A Republic Too Fractured to Be Funny
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner suggests that stand-up joke telling is an art form whose moment has passed.
Ron Chernow, the best-selling biographer and historian, has agreed to deliver the after-dinner speech at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, to be held Saturday night at the Washington Hilton. If we were to list the potential victims of our present era of post-humor comedy, his name would be near the top.
The WHCD is the event the Washington press corps throws every year to celebrate the Washington press corps. (If we don’t do it, it won’t get done.) It is best understood as a provincial trade meeting—a few hundred people in the same line of work crowd together in the poorly ventilated ballroom of a second-tier hotel to hand one another awards over plates of undercooked chicken. What separates the correspondents’ dinner from, say, the annual awards dinner of the Greater Tri-County Regional Conference of Waste Removal Technicians is that, sometime in the 1990s, people from outside the trade began to take an interest in the event.
At its height a few years ago, even top-chop movie stars (George Clooney, Nicole Kidman) accepted invitations to attend the WHCD. The president used to come. And after dinner, with tummies full and worries about salmonella fading, the tradespersons and their guests would push back from their linen-covered folding tables to enjoy a comedy routine from a famous funny person.
Or so it’s been until now—until post-humor comedy thrust poor Chernow into the saddle. The quality of the comedy at the WHCD has been declining for years, beginning at least with a canned Jay Leno routine in 2010 and tumbling down to a set of stillborn one-liners by Larry Wilmore in 2016. Most agree that bottom was touched last spring by the comedian Michelle Wolf, who took to the podium after dinner to deliver 20 minutes of jokes that bore very few joke-like features.
There had been lots of anti-Trump demonstrations lately, Wolf noted, with protesters carrying homemade signs. How many signs? “Poster board is flying off the shelves faster than Robert Mueller can say, ‘You’ve been subpoenaed!’” If there’s humor in Paul Ryan’s circumcision—and I’m willing to be persuaded—she failed to find it. Chris Christie, Wolf suggested, was fat. She provided her own kind of abortion counseling: If you do terminate a pregnancy, she advised, motioning oddly with her elbow, “you’ve gotta get that baby outa there.” At her last line she leaned intimately into the microphone: “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”
There was disappointment and even outrage, and offense was taken in quarters where offense is often taken. At the same time, though, some of us began to suspect that Wolf was not just not funny, she wasn’t even trying not to be not funny, if you see what I mean. Take my jokes, she seemed to be saying—please! Wolf’s 20 minutes before the WHCD marked her as a champion and exemplar of the post-funny school of comedy.
Typically slow on the uptake, I first learned about this evolution in humor the way I learn about too many things, from the daily news briefing that The New York Times drops in my email queue each morning. Along with a summary of news from all over and pleas to listen to podcasts and view video, the Times provides a few lines under the heading “Late-Night Comedy”—a joke cribbed from the monologue of a late-night talk-show host the evening before. The Times obviously assumes that most of its readers are in bed by the time Colbert or Coco or Corden hits the airwaves, and the Times is almost certainly right about that. It also assumes readers will appreciate a little day-brightener from the comedians, and here the Times is on much shakier ground.
The one quality that unites these late-night jokes is that they scarcely ever make me laugh—or you either, I’m guessing. Usually I’m a cheap date for comedians, a regular Rudy Roundheels; anybody from the Three Stooges to Mrs. Maisel can get a laugh out of me. At first, I thought that the consistently unfunny lines in the Times briefing reflected poor selection—maybe a couple of tin-eared interns had been given the wrong editorial assignment. But when you follow through and click on the links, which take you to the full monologues stored in a corner of the vast Times ecosystem called “Best of Late Night,” your heart goes out to the interns. What a job. Good thing they get paid! (They do, don’t they?)
The jokes, seen in context, don’t get any funnier. Very often, they are simple statements of fact, with minimal humorous adornment. James Corden mentions that Google will soon allow you to store your driver’s license on your phone. “You have to admit,” he says, “Google is definitely making it easier and more convenient—for your personal information to be stolen by Google.” If there’s a joke in here, I suppose it rests on the word stolen, casting Google’s innovation in a larcenous light. But it’s simply true that Google makes a living using the information we hand to it on our digital silver platters. It’s not news, but if you tried hard you might make it funny.
But nobody seems to be trying. Corden’s line about Google is unusual in the late-night world only in that it’s about something other than politics, or, more specifically, President Donald Trump. Any bit of news can be made to be about Trump. The Times points me to Seth Meyers, who notes that a Dominican singer recently tried to break a world record by performing for 100 hours straight. Seth’s hot take: “‘Big deal, try performing for 14 years,’ said Melania.” (The Times, as America’s newspaper of record, adds helpfully: “referring to first lady Melania Trump.”)
Again, a simple statement of fact is enough to substitute for a real joke. On The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Stephen Colbert (who else?) bravely “takes on” congressional Republicans and their never-ending quest to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. “Remember ‘repeal and replace?’” Colbert joshed. His audience showed premonitory signs of volcanic laughter. “‘We’re going to repeal and replace’? Well, after nine years, they still haven’t gotten around to the ‘replace’ part. [Lava gurgling from the audience.] They have no plan. [Burbling …] In fact, there is no plan to make a plan.” Krakatoa! Too true! But … true is all it is. The two-step formula of a stand-up joke, setup followed by punch line, has been edited down to the first step and left at that. Colbert notes a string of superlong (long for Twitter) tweets from Trump. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” Colbert points out with a pedantic lift of the eyebrow. “And he is evidently witless.” Late night is where punch lines go to die, to drown in the bathtub of literal-mindedness.
Of all the comedians the Times directs me to, none tries harder not to be funny than Samantha Bee of TBS. Not long ago, Bee gave a six-minute monologue on the resignation of Kirstjen Nielsen, the former secretary of homeland security. Knowing its readers are busy, busy, busy, the Times decided to summarize Bee’s monologue like so:
But [Bee] also worried that President Trump might replace Nielsen—who oversaw the administration’s notorious policy of separating migrant families trying to enter the country—with someone even more willing to enforce hard-line border policies. Before her ouster, Nielsen and Trump had been clashing over whether to embrace harsher measures, some of which Nielsen reportedly believed might fall outside the limits of the law.
Note well that this is not meant to be a news report. It’s the summary of a comedy routine. If possible, the routine itself is even more not-funny than the summary. It is lightened only by Bee’s comic affect. She poses her head at a slight angle to the camera, rolling her hands, as if she’ll take off for the stage door the minute the audience decides to come after her. Really, she doesn’t need to worry.
It’s tempting—isn’t it always?—to blame everything, including this descent into humorlessness, on Trump. It’s not quite right to say, as is often said, that Trump has no sense of humor. You could say he has a sense of what a sense of humor is, even if his own preference is for a pigtail-yanking, pull-my-finger kind of humor, full of ridicule, mugging, sarcasm, and broad-brush caricature. His campaign rallies are like overlong stand-up routines without any jokes, just as late-night comedians’ stand-up routines are coming to resemble campaign rallies, also without the jokes.
Trump’s audiences, no less than Colbert’s, are primed to laugh whenever the signal is given. Trump’s jokiness is outward-directed, always. You notice you never hear the president laugh; his own amusement with the world, his own desire to amuse, doesn’t emerge from a place deep enough for laughter, and it is always aimed away from himself. Real comedy is beyond him. Who knew it would be beyond comedians?
It’s much more likely that Trump is a symptom, or at least a correlate, rather than a cause of whatever has drained the funny from traditional joke telling. The explanation may be as simple as this: We have witnessed the death of an art form. Stand-up joke telling has died in the same way that some of us of a certain age have watched the Broadway musical die, and as our lucky grandparents before us watched the operetta die. (I would have paid to see that.) Jokes that nearly everyone understands as jokes require shared assumptions, even a broad reservoir of lightheartedness and goodwill, and we no longer share those in our fractured republic. Humor has been privatized.
While feeling terrible for the Times interns, we should reserve some sympathy for the comedians and their writers. They must be miserable. Colbert, the Jimmies Kimmel and Fallon, Corden, and the others have shown genuine comedic gifts in earlier phases of their career. Surely they don’t pay top dollar to hire subpar writers to furnish them with non-jokes and pull their slack marionette strings. It can’t be fun, much less funny, feeding line after line to a studio audience only to elicit what Seth Meyers—in an earlier, funnier phase of his career—called “clapter.” Meyers coined the term to describe a reaction that’s 2 percent laughter and 98 percent applause, a way for an audience to let the joke teller and one another know that they’re all on the same team. Still, the videos on the Times’ “Best of Late Night” page show the studio audiences clapting to the point of seizure, five nights a week. I can’t imagine how they keep it up. Maybe they get a popper of amyl nitrate with their Late Show tote bags.
Which brings us back to Ron Chernow. We can be sure there won’t be any poppers in the swag bags Saturday night. He is an amiable fellow, as agreeable in person and at the podium as he is on the page. After the Wolf disaster last year, the correspondents’ association decided to ditch the stand-up routine altogether and go highbrow. In his talk, Chernow says, he will make the case for the First Amendment, and no one could make it with greater knowledge or eloquence.
But he’s also hinting that he may leaven the gloom with a little humor of his own. One shudders at the thought. Don’t do it! Comedy is a business best left to the professionals, and as we’ve seen, even they don’t want to try it anymore.