Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Politics is a funny business

OpinionJournal - Leisure & Arts BY ANDREW STARK : It's Enough to Make You Laugh

"Mr. Lewis attacks the opposite vice as well--blasting targets with over-the-top "killing jokes." Here Mr. Lewis zeroes in on what he sees as Rush Limbaugh's habit of describing a liberal as (to take one example) a "long-haired maggot-infested FM-type environmentalist wacko[s]." Michael Savage, another radio host, leans on this form of "humorous" invective much more. Whether Mr. Limbaugh is the right example here, it is true that polemicists, when they attempt humor, run the risk of producing mere artless caricature, a form of jest that is appealing to their acolytes but crude to everyone else.

Angry, even scabrous, humor is often simply laughed at by its targets--the rich and powerful who want to show that they can take a joke. Disarmed, such humor vanishes into the night. Arguably President Clinton benefited from this counterforce: He smiled right through the political jibes, removing their sting. He was less successful on another front. Humor that makes light of the physical traits or sexual peccadilloes can be truly subversive. The centuries-old tradition of a "feast of misrule"--originally peasants ridiculing the nobility--relies on a truism that wreaked havoc on Mr. Clinton: A loss of dignity is the most telling loss of all.

Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher. (Mr. Maher is not even mentioned.) But these gentlemen are, for better or worse, the political comics of our time. They have found the sweet spot that Mr. Lewis is looking for. Their jokes traffic not in distraction or destruction but rather in irony and hypocrisy, the staples of satire.

Good satire targets hypocrisy as well. Of Mark Foley, Mr. Stewart said that "he spent most of his career protecting children from Internet stalkers. Turns out he was doing it so he could have them all to himself." This jab draws on the disconnect between Mr. Foley's public face and his internal psychology. Mr. Leno, by contrast, stayed away from such a theme. A typical Leno joke: "The Republicans finally got some good news over the weekend. The North Koreans set off a nuclear bomb. . . . It was so powerful it knocked the Mark Foley story right off the front page. And knocked him off the page he was on, too." Funny, but the equivalent of a pratfall. We are laughing at Mr. Foley behaving not artificially but all too naturally. Endless jokes fall into this category. ("Seriously, I'm starting to worry about Howard Dean," David Letterman quipped during the last presidential cycle. "Earlier today, he was debating Dennis Kucinich and he head-butted him.")

Mr. Stewart does not, of course, always mine irony from politics, nor does Mr. Leno always rely on imagined scenes or spoofs. But each tends in his direction, possibly because Mr. Stewart, along with Mr. Colbert and Mr. Maher, are explicitly political comedians while Mr. Leno and Mr. Letterman are, well, just comedians."

Mr. Stark is the author of "Conflict of Interest in American Public Life.

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