Essay October 2009

Cheap Laughs

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

The next complaint Franken has is against Goldberg’s insistence that Rosie O’Donnell should be described as being as “liberal” as Rush Limbaugh is conservative. Once again, Limbaugh hardly pretends to be otherwise, while Ms. O’Donnell—held harmless by Franken—may well not deserve to be called “liberal” but is partly an apolitical nut and part echo chamber for the more dubious wing of MoveOn.org and even the putrid fringe of the “9/11 Truth” nutbags.

Some of the more tedious moments of my life have been spent on the Hannity & Colmes show (I still await the call from Bill O’Reilly), but Franken on page 99 decides to attack Hannity just where he is at his strongest, in a diatribe he broadcast against John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban. Of this pathetic yet sinister character Hannity made the debatable assertion that he “converted from anything-goes liberal agnosticism to hard-core Middle Eastern radical Islam.” Whatever may be said against this proposition, Franken notably fails to say it:

Before reading this, I had never considered the direct line between liberal agnosticism and hard-core, radical Islam. But Hannity has a strong case. So many of my liberal, agnostic women friends from college gradually relinquished their freedoms and decided to spend the rest of their lives in chadors, avoiding the gaze of man.

If this was being intoned on-air by Jon Stewart, the cue for massive studio-audience laughter would have been activated at the word chadors, allowing him to beam modestly and likably through the mildly suggestive last four words. On the page, however, it is less easy to hurry us right past the main point. A noticeable swath of campus feminist opinion, which is not alone in this respect, has in fact adopted an attitude of cultural relativism toward political Islam, and of decided non-neutrality against its militant female opponents such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. And the current president of the United States, whom it might not be altogether inaccurate to describe as the Galahad of the SNL and Stewart generations, has made exactly one speech about Muslim garb—defining the wearing of the hijab as a human right and indirectly attacking those French secularists who have their misgivings about it.

One could actually write a whole article simply on the Franken-Stewart faction’s attitude toward religion. In their world, the expressions Christian right or Moral Majority are automatic laugh cues, and there is a huge amount of soft-core borscht-belt stuff like this (from Franken) on page 205 of The Truth:

If it hadn’t been for Social Security, I never would have met Franni in Boston my freshman year, deflowered her, and gotten her to renounce the Pope. But I digress.

And this, from pages 1 and 2 of Jon Stewart’s Naked Pictures of Famous People (his book America also carries a rib-tickling cover-line promise of Supreme Court justices posing nude) in a painfully unfunny essay/sketch titled “Breakfast at Kennedy’s,” set this time in Connecticut, at Choate:

That’s where Jack and I bonded. I was the only Jew. My father ran the commissary so I was allowed to attend school there. My room, or the Yeshiva, as Jack called it (he really wasn’t prejudiced and would often defend me to the others as a “terrific yid”), was a meeting-place and a hotbed for hatching great pranks … I’m sure the ample supply of brisket and whitefish from Dad helped.

And in a more goyish form from Stephen Colbert, by no means to be outdone, on page 56 of I Am America:

Now, I have nothing but respect for the Jewish people. Since the Bible is 100% the true Word of God, and the Jews believe in the Old Testament, that means Judaism is 50% right.

If you chance to like this sort of thing, then this is undoubtedly the sort of thing you will like. It certainly works very well with audiences who laugh not because they find something to be funny, but to confirm that they are—and who can doubt it?—cool enough to “get” the joke. What you will not find, in any of this output, is anything remotely “satirical” about the pulpit of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, or any straight-faced, eyebrow-raising (and studio-audience-thigh-slap-triggering) mention of, say, The New York Times’s routine practice of captioning Al Sharpton as “the civil rights activist.” Baudelaire wrote that the devil’s greatest achievement was to have persuaded so many people that he doesn’t exist: liberal platitudinousness must be a bit like that to those who suffer from it without quite acknowledging that there is such a syndrome to begin with.

I myself would have voted for Franken if I lived in Minnesota, if only because he must be among the best-read and best-informed people to have recently run for the upper chamber, as well as one of the very few with whom one might also expect to pass an amusing evening. It took me a while to appreciate the paradox that lies at the center of the senator’s so-far published work. He is really quite witty—which is much better than being funny—when he is being purely political. But he is barely even funny when funny is all he is trying to be. See if the following causes you to smile. It’s taken from his inaugural address, on page 223 of Why Not Me?

As the Mandingo buck, Mede, says in the movie after he has been brought to James Mason’s plantation to be used as breeding stock, “Massa, it beez wrong to sell a nigger like a plow horse.” He’s right. It does beez wrong. It beez very wrong. These words are as true today as when Ken Norton said them twenty-six short years ago. And I am here today to say that it was wrong to hunt escaped slaves down on horseback; it was wrong to boil slaves alive; and it was wrong to sell a black woman merely because her breasts had grown too droopy.

Jeepers. Of course the “irony” is that the passage is supposed to make you cringe a bit, but this crucially lowered and degraded definition of what is ironic is accidentally confessed a touch later on in the same book, when Franken is writing in his own voice:

“Ironic distance” is not [Al] Gore’s problem. Not that he doesn’t have a well-developed sense of irony. He actually has a terrific sense of humor.

See, there’s your problem. A sense of irony is to be carefully, indeed strictly, distinguished from the possession of a funny bone. Irony is not air-quote finger-marks, as if to say “Just kidding” when in fact one is not quite kidding. (Does anyone ever say “Just kidding” when in fact only kidding?) Bathos is not irony, though Franken and Stewart and Colbert seem unaware of this. Irony usually partakes of some element of the unintended consequence. How might I give an illustration of the laws of unintended consequences? Let us imagine that Senator Franken composed a chapter about government lying and cover-up, which involved the use of the irresistibly hilarious instance of Sandy Berger, President Clinton’s former national security adviser, being caught red-handed as he stuffed his pants with classified papers from the National Archives. In a capital city that witnesses quite frequent alternations of power between the two main parties, what will be the chances that fiasco and corruption occur at the expense of only one of them? Yet meticulous care is taken by the senator to make sure that no such “fair and balanced” laughter is ever evoked, which is quite a sacrifice for a comedian. Consistency of this kind allows no spontaneity, let alone irony. It might even go some way to explaining the howling success of the “Air America” network, the collapsing-scenery rival to the right-wing dictatorship exerted over the rest of the ether.

In the pages of Lies, Senator Franken proves himself to have a lethal capacity to deploy wit as a part of a wider political takedown. He does his homework (one can usually guess the Washington outfit that does it for him, such as Citizens for Tax Justice, but he always gives credit) and then, when he is sure he has caught Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter, he begins to slow himself down, give himself time, and really milk the kill. If it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, it’s still pretty good polemical journalism. One has only to repress the thought that his preferred targets are perhaps a bit “fat” or “soft,” or as committed as Stewart and Colbert (or indeed O’Reilly and Coulter) to the marketing of instant books with about two dozen words in the title (plus the invariable highlighting of the cabalistic airport-terminal symbol #1).

Stewart, too, has something of a fat-target problem, and seems partly unaware of this problem’s source in his own need to please an audience that has a limited range of reference. In Naked Pictures of Famous People, when he decides to lampoon Larry King—who in any context is a barn-door-size target—he still manages to make the attack too broad. There’s no slight nudge, but a huge dig in the ribs. It needs to be “Adolf Hitler: The Larry King Interview.” And Hitler has to be a guest who has been helped by therapy to become more of a people person. Here’s his opening reply to King’s welcome to the show.

HITLER: (biting into a bagel) First of all, Larry, I don’t know what I was so afraid of. These are delicious!!!

At whose expense, I wonder, are those three (count them!) exclamation marks? Who is afraid that who will miss what point? A few of King’s characteristic interjections are well-enough parodied (“Lovely man, Bud Friedman, very funny”), but Rob Long of National Review does King to the very life three or four times a year with much less reliance on an overdone fantasy guest. Except how can anyone at National Review be funny? Weren’t they for Bush, the very mention of whose brain or IQ is enough to ignite peals of mirth from those in Stewart’s studio crowd who just know that they are smarter than he?

I noticed that both in Senator Franken’s Lies and in the Stewart team’s America, reference was made to Joseph Welch’s famous challenge to Joseph McCarthy about whether there was any “decency” left at last. In other encounters with the same faction and its followers, I have found that this is one of the “quotes” or “moments” from recent American history that they can be reliably counted upon to know. Two things seem to be involved here: an almost nostalgic realization that at one time the hard-right wing believed the entertainment industry was an enemy; and a desire to prove that it still is. The “American” symbols all over the album-size volumes reviewed here brilliantly dispel/preempt any charge of being unpatriotic.

Some of the stupid right wing still does regard relatively innocuous mainstream-TV comedy as an enemy, which allows the “ironic” riposte that mainstream-TV comedy, and the mainstream-TV comedians who wax fat on it, are really not all that subversive after all. Here’s Franken’s own reassurance, from The Truth:

For Dad the rest of religion lay in the ethical teachings of Judaism and, to the extent he had absorbed them, of any other faith, Western, Eastern, or whatever. Again, not so different from our Founders. In their famous correspondence at the end of their lives, Adams and Jefferson wrote a lot about religion. When Adams concluded that his personal creed was “contained in four short words, ‘Be just and good’” Jefferson replied, “The result of our fifty or sixty years of religious reading, in the four words, ‘Be just and good,’ is that in which all our inquiries must end.”

One might, I suppose, keep this piece of schmaltz handy for the next Judeo-Christian prayer breakfast, but meanwhile, it awakens an appetite to see more of the flashing scalpel and a good deal less of the rubber hammer and the exploding cigar. Almost everything that I have quoted was printed or broadcast at a time when the Democrats were in opposition in both chambers and many state houses, excluded from the White House, and in a minority on the Supreme Court. The rebel humor on offer was rather lame even then. Shall we now be witnesses to a further decline? (This year’s African American lesbian comedian at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner broke bravely with tradition and chose to roast the absent Rush Limbaugh rather than the incumbent chief executive, to roars of complicit and knowing applause.) A liberal joke, at present, is no laughing matter.

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