Essay October 2009

Cheap Laughs

The smug satire of liberal humorists debases our comedy—and our national conversation.
Andy Friedman

The merry month of July 2009 had barely witnessed the spectacle of Al Franken eventually taking his seat as the junior senator from Minnesota when, immediately following the death of Walter Cronkite, Time magazine took an online poll to determine who was now “America’s most trusted newscaster.” Seven percent of those responding named Katie Couric. Nineteen percent nominated Charles Gibson. Twenty-nine percent went for Brian Williams. But the clear winner, garnering 44 percent, was Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Either I missed it, or the poll failed to specify, in that wonderfully reassuring way that polls purport to do, what had been its “margin of error.”

A summer debate at the Oxford Union once resolved: “This House believes that the nation is slowly sinking giggling into the sea.” Do July’s antic politico-media developments mean that undergraduate humor has now triumphed definitively, and that the balance of power is held by the sensibilities of the combined teams of Mr. Stewart and Saturday Night Live? Although the answer to the second part of that question is certainly no (the balance of power will continue to be held by opinion polls and those who are in a position to commission and print them), the answer to the first part would appear to be yes. And even the answer to the second part might have to be somewhat qualified: if any one thing crucially undid the candidacy of Senator John McCain for the presidency, it was his nomination of Sarah Palin to be his running mate. And if any one thing undid Governor Palin as a person who could even be considered for the vice presidency, it was the merciless guying of her manner and personality by Tina Fey.

You may conceivably have forgotten that when, after the numbing assault on our civil society in September 2001, Mayor Rudy Giuliani wanted to signal some kind of return to “normalcy,” it was to the set of Saturday Night Live that he repaired. (They fed him some quite good lines, too: asked with due solemnity “Can we be funny?,” he responded, “Why start now?”) I distinctly remember wondering what, if they were watching it, the al-Qaeda leadership could possibly be making of this dialogue.

Long before the Weekly Standard crew disembarked at Anchorage for its now-historic call upon the lady governor, I myself once sat on a cruise-ship entertainment panel—sponsored off the imposing shores of Alaska by The Nation magazine—with Betty Friedan and Al Franken. In the spontaneous-humor stakes, I seem to remember outpointing Betty with relative ease, but I nonetheless noticed with slight envy that some “progressive” women in the front row would start laughing uncontrollably as soon as it was Franken’s turn to speak and, indeed, often before he had even opened his mouth. I’d already admired a Mick Jagger impersonation I’d seen him do in Washington (at a benefit for the National Committee for an Effective Congress) and an after-dinner performance he’d given at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in the Clinton era. Franken has a naturally comic face, very, very good deadpan timing, and an absolutely copper-bottomed, 100 percent, and unironic allegiance to every known tenet of the Democratic Party’s version of liberalism. In minor conversation at the ship’s bar, about the impending campaign of Hillary Clinton for the Senate (or rather, for her unopposed nomination to the Democratic machine’s ticket for same), I came to see that Franken’s secret asset was that he was really quite a hard-bitten and hard-line partisan.

The victory of Stewart in the race for anointment as the new Cronkite surprised me less perhaps than it will have surprised some of you. Not long ago, I was teaching a class on Mark Twain at the New School in New York and someone asked me who, if anybody, would be the equivalent figure for today. I was replying that I didn’t think there was one, though the younger Gore Vidal might once have conceivably been in contention, when someone broke in to say: “What about Jon Stewart?” I was thunderstruck at how many heads nodded, and I replied that I would know better next week, after my upcoming appearance on the show. I recall this now as winning me the most respect I have ever had from any class. The day after my appearance, I was at West Point to lecture to the cadets and was stopped everywhere I walked by young trainee warriors for America who had caught my act. This sort of thing can become heady.

It also has its vaguely alarming side. “Al Franken for Senator” is one thing (especially when the alternative is or was “Norm Coleman for Senator”). But Jon Stewart for Samuel Langhorne Clemens is quite another. What next? Stephen Colbert for Zola? Al Franken for Swift?

Franken very often refers to himself as a “satirist,” which is a piece of hubris that comes to him too glibly and naturally. One wants to say, on hearing or reading such a claim, “Actually, sunshine, we’ll be the judge of that.” Swift famously compared satire to a mirror in which people could see every face but their own: if Franken desires to be considered a connoisseur of the satirical, he might want to paste that line into his hat.

The best of his books, which is (I’ll call it for brevity’s sake) Lies, is in fact a fine if accidental illustration of the Swiftian maxim. The necessary clue appears as early as page 37, while Franken is having some easy fun tossing and goring the hapless Bernie Goldberg on the hoary old question of liberal bias in the media. Still, ask yourself who exactly gets himself caught in the following exchange of trick questions:

Why, Bernie asks, if CBS identifies the Heritage Foundation as a “conservative” think tank, does it not identify the Brookings Institution as a “liberal” think tank?

I don’t know. Bias? Or could it be because the Heritage Foundation’s website says their mission is to “promote conservative public policies,” while the Brookings website says it is committed to “independent, factual and nonpartisan research”?

But Goldberg, as Franken concedes at the outset, does not complain about the identification of Heritage as conservative. He complains about the non-identification of Brookings as liberal. It’s hardly a satiric smackdown to cite Brookings itself asking and expecting to be taken—as it is by Franken—at its own “objective” face value. That’s Goldberg’s accusation to begin with.

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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