They’re Immoral, They’re Stupid, and They’re Not Even Funny! Not One Bit!

Waiting for the Conservative John Stewart

The Progressive Death of Comedy

When I say that I find both twenty-first-century American political factions unpalatable, please don’t take me to mean that I’m “independent” or “original” or anything like that; it just means that I find both elephants and donkeys insufferable in their own ways, and usually either one is worse when it’s in power.  I didn’t invent any third way that’s neither GOP nor DNC; anyone who reads a few books older than the twentieth century will soon realize that what passes for political debate in 21st century American federal politics can’t hold a candle to the great struggle over good communities, good souls, and all kinds of goodness that’s been ongoing since before Homer.  Third and fourth and sixty-fifth ways are all around us, if we’re willing to read a few books older than our grandparents.

That’s why this pair of essays, which came across my computer within a day of each other, amused me as much as they did: each essay, coming from one of the two options that the 21st century seems to offer us, seems convinced that people from the other party (there are only two, remember) are incapable of the best kinds of humor, and not surprisingly, each assumes that the lack of funny has less to do with the character of our historical moment more broadly and more to do with the personality defects of those who claim the other faction.  What each piece misses is that comedy, as a human phenomenon, hits and misses across any given moment’s political spectrum, and party has less to do with things than the mark at which a given joke aims.

Oliver Morrison, writing for The Atlantic, proposes that liberals as a group have more of an appreciation for open-ended humor than their right-wing counterparts as a group do, thus allowing them to appreciate the sophisticated humor of a Stephen Colbert or a Bill Maher which more often than not either outrages GOP-types or doesn’t even register with them as comedy.  He also makes the somewhat-strange claim that comics like Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy don’t really do political humor (I feel like I’ve heard them do political jokes, but I could remember wrong), that their comedy is more self-deprecating and not nearly as likely to target “the other faction’s” leaders as Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert or Bill Maher might be.  To summarize (and perhaps over-simplify) Morrison’s main points, conservatives tend to prefer humor that either exaggerates their enemies’ faults or avoids political matters altogether, while liberals have a capacity for complexity and irony that makes them a better audience for satire’s particular blend of focused topic and ironic complexity.

Anthony Sacramone, writing for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), turns away from televised news commentary to the standup stage (without reference to Morrison, who wrote a few months earlier, I should note) to examine recent statements by a few high-end stage comics about playing college campuses.  Jerry Seinfeld said of college campuses that “There’s a creepy, PC thing out there that really bothers me,” and Chris Rock before him said, “They’re way too conservative.  Not in their political views—not like they’re voting Republican—but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of ‘We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.’ ”  Sacramone goes on to quote other comedians like Mel Brooks and Bill Maher (I won’t lie that I was surprised to see Maher popping up in both articles) who make similar statements about liberals’ inability to take a joke as a joke rather than as an occasion for outrage.  So for the GOP-leaning ISI, it’s liberals who aren’t funny, and Sacramone’s reasoning differs from Morrison’s in some fascinating ways: in comedy clubs and TV contexts, Sacramone claims, the audience still has something like a common moral framework in which satire can still do work, whereas on college campuses and other highly liberal venues, a culture of emotional fragility has encouraged the people in the seats to look for moments when the performer’s material injures me personally so that I can experience outrage.

I’ll go ahead and say here that I think both writers are playing off stereotypes more than anything like lived experience with people who differ from them politically.  The fact of the matter is that comics like Ron White, who tours with Foxworthy, is capable of some really complex and really funny (and all of this while being moderately drunk, unless that’s just part of his schtick) character-comedy, and Larry the Cable Guy is as much a put-on persona as Colbert’s O’Reilly-Doppelgänger ever was.  And on the other side, to say that Stewart’s and Colbert’s and even Maher’s (although–I’ll go ahead and say it without ambiguity–I really don’t like Bill Maher) brand of political satire doesn’t depend on a shared sense of moral outrage just doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on.

My sense is that both of these essays are functions of the echo-chamber effect that the era of AM talk radio and Tumblr and other such things have made more prevalent by the decade.  I think both writers make valid points about comedy in general, and both are right to note that the most extreme partisans are going to be the least likely to appreciate what humor the other “side” produces.  I don’t think that such lack of appreciation is exclusive to GOP-types or DNC-types, though.  It has more to do with what Kenneth Burke and Richard Weaver call ultimate terms.  These two rhetoricians develop a concept of ultimate terms in any given system of rhetoric, something in terms of which everything else makes sense.  Burke, the term’s pioneer, says that in a consumerist system, currency is the ultimate term: everything from land to labor to sexual connection (both prostitution and marriage) takes its meaning, ultimately, from its value in the currency of the market, what one can buy and sell.  He notes that such a transformation is nothing short of a revolution when we regard how much shifts as the transcendent, unchanging divine ultimate term of the middle ages gives way to an entirely imminent, fluid (we call it currency, for pity’s sake) money system.

Later on Richard Weaver notes that, in modern political rhetoric, although money might be doing much of the talking, nonetheless make reference to more lofty abstractions than money, whether we call them science or progress or freedom, and his analysis is even more telling here: because his (the middle of the twentieth century) is a moment in which ultimate terms from an older world (God, truth, goodness, beauty) are existing in tension with the new ultimate terms (progress, science, freedom), rhetoric becomes even more important than it had been before the scientific revolution, not less so as some philosophers of the early twentieth century held.  So within any system, this or that act or sentence or even joke is good to the extent that it advances, clears the way for, and otherwise exists in good relationship with the ultimate good, whatever that ultimate good that might be.

To advance an undercooked theory of humor and humorlessness based on this notion of ultimate terms, I tend to agree with theories of comedy that locate its appeal both in the surprising exposure of incongruities and also, and perhaps more importantly, in the moments in a dramatic comedy or a more straightforward joke when the audience gets to experience the fall, in whatever form, of those who unrightly lay claim to public power. So to pick an example that few would disagree with, it’s funny to see Robin Hood get one up on Phony King John precisely because John is not only phony but a phony king.

But such an appeal only works if the performer and the audience agree that the target of the satire is unrightly making a subordinate term an ultimate term, thus failing to take the ultimate term seriously enough.  In other words, even in a complex system like Colbert’s or Larry the Cable Guy’s, the individual bits and the larger schtick rely on the audience’s agreeing that somebody, somewhere, can’t get the ultimate terms ultimate.  And there’s the kicker: depending on the narrative in which one finds one’s self, the one with the priorities wrong may well be a political official (Stewart actually hasn’t done as much of that kind of comedy since 2009, as far as I can tell) but might also be a television personality (Fox News or Reality Television), someone who claims religious authority (think Jim Dobson or Al Sharpton here–either will work), or anyone else who stands more prominently than most and advocates for some way of life.  Think of Larry the Cable Guy’s signature “That there’s funny.  I don’t care who you are.”  Implicit in that riff is a certain caricature of people for whom the previous joke isn’t funny, and part of the enjoyment of such a joke is standing with Larry, against the uptight, and laughing at what the unrightly superior find distasteful.

The problem in developing any singular, simple theory of who’s got a sense of humor and who doesn’t is that, at the outset, there’s not a shared Phony King John for both DNC-types and GOP-types to hold in common as the enemy.  Instead, one faction might say that those who hold police authority are the proper targets, while another might hold that those who largely populate higher education, and hold the power of the gradebook, are the real enemies.  Whether your target in a joke is the ignorant populist who respects learned authority too little or the mindless university professor who respects authority too much matters, and different audiences are going to line up to see each.

Thus I think that each writer has part of the picture right.  I think Morrison is right that much comedy relies on the quick-witted exposure of the pretense and the posturing that make up public life in the twenty-first century, and without a doubt, the well-oiled Comedy Central machine has refined that act of exposure like nobody else has.  And Sacramone is right that satire, as a genre, relies on a shared moral sense between audience and performer, a vantage point from which both of them can mock those who aren’t just uncool; they’re wrong in some significant way.

But what Morrison misses is that Rush Limbaugh, just to pick a performer I used to be familiar with (I stopped listening to–and yelling at– political talk radio during my commutes around eight years ago, when portable digital music players got affordable enough that I could get into podcasts), is always doing a multi-layered character when he is on the air (unless he’s changed significantly since 2006), certainly someone who pontificates with confidence but also someone who mocks his own pretensions to authority at every turn and refers–for those with ears to hear–to the silliness of his own prominence in public life almost as often.  What all of the above share in common is that the audiences who find them funny laugh because the audience and the performer share a common mark, and the reason that nobody but Limbaugh’s people find him funny, and nobody but Maher’s people find him funny, is that they rely on very particular notions of who’s getting the ultimate terms wrong.

And yes, Sacramone is right to note that standup’s dark night of the college campus has to do with the lack of a common moral frame within which comedy makes sense, but he pretends that comedians who perform at clubs rather than on campus have some sort of universal vantage point, which just isn’t true.  The fact of the matter is that neither feminists nor pro-lifers, neither peddlers of identity-politics nor the most pious in traditional religions, have much of a sense of humor when you treat their ultimate terms as ridiculous.  When we do satire, we have to find audiences who are at least open to seeing freedom as subservient to goodness, or marriage as existing for the sake of individual happiness, or sex as having everything to do with procreation or nearly nothing at all to do with the same.  In other words, it’s always been hard to do comedy, and these two pieces show why our moment has difficulties of its own.

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