we’d like to think this is the reason no one outside Long Island University has heard of “Doonesbury” since the early ’80s.
Satire and journalism should indeed comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, tiresome as that old cliché has become, but Trudeau and all the rest of the right people who are in on the joke should know that the roles have been reversed since the good old days when Groucho Marx and his brothers were sticking it to Margaret Dumont’s society dame. These days it’s the Starbucks and the computer tech support robots and the rich and corrupt feminist ceiling-breaker Hillary Clinton and the award-winning cartoonists who are the comfortable that need afflicting, and now  it’s the guy who just wants a cup of coffee, the reader subjected to the latest developments in Bruce Jenner’s sex change,  the guy who just wants his e-mail working, and the guy who sees through Clinton’s champion-of-the-common-man schtick, and the taxpayer who’s expected to pay more for an educational system that needs thorough reform more than it needs more money, and the people who are being slaughtered rather than merely offended, who need comforting.

— Bud Norman

Safe Rooms in an Unsafe World

One of our longstanding literary ambitions has been to write a satirical novel about the modern university, something along the lines of Mary McCarthy’s “The Groves of Academe” or Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim” or Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” but it looks as if we’ll have to abandon the project. Academia is now more ripe for ridicule than ever, but apparently to the point that it is beyond satire.
Such a humorless publication as The New York Times recently ran a rather straightforward story that the latest campus contretemps that the combined talents of Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and the usual gang of idiots at Mad Magazine could not have rendered anything more comical. Headlined “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas,” the story told how Brown University hosted a debate between the founder of a feminist web site called feministing.com and a female libertarian on the topic of the “culture of rape” that now reportedly pervades the American campus, and how members of the school’s Sexual Assault Task Force responded to this exchange of ideas. Worried that the libertarian’s perspective on the issue “could serve to invalidate people’s experiences,” and might even be “damaging,” the Sexual Assault Task Force members created a “safe space” for traumatized listeners to retreat from the debate, complete with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” Even if we had the imagination to concoct such absurd details, we would have rejected them as too obvious a burlesque of the infantilizing nature of modern higher education.
As The New York Times ruefully notes, such episodes are now common at America’s colleges and universities. Almost every day tells of a student being disciplined for merely questioning the veracity of that highly questionable “one if five women on campus are victims of sexual assault” claim, or professors being charged with “micro-aggressions” for patting the arm of a student angered by an opposing viewpoint, textbooks coming with “trigger warning” to alert the possibility of unapproved ideas, or women’s rights activists being barred from campus because they’re advocating the rights of women in the wrong cultures, or some other more mundane case of campus activists chasing dissenting views off campus. Institutions of higher learning once insisted on vigorous debate and an unflinching look at facts as necessary tools to the discovery of truth, but they’ve now determined they have all the truth they need and no longer anything as potentially traumatizing as debate and unwelcome facts. Little good is likely to come of it, and certainly less than one would expect for the tuition prices being charged today.
The same censorious instincts are found in the broader left, and score the occasional victories against free speech, but they are unlikely to prevail outside the campus. Reality intrudes outside the campus, as well as what’s left of the First Amendment, and most people who haven’t undergone an expensive indoctrination at such elite institutions as Brown University find it very annoying. Nor will anyone who has been so carefully shielded from opposing opinions and unpleasant realities be likely to prevail in the rough-and-tumble of American politics. Worse yet for those who took refuge with the cookies and coloring books and videos of frolicking puppies, they’ll be up against conservative foes who spent their years of higher education being constantly bullied, ridiculed, and shouted down for their beliefs, not just by their professors and deans but also by all the movies and television shows and the rest of the popular culture. The right’s arguments will be honed and its spines stiffened by the college experience, if they get nothing else out of it except perhaps for a still-lucrative degree in math or science or engineering or one those other suspiciously “objective” disciplines.
Even those supposedly oppressed sub-cultures that the left presumes to speak for are unlikely to offer the same sort of refuge as the modern university. If those people retreating to the “safe rooms” of Brown University are planning on community organizing in America’s poor neighborhoods, they’ll find that there are no cookies or coloring books or videos of frolicking puppies, and plenty of uncomfortable facts that they’d rather not face.

— Bud Norman

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

The End of Satire

The art of satire, according our well-considered literary theory, should be rendered with a certain subtlety. A burlesque too broad is bound to be vulgar, and it also robs the more sophisticated reader of that smug self-satisfaction that comes with recognizing an inconspicuous joke. Alas, The Daily Mail’s account of President Barack Obama’s remarks before and during a recent high-dollar fund-raiser falls well short of this high standard.
The article is presented as straightforward journalism, in keeping with the Fleet Street mainstay’s usual offerings, but despite the paper’s impeccable reputation for accuracy it seems the work of a rather ham-fisted satirist. It claims that Obama sent one of those poverty-pleading e-mails soliciting donations from the basement-dwelling Democratic hoi polloi, in which he lambasted the Republican opposition as the party of the fabulously wealthy, then flew to Connecticut to headline a $32,400-dollar-per-ticket fund-raiser in the Greenwich home of a real estate mogul named Rich Richman. This is irony cut with a chain saw, rather than the requisite scalpel, and had we been the editors we would have insisted in the interest of verisimilitude on something slightly less gaudy.
Take the small detail of that mogul host’s improbable name, for instance. We’ve dabbled in fiction enough to know the exhilirating sense of omnipotence that comes with naming our creations, and have always looked to the hilariously overstated nomenclature of the great Evelyn Waugh as our model, but calling the rich, rich man “Rich RIchman” is a bit lazy and self-indulgent to our tastes. Not since Arthur Miller named the lowly protagonist of “Death of a Salesman” Willy Loman has a name been so uncomfortably pregnant with ponderous significance. At the very least, we would have insisted it be transliterated into French or some other obscure language. Other reports joshingly indicate that the president’s middle name is “Hussein,” however, so  we commend the authors for omitting that rather over-the-top invention.
A wryer sort of satire can be found at The Weekly Standard, which quotes the president at length during another pricey fund-raiser, this one at a swank Manhattan restaurant. According the this account, the president acknowledged to his well-heeled supporters in the fight against income inequality that “there’s a sense possibly that the world is spinning so fast and nobody is able to control it,” then reassured them by citing his recent successes against the Islamic State terror gang, which continues its territorial gains in a key swath of the Middle East, rallying the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against the Russians, who currently control much of what used to be Ukraine, and mobilizing the entire “world community” against the carbon emissions causing global warming, which hasn’t been happening for the past 18 years. This is all quite droll, especially the implied suggestion that people would really pay $32,400 to hear such apparent balderdash, which should be especially satisfying to the class-envying sorts or who worry about income inequality, and we appreciate the painstaking effort to make it sound like something the president might have actually said.
There’s a disconcerting possibility, though, that both stories by these usually reliable publications are actually true. If so, we fear that the ancient art of satire might be rendered obsolete.

— Bud Norman

Harold Ramis, RIP

The recent death of Harold Ramis set us to thinking about comedy. Not because there’s anything funny about the death of Ramis, who by all accounts was a decent sort of fellow who deserved better, but because he was the most influential comedic filmmaker of recent years.
As a screenwriter, director, or actor, and oftentimes taking on all three jobs, Ramis had a hand in such hugely popular and widely imitated movies as “Animal House,” “Ghostbusters,” “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” and “Groundhog Day,” as well as the “SCTV” television series and the “National Lampoon Radio Hour.” This is an uneven oeuvre, to our old-fashioned tastes, but there’s no use denying its lingering effect. Get almost any white male of our age group drunk and he’ll sooner or later start quoting cherished lines from Ramis’ movies, perhaps even reciting the entire script of “Caddyshack” verbatim, complete with a mush-mouthed imitation of Bill Murray’s Carl the Groundskeeper character, and the smart-alecky anti-authoritarianism that defined a Ramis movie is still the default style of almost every aspiring comic. Commentators on both the left and the right have also acknowledged the inevitable political influence of Ramis’ movies, although they predictably disagree on whether it was for good or bad, and we suspect that Ramis would have found it all quite amusing.
So far as we can tell from his rare public political pronouncements Ramis was a conventionally liberal Hollywood baby-boomer, but his movies were inadvertently conservative enough to have thoroughly annoyed much of the left. Over at Salon.com the noted writer Thomas “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Franks did his best to live up to every detail of the humorless liberal stereotype with a scathing obituary, claiming that Ramis’ sense of humor “liberated Reagan and Wall Street” to unleash all the supposed catastrophe that humorless liberals have always associated with those stock movie villains. We once thought Franks was the funniest writer of his generation, until we realized that everything he wrote was intended in earnest, but we suspect his characteristically high dudgeon is at being the butt of a far better joke than he’ll ever write. The joke wasn’t written by Ramis, though, but by the strange cosmic shift over the past 40 years that has transformed Ramis’ movies into a conservative cause celebre.
Ramis came of age in the 1970s and the “National Lampoon,” and you really had to be there to understand what that meant. It was a post-Vietnam and in-the-middle of Watergate era when being young meant snidely questioning authority or being hopelessly square, and nobody questioned authority with the slide-splitting cynicism of the “National Lampoon.” The magazine was raunchy and irreligious and disrespectful of every convention of polite society, but just as irreverent toward the constraining pieties of the emerging counter-culture. Chafing at even the earliest restrictions of feminism and the civil rights movements the magazine was brazenly and hilariously sexist and racist, and it had a deliriously liberating effect even on readers who had to keep the latest copy out of sight of their disapproving parents. We recall issues devoted to mocking The Beatles and the Kennedy clan with a particular nostalgia, and proudly retain the courage it gave us to laugh at anything. Ramis was similarly affected, apparently, and had the good fortune to begin his career with the magazine’s radio show that somehow got past the Federal Communications Commission’s censors and onto the national airwaves.
Ramis’ first big movie hit was “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” which he co-wrote with the magazine’s Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller, and at the time no one would have considered it a conservative movie. In the unlikely event you haven’t seen it, “Animal House” is an admiring account of a fraternity of drunken, horny, aggressively rude students at a typically staid early-‘60s college campus. A pretentious pot-smoking professor and a guitar-strumming folk musician are among the satiric targets, and some believably menacing black males figure in one of the gags, but the leading bad guys are from the Reserve Officer Training Corps and the blue-blood houses and the oh-so-establishment administration. This is hardly the stuff of right-wing propaganda, and doesn’t sound like an appealing premise for a comedy, but the passing of time can change a movie. “Animal House” has been so frequently re-made in one form or another that it would be hard for anyone encountering it on Netflix or the late show to appreciate how shockingly fresh and laugh-out=loud funny it was in 1978, and only in retrospect can Franks can accurately complain that it made fraternities cool again and that the Dartmouth fraternity “Animal House” was based on was a pipeline to Wall Street sinecures.
Franks and his fellow liberals have more plausible gripes with “Ghostbusters,” a silly little special-effects comedy that libertarians have embraced as a classic. The heroes in the movie are entrepreneurs who have bravely left the cozy but constrained confines of academia, despite one’s worry that “I’ve been in the private sector, and they expect results,” and the villain is a self-righteous and utterly incompetent Environmental Protection Agency bureaucrat. This does sound like the stuff of right-wing propaganda, and the premise for a first-rate comedy, but for some reason we never liked the movie any more than Franks did. The public loved it, and we defer to its judgment on the matter, but Franks’ opprobrium makes it all the more appealing.
“Caddyshack” is a class-conscious comedy about a proletarian lad who clashes with the bourgeoisie at an obscure country club, but even that seemingly Marxist pitch contained enough subversive comedy to offend the refined sensibilities of the left. Franks shrewdly notes that “country club Republican” is now a pejorative more often used by the Tea Party right than the respectable left, and that Rodney Dangerfield’s heroically slobbish character is a self-made businessman striving to crash an enclave of the crony-capitalism that conservatives now rail against, but we can’t share his view that is a fateful fault in the movie. “Stripes” was a frequently amusing tale of two fiercely individualistic losers who wind up in the strictly-regimented army, which spared it Franks’ scorn, but if he’d wanted to Franks could have griped about the grudging respect that the protagonists eventually gave to their old-school drill sergeant.
Any movie is best judged on its aesthetic rather than political merits, and on these grounds we found most of Ramis’ movies flawed. At the risk of sounding like the sort of cinephile snobs that Ramis could have cannily ridiculed, our notions of comedy were influenced by an earlier and more serious school of comedians. The Ramis movies gave us a lot of laughs, but rarely provided a fully satisfying movie-watching experience. They lacked the cinematic inventiveness of Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd in the silent era, the elegant sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch in the ‘30s or the carefully considered satire of Preston Surges in the ‘40s, or any of the great comedies made in the ‘50s and ‘60s before the heavy hand of the political correctness that the “National Lampoon” had to resist starting in the ‘70s. As much as we admire the slapdash anarchism of the Marx Brothers’ tweaking of Margaret Dumont’s propriety or W.C. Field’s drunken surrealism in “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break,” most of Ramis’ films seem merely sloppy with chaotic endings and a good-enough-for-Hollywood feel.
There were a lot of laughs in those movies, though, and we appreciate that so many of them annoyed the liberals. If there really is any political lesson to be learned from Ramis’ work, however, it is that the liberals are now in authority and that a properly anti-authoritarian impulse should be directed toward those bastards. The great “National Lampoon” writer an editor P.J. O’Rourke has unabashedly embraced conservatism, and we see no reason why Harold Ramis shouldn’t be posthumously inducted into the ranks of right-wing bastards even if it would have annoyed him. President Barack Obama gave a respectful eulogy, saying that because of Ramis he and his wife “Questioned authority,” so one can only hope that Ramis will also inspire late-show viewers to question this president’s authority.
Ramis’ only true masterpiece, however, invited viewers to consider more important matters than the passing the political controversies. “Groundhog Day” is a deeply philosophical and fully-realized film about a man who finds himself trapped in the same day and only manages to escape the monotony of his selfish existence by rejecting the smart-alecky rebelliousness of Ramis’ other films and seeking a more spiritual existence. It’s funny, too, and will long survive the squabbles that Ramis would have laughed at.

— Bud Norman

Taking Satire Seriously

These are hard times for the satire business, and not just because of the bad economy. The bigger problem for the modern satirist is that no parody can be so broad, so exaggerated, so obviously made-up that much of the public won’t take it seriously.

Yet another example of this phenomenon was recently provided by the many supposedly smart writers who regurgitated some obviously fabricated quotes attributed to Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. The column had Ryan responding to some pol’s claim that he would have to wash off the “stench” of his association with Mitt Romney by saying such things as “If Stench calls, take a message” and “tell Stench I’m having finger sandwiches with Peggy Noonan and will text him later.” A casual reader could be forgiven for failing to notice the satirical intent because of its lack of humor, a usual indicator of satire, but the quotes are so at odds with the usual caricature of Ryan as bland and annoying wholesome that it should have tipped off anyone the slightest bit astute.

An even more frustrating example from recent days is Mitt Romney’s infamous statement that “I can relate to black people, my ancestors once owned slaves.” Romney never said any such thing, of course, and anyone who wants to trace this bizarre rumor to its source will eventually arrive at a little-known internet publication with the telling name of “Free Wood Post,” which bills itself as “news that’s almost reliable” and offers a disclaimer that flatly states all articles are fiction and “any resemblance to the truth is purely coincidental.” Even this was insufficient to prevent the quote from appearing on countless blogs, tweets, and exceptionally gullible cable news networks such as MSNBC.

Similar mistakes are too numerous to mention. Cases of people falling for similarly obvious attempts at satire in the widely-read on-line satire publication The Onion are so common that a site called “Literally Unbelievable” has been created just to chronicle them.

This problem goes back at least as far as the era of Mark Twain, who noted that “To write a burlesque so wild that its pretended facts will not be accepted in perfect good faith by somebody is very nearly an impossible thing to do,” but we suspect that it’s far more in the post-Gutenberg era of sitcoms and Saturday Night Live-derived movies. As practitioners of a drier form of wit, we’ve discovered that too many people now require a comically contorted face or outstretched palms or some other form of ample warning that a joke is coming, with a howling laugh track to accompany both the set-up and the punch line, and then have it followed by a capitalized “LOL” in order to understand that a remark is not meant to be taken literally.

We suspect the polarized state of American politics probably has something to do with, too, as people are ever more eager to believe the very worst about their ideological opponents. At the “Literally Unbelievable” site there are several examples of Republicans falling for clearly satirical exaggerations, but the Democrats who truly believe that anyone to the right of Sen. Al Franken is plotting for environmental Armageddon and the restoration of slavery seem to be most susceptible to mistaking satire for journalism.

Alas, the fabricated quotes will undoubtedly cost Romney a few votes from the humor-challenged community. Given the skittishness that the supposedly brave and transgressive wags lately have about poking fun at the president, it’s unlikely that the lost votes will be offset from imaginary quotes attributed to Obama. Which is a shame, because Obama is the one who actually said that line about his ancestors owning slaves, and we write that with a straight face.

— Bud Norman