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.