Saturday, April 5, 2008

Funny Stuff

How late-night comics shape the politics of the nation.

Asking an academic to explain humor to you is like getting Kenneth Starr to explain the sex act: The explainer has already waged war on the thing being explained. And so anyone looking for yuks in Russell L. Peterson’s “Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke” will have to get past the following hurdles: extensive endnotes; a killjoy thesis, relentlessly iterated; and, most deathly of all, repeated references to Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson.

The funny bone, in most cases, is no match for the pointy head. Peterson’s head, though, is something a good deal more: zesty and contentious and sophisticated — and capable even of coughing up a good line or two on its own. An American studies professor at the University of Iowa, Peterson is a former stand-up comic and political cartoonist who wants to know how we’re changed by the act of laughing. Not just any laughing, either, but the kind that happens late in the evening, when the Lenos and Lettermans and Stewarts and Colberts are making merry with the day’s carnage.


Four years ago, John Kerry was so eager to ride his Harley onto “The Tonight Show” stage that he agreed to follow Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Arnold Schwarzenegger used the same forum to launch his 2003 gubernatorial bid. John McCain announced his most recent candidacy on “Letterman,” and with every change of season comes Hillary Clinton, brandishing a new Top 10 list. These appearances tend to follow the same arc of humiliation. Candidate takes good-natured ribbing from host; host claps candidate on shoulder, ushers him or her offstage … and then carries on joking about candidate as if person had never been there. Ain’t America great?

Well, on that last question, Peterson is suggestively mum, but he’s quite voluble on another subject: the jokes themselves. “In spite of the fact that comedy about politics is now as common as crabgrass, political comedy — that is, genuine satire, which uses comedic means to advance a serious critique — is so rare we might be tempted to conclude it is extinct.”

Go ahead. Think back on the monologue you heard the other night on TV. Chances are good that, whether it was delivered by Jay or Dave or Conan O’Brien, it was nothing more than a theme-and-variations spin on the same old equations: Bush = dumb; Clinton = cold; McCain = old. Oh, boy, is he old! His Secret Service name is “Enlarged Prostate,” and the two State Department employees who were looking into Barack Obama’s passport file were also inspecting McCain’s Civil War records, and John McCain is so old he remembers when Iraq was called Mesopotamia, and hey, have we cracked a Monica Lewinsky joke lately? No?

“Topical comedians,” says Peterson, “keep finding new ways to tell us what we already ‘know’ about politicians.” And because they harp so remorselessly on candidates’ individual quirks — ignoring the hard, complex, often maddening substance of policy — they declare, in effect, that every choice is equally bad and that the system itself is “an irredeemable sham.” “Election after election,” Peterson writes, “night after night, joke after joke, they have reinforced the notion that political participation is pointless, parties and candidates are interchangeable, and democracy is futile.”


I suppose this would be a big shock if it wasn’t for the fact that political humor has been around since the dawn of civilization and, for better or for worse, we’ve survived… as has the comic. Go back and read Aristophanes (The Birds, The Wasps, Lysistrata), Seneca the Younger (The Pumpkinification of Claudius); just about every great playwright since then has used political satire as a sure-fire way to get the audience rocking. Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno, David Letterman, and so on are following in the grand tradition on TV; I remember Red Skelton making jokes about the Kennedy family in his monologue back in 1960, and is you want it edgy, look at the works of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Dick Gregory.

As for political satire — using comedy to make a serious critique — I’m not sure what Mr. Peterson thinks of the works of folks like Mel Brooks or The Onion; maybe he doesn’t see them as “serious” satire, but then he’s probably forgetting the first rule of comedy: know your audience. The people who laugh at the dancing Nazis or the stories of man-sized yogurt are also laughing at the culture (ba-dum-bum).

Mr. Peterson, however, is a little over the top with his worry about this impact on our election.

“A society that has no taboos left offers nothing for humor to challenge,” thunders Peterson. “If nothing is sacred, nothing is at stake.”

Oh, lighten up.