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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

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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 Celebrities are Revolting

As a general rule we pay no attention to the political pronouncements of celebrities. Film and television actors, pop music performers, comedians, models, and the various other sorts of beautiful people who comprise the celebrity class have no apparent expertise outside their fields of endeavor, after all, and these days they don’t seem to have much talent for anything at all.
Nonetheless, we were intrigued to read that Bill Maher, host of a cable television talk show of some notoriety, was recently heard on the program grousing about his high taxes. The comments came after his guest Rachel Maddow, the boyishly handsome left-wing news commentator, delivered a long rant about the Republican budget proposal complete with the obligatory sarcastic claim that “it says the big problem in America right now is that rich people do not have enough money, they need relief from confiscatory tax rates.” This prompted Maher to respond “You know what? Rich people — I’m sure you’d agree with this — actually do pay the freight in this country … I just saw the statistics, I mean, something like 70 percent. And here in California, I just want to say to liberals, you could actually lose me. It’s outrageous what we’re paying — over 50 percent. I’m willing to pay my share, but yeah, it’s ridiculous.”
The observation is hardly original, and indeed the statistics that Maher “just saw” are well known to anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to conservative arguments during the past many years of tax debates, but it is a hopeful sign when the likes of Maher are offering it. A formerly funny comedian known for his foul-mouthed blaspheming and smug self-certainty, Maher has evolved over the years from an idiosyncratic iconoclast to a drearily doctrinaire liberal who contributed $1 million to Barack Obama’s soak-the-rich presidential campaign and consistently toed the same redistributionist line that Maddow was predictably peddling.
This probably doesn’t signal that the celebrity class will soon turn to the Republican side, but it is yet another indication that the taxes on the highest income earners — especially in such celebrity-infested states as New York and California — have reached a point that more outspokenly liberal rich folks are finding objectionable. Maher joins fellow unfunny comedians Whoopi Goldberg and Jon Lovitz in stating so, along with professional golf star Phil Mickelson and a few other athletes, and if more celebrities feel emboldened to join them it could have pleasant political ramifications.
The recent hatred for the rich has been peculiarly inconsistent, with business executives, entrepreneurs, professionals, and other productive citizens bearing the worst of it while athletes, entertainers, and people who are celebrities for no particular reason continue to bask in the warmth of the public’s affection. One likely explanation for this inconsistency is the tendency of celebrities to embrace liberal causes and thus display their compassion for the little people, unlike those ruthless capitalists who merely provide socially beneficial products and services and seem to be intent on profiting from it, but another possible reason is that they celebrities are better-looking, provide mindless diversion from mundane day-to-day existence, and have publicists who allow the fans to vicariously live the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Should the celebrities rise up en masse to protest on behalf of their fellow one-percenters, the public’s fervor for class warfare might abate.
Or perhaps not. Even Maher’s adoring audiences might decide that they no longer care for someone so greedy as to expect a full half of his paycheck, and even those celebrities who keep their resentments to themselves might sooner or later decide that all the rich must pay for their success. Robespierre and other well-heeled radicals of the French Revolution stoked the fires of class resentment until they found themselves under the guillotine’s blade, and the French aristocracy was far more entertaining and not nearly so annoying as today’s celebrities. We note that even Barack Obama’s press secretary was recently reduced to snarkily responding to a rare question about the president’s regal lifestyle, insisting that multi-million dollar vacations are only fair compensation for someone who cares so deeply about the poor, and Obama is the celebrity-in-chief.
If the beautiful people do find themselves being rounded up in the coming Reign of Terror, at least the public will be showing an admirable consistency.

— Bud Norman

The Lowdown On Low Info Voters

The most popular political cliché of the past election was “low information voter.” This newly identified category seems to have replaced “Soccer moms,” “NASCAR dads,” and “angry white men” as the hot bloc that every campaign simply must have.
Despite our usual aversion to neologisms we rather like this coinage, certainly more than any of its recent predecessors. We’ve never met anyone who could be adequately defined as a “Soccer mom” or “NASCAR dad,” and the many angry white men we’ve known are no angrier than the angry people of other races and sexes, but we’ve encountered so many low information voters over the years that it seems necessary they should have a name. “Low information voter” has a drearily sociological ring to it, and we would have preferred something more acerbic, but it will do.
The term is neatly self-explanatory, at least, describing someone who persists in exercising his franchise despite having little knowledge of the issues or candidates that he’s voting about. No one knows precisely how much of the electorate matches this description, but everyone agrees that it’s a sizeable share. There are enough of them, we’re sure, to determine the outcome of an election.
For many years it was the consensus of liberal opinion that the more ignorant voters were inclined to vote for Republican candidates, and such snobbery still stubbornly persists in some quarters The would-be wags at the Urban Dictionary site, for instance, define a low information voters as “One who votes based on information gleaned from other low information voters, rumors, viral emails, and FOX ‘News,’” and cites as an example someone who “will vote against labor unions” despite the unalloyed wonders wrought by the labor movement. Since the past election, however, even such impeccably liberal publications as The Hill were forced to admit that the Democrats are now winning the lion’s share of the low information voters.
Some Democratic partisans even point with pride to the Obama campaign’s careful courtship of the low information vote, a strategy that included the president’s penchant for appearing mainly on such entertainment shows as The View, Late Night with David Letterman, The Daily Show, and, as we never tire of mentioning, The Pimp With a Limp’s radio program. We stand by our frequent criticism that such appearances demean the dignity of the president and his office, but are now forced to concede that it is apparently shrewd politics.
Even without the president’s participation, though, the mass entertainment media that low information voters flock to provide a constant flow of propaganda that is helpful to the Democrats. Businessmen are almost invariably depicted as villains, religious people are routinely ridiculed, class resentments are encouraged, and everywhere a notion of “cool” explicitly associated with liberalism is celebrated. Most of the news media are just as bad, hyping every Republican misstep to a point that even the most determinedly uninformed voters will hear of it while avoiding any mention of the numerous Democratic scandals that would be front-page material if they had happened during an earlier administration. Those few outlets that do report information critical of Obama are easily ignored, and wind up with the word news put in sneering quote marks.
We’ve spoken with numerous Obama supporters who were blissfully unaware of the Fast and Furious fiasco or the Solyndra debacle, to mention just two of the embarrassing stories that somehow haven’t dogged the administration, and these people include regular readers of The New York Times and other supposedly respectable publications. More apolitical acquaintances of ours don’t know that the federal government has been borrowing a trillion dollars every nine months for the past four years, and when informed of the fact they don’t seem to understand that a trillion dollars is a significant amount of money. They feel entitled to revel in their intellectual superiority to Sarah Palin, though, and know all about the Republicans’ racist and sexist ways even if they can’t cite any examples of these character flaws.
Wooing these voters will be difficult for the Republicans. The Democrats’ tax-the-rich philosophy has a natural appeal to voters who have come through the egalitarian indoctrination of the public schools, for instance, and refuting it requires facts about the exceptionally progressive nature of the current tax system and talk of Laffer Curves and capital flight that seem to have a painful effect on the brain of a typical low information voter. Almost all of the arguments for conservatism are complex and often counter-intuitive, and none have the low-brow entertainment value of the President of the United States slow-jamming the news on the Jimmy Fallon show. The Democrats’ argument that they will give free stuff and the stingy Republicans won’t is quite simply understood, on the other hand, and the counter-argument involves less immediate consequences that the low information voter is content to wait for so long as the goodies keep coming.
So far the best advice the consultants can offer is that conservatives start schmoozing on the talk shows more often, and being as hip as possible when doing so, and that’s probably a good start so long as they don’t embarrass themselves in the process. A more effective solution will require changing the culture, though, and that’s going to be a lot more difficult than just enduring the company of the late night comedians who provide the low information to all those voters.

— Bud Norman

Air Guitar Politics

Of all the strange things we kept hearing about Barack Obama back in 2008, by far the most perplexing was the frequent description of him as a “rock star.” The term connotes to us an egomaniacal, sexually perverted, drug-abusing, oddly-dressed flash-in-the-pan, which are hardly the qualities one desires in a president, but the people saying it always seemed to mean it as a compliment.

Presumably they meant Obama had some ineffable appeal to young people that enabled him to fill stadiums with worshipful admirers, which is yet another quality that we don’t necessarily desire in a president, but in any case they always seemed to believe that Obama is possessed of that special something that the kids call “cool.” The kids have been calling it that for at least the past 60 years, so perhaps the quotation marks are no longer necessary, but it should be made clear that they mean “cool” not as a synonym for calm and dispassionate but rather in the beatnik sense of being one hip daddy-o. We always found Obama rather snooty and sanctimonious and boring, but coolness is subjectively measured, and there’s no denying that an overwhelming majority of America’s 18-to-24-year-olds thought that voting for Obama in 2008 was the cool thing to do.

There seems to be some concern on the part of the Obama re-election campaign, however, that the youngsters won’t be voting for him by the same decisive margin this year. For some time now Obama has been giving his speeches almost exclusively at college campuses, and lately he’s even been taking his act to the late night talk shows that cater to the young insomniacs.

The reasons for concern are obvious. The continuing high rate of unemployment has disproportionately affected younger people, and the more attentive youths will find numerous other complaints with the Obama agenda. Surely at least some of Obama’s past voters will realize that the $5 trillion he added to the national debt during his first term will weigh most heavily on the younger generations, for instance, and they might even take a look at how various other Obama policies have disproportionately affected the young.

The effectiveness of Obama’s tactics to revive his past popularity with young America is less obvious. Half of the students at the colleges where Obama is giving speeches to will soon be either unemployed or working in a low-wage job requiring only a high school diploma, which explains why he’s playing smaller halls than he did during the last tour, and doing the rounds on the talk shows is better suited to pitching a new movie than another presidential term.

Most critics of Obama’s late night comedy act have argued that it is unpresidential, which is true, but the more pressing problem for him is that’s so very un-rock star. Back in the rock star heyday of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s no self-respecting would ever deign to sit and schmooze with some suit-and-tie-clad talk show host. In the era of three networks the talk shows were seeking a broader audience and wouldn’t have booked a rock band, anyway, but that was all the more reason for a rock star to avoid such squares. We’re told that the current crop of late night talk shows are hipper fare than what Johnny, Joey, and Dick used to offer, but over-exposure on even the hippest of them is bound to reduce the most celestial rock stars to mere celebrity status.

There are many star-struck young people out there who will be persuaded to vote for Obama because they regard his late night talk show schmoozing as cool, and we’ve endured futile conversations with more than a few, but it’s hard to imagine there will be nearly so many as the last time around. We have to believe, lest we forfeit all hope in the future, that at least some of the young people in America will now realize that there are more important requirements for the job of president than being cool. After being promised more hope and change than the president has been able to deliver, we hope that a crucial segment of the youth vote will recall the lyrics of The Who from back when rock stars were rock stars and vow that “We won’t be fooled again.”

— Bud Norman