I Don’t Want To Go Off On A Rant Here…

In the wake of Scott Brown’s “I am beefcake, hear me roar” crack about Elizabeth Warren and Hank Williams, Junior’s unhinged tirade equating President Obama with Hitler, I have been thinking about why it is that Republicans aren’t ever funny. Brown’s crack was intended to be humorous, but only a frat boy with a tin ear would say such a thing in public and expect it to be well received. And this constant confusion between meanness and humor is epidemic in the modern Republican mind.

I think this notion first occurred to me back when Ann Coulter called John Edwards a “faggot.” It’s happened a lot recently, up to and including the revelations about Rick Perry’s “Niggerhead” hunting camp rock, which some classy crackers surely thought was a hoot and a half when they first painted the word on it. Those various candidates and officials who have been busted for making slurs or sending overtly racist emails about President Obama all used the “I was joking” defense (except for Perry, who just lied about when the rock got painted over). But see, that’s not humor. That’s simply name-calling. There’s nothing at all comedic going on; it’s just saying “I hate you because you’re black/gay/Muslim/whatever.” And all the other mouth-breathing bigots laugh, of course, because it’s really about atavistic tribalism–establishing familiarity or credibility by attacking mutual enemies–not comedy.

I’d go after Coulter more, but honestly the definitive masterwork in that genre has already been written. Pop a cold one and enjoy that link when you’re done with this.

In The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious, Freud describes the essential component of humor as being the expression of something hostile or transgressive delivered in such a way as to surprise the listener, revealing something about both parties in the process. Laughter is the acknowledgement of understanding that some truth has been told or some obscene, aggressive, or taboo urge has been aired. As with all things Freud, it needs a pinch of cocaine salt, but I think he was onto something. There are two things at work in a good joke: the actual substance of the revealed truth or premise and the way language is deployed to create the moment of surprised understanding that results in laughter. Calling the rather demonstrably heterosexual Edwards a faggot isn’t funny. Quoting him as saying “I love my wife, but I wish she’d stop cock-blocking me” is.

The Hank, Jr. thing also reminded me of some other noteworthy wingnuts who got fired from cushy sports-related jobs. Exceptionally objectionable conservative id Rush Limbaugh got axed as an NFL commentator for mouthing off in his usual racist manner, but since the people who watch (and play) football are, um, somewhat more diverse than his radio audience, it didn’t go over so well. This is not to say that he’s an elitist; he is after all addicted to the same drugs as his listeners are and that shows real populism. But leaving aside Limbaugh’s enormous mirthlessness, I think there’s no better illustration of the pathological un-funniness of the reptilian conservative mind than Dennis Miller, who also got fired from a job talking about football. In his case, though, it was just because he sucked at it.

To be clear: he got paid a lot of money to sit in a studio and talk about football and he couldn’t do it in a way that other fans watching the game could bear to listen to, so he was fired because he did a bad job of chatting about a fucking football game while it was happening, a distinction he shares with the morbidly obese junkie, felon, racist, liar, and much more successful fellow conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

Laughing at one’s own jokes is literally the worst thing a comedian can do, and it’s Miller’s trademark. It should be an instant disqualifier. It’s like doing standup while ringing a bell and wearing a sandwich board that says “I lack the most basic skill for this career,” except that that might actually be funny. It’s as if Emeril, rather than saying “Bam!” instead took his shirt off like Tracy Morgan and rubbed the steaming food all over his sweaty, hairy man-breasts before plating it for his slack-jawed studio audience. And as if that wretched, unforgivable, and near-constant sin by a “comedian” of the fucking cardinal rule of comedy wasn’t enough, his jokes weren’t even funny. I especially love that he only got the Weekend Update anchor job because John Lovitz needed that time for costume changes.

Even when one of his forced pop-culture references might have been clever, his visible self-pleasure while delivering it ruined the joke before he even (barely; he always sounded like he was reading lines) got it out through his shit-eating grin. He was like George W. Bush in that regard: such a smug, smarmy, self-important prick that even when he said something true (or amusing) your visceral aversion to his personal awfulness precluded any reaction other than revulsion.

Also like George Bush, Miller’s reaction to 9/11 was to think: “This will be great for my career!” He didn’t even have to get through the rest of My Pet Goat first.

Right away, he saw where the real paychecks would be, and the disaster gave him the perfect excuse to pivot towards all that money. Now he’s a right-wing talk show host  (#33 nationally! That reminds me of a billboard I used to see driving home from Chicago that said “Voted the 8th best public golf course in Indiana!”) Showing the sort of backbone and strong moral compass that defines today’s Republicans, Miller recently tweeted: “Dick Cheney does what he thinks is right and I admire that about him immensely.” If he had wanted to be funny, rather than perform public analingus on a war criminal, he could have said “Dick Cheney’s on the show today to talk about his new book I Know Why the Caged Bird Gets Shot in the Face.”

But of course being funny is not what he’s about, and Cheney wouldn’t go near anyone who didn’t sign a contract in advance promising to suck him off for the entire interview. Miller also once said “Everybody has to sell out at some point to make a living,” which I think rather neatly sums up the Republican ethos of today, and explains why they don’t have any sense of humor about anything, least of all themselves. I think he said that in 1992, after leaving SNL, when he started doing annoying television commercials for a variety of products, including cigarettes, suppositories, and NAMBLA.

Coincidentally, 1992 was also the last time Dennis Miller had consensual, unpaid sex with a live human female.

Much good comedy has hostility at its core, and that’s why a masterful insult comic like Lisa Lampanelli is so hilarious. Anger or aggression is an essential element; Mel Brooks’ classic definition “Tragedy is when I cut my finger, and comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die” is vicious and yet still funny every time you hear it. One can be both mean and funny, but there has to be some semantic or semiotic cleverness or it’s just mean. At one of those TV celebrity roasts that she often dominates, Lampanelli said “Every time I look at Paul [Schaeffer, Letterman’s bandleader] I’m reminded that I need to wash my dildo.” Ann Coulter would have just called him a dickhead. That’s the difference.

That’s because being funny requires self-awareness, and a willingness to go wherever the joke needs to in order to make it work, however absurd or self-mocking. So where John Stewart and Steven Colbert manage to tell the truth about politics and the media and remain uproariously funny at the same time, there’s nobody on the right who can accomplish either half of the same task, let alone both together. First and foremost it’s because they can’t tell the truth–their ideology is built on lies–but it’s also because they’re craven whores who value money over integrity, just as their corporate paymasters do. And their fragile egos and inflexible, totalitarian mindsets demand that they despise anybody who looks, acts, thinks, or believes differently than they do, and that they never ever question their own motivations or decisions.

So you end up with a bunch of furious bullies who don’t have access to the fundamental reality that lies at the heart of any good joke, and who have to toe the party line on every issue; when you remove both truth and transgression from humor, you’re left with nasty name-calling and nothing more. And that’s good, really, because then the only truth that they’re capable of revealing when they decide to be “funny” is that they’re a bunch of hateful, greedy dicks with no morals. And in that, they do us all a service.

Speaking of service, whatever you think about Dennis Miller I’m sure you’ll agree with me about one undeniable favor that he has done for humanity: his facial hair definitively answers the age-old question “How can I make my mouth look more like a vagina?”

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  1. My vagina is horribly offended, and would like you to know that it (she! She likes to be called “she”) bears not the slightest resemblance to that dreadful man’s hideous mouth.

  2. Andrew
    October 11

    Peter, I’m a big fan of yours but it’s pathetic that just days after a touching tribute to Steve Jobs you’d devote an equal amount of space to Dennis Miller. Dennis Freakin Miller?! I wouldn’t have even known that he was alive had you not mentioned him. Is the number 33 talk show host worth all that vitriole? Not to mention the fact that as I read your runaway rant, chock full of power vocabulary words such as “atavistic,” “semiotic,” and “mirthlessness,” you basically started to sound very much like Dennis Miller. Blanket statements like “Republicans aren’t ever funny” or “their ideology is built on lies” don’t do much to separate you from those that “despise anybody who looks, acts, thinks, or believes differently than they do.” Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are easy fodder, as are John Edwards, Elliot Spitzer, and any number of prominent figures on the other end of the political spectrum. Making jokes about them isn’t worth the effort. Your commentary overlooks the fact that corruption, powerlust, greed, and scumbags abound in the world of politics on both sides of the aisle. I know some Republicans who are hilarious, and some humorless Democrats, and vice versa so your argument is rather simplistic — of course you aren’t going to find humor in talk shows hosted by those who you disagree with (I just don’t waste my time with any of it). The political world is arguably a cesspool. Republicans and Democrats could all be doing a lot better. It’s very easy to take shots at anyone in that realm, but casting the world as black and white as you did makes you sound more like an Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh than the thoughtful, open-minded person you are. Stay away from the sewage, unless you can find a way to do it that is truly constructive. Take a valium and get back in the kitchen to continue the work that you’re so good at.

  3. October 11

    Whoa, Andrew, I feel a need to defend poor innocent Peter here. See, Dennis Miller used to be funny…when he was a liberal. There’s a certain amount of disappointment that happens when people you begrudgingly admire go to the dark side.

    That said, I don’t think I have thought about the NFL OR Dennis Miller since 1992. Wish I could claim the same about the Republican party and its adherents. I have wasted a lot of bandwidth on vagina-endowed wingnuts like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, for example, just in trying to figure out “why.”

  4. Peter
    October 11

    Jackie: It’s a testament to your good taste and discernment.

    IB: She’s had worse.

    Andrew: Sorry, but the spurious “both sides do it” meme is one of the most destructive myths in our society today. One party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the oligarchic interests hell-bent on returning this country to the Gilded Age, only worse, by any means necessary. They WANT the country to be ungovernable. The other party is complicit in that agenda in varying degrees, but plenty also fight against it. David Brooks and Tom Friedman get paid lots of money by the NYT to churn out faux-centrist drivel that does but one thing: give cover to the extremists on the right who are trying to destroy our democracy and loot the treasury. Fear and hate are the two main weapons they use to get middle-class people to vote against their own self interest, and fear and hate are antithetical to humor. And humor is very important to me, as is this country.

    If you believe that Obama was born in Kenya, that cutting taxes on billionaires creates jobs, that Saddam had WMD, that the planet is 6000 years old, and that climate change is a lie, then you’re entitled to those opinions. But they’re lies, every one.

    And yes, this is a food blog, but more than that it’s mine. And if there’s something I want to say I will say it. Sorry you didn’t think it was funny; you know I’m glad to have you as a reader and your comments are always welcome. But I had fun writing it, and that’s why I do this in the first place. And I know that people who read this blog regularly enjoy my lack of self-censorship. And frankly, decisions about self-medication and what constitutes constructive use of my time are for me to make.

    • Andrew
      October 11

      Peter, I apologize for the valium comment or telling you to go to the kitchen. That was rude and came out wrong. It is your right to post about whatever the hell you see fit. I was trying to say that your many talents and energies might serve better purposes than attacking the likes of Miller, Coulter, and Limbaugh, none of whom I have any love for. I did in fact find your post hilarious. I do not bemoan your lack of self-censorship, and though I stumbled upon your blog for its food focus, I do enjoy your occasional forays into other topics. Sometimes they bring me to tears, and not just tears of laughter. I don’t think that the targets of your last post were worth the effort, but this is your forum so if you enjoyed writing it, I have no problem with that. I find most of politics distasteful, and while I don’t assume to know your every belief, I get the sense that probably agree with you on many if not most issues. Nonetheless, I disagree with the broad strokes with which you paint one group evil and another saints. Dismissing anyone who doesn’t agree with me as a moron hellbent on the destruction of society isn’t how I tend to approach things. Be it in politics, or life in general, this type of divisiveness can often be counterproductive to achieiving any real progress. But we can disagree. I’m still a huge fan of your work. If railing against Miller, Limbaugh, Coulter, or me for that matter brings more eyeballs to your blog, great. When you come out with a book, I’d like to order an advanced copy. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to whip out the chapstick anytime I think about posting a comment. Not long ago you railed against the scores of food blogs out there rife with meaningless comments saying little more than “Great post! Looks delicious! Making me hungry!” Since I’ve started following you, I’ve eagerly devoured every word you’ve written, but I typically don’t comment unless I have something meaningful to add. Your psyche hopefully doesn’t need me to be a cheerleader. I have been inspired at home and in the kitchen by any number of your posts, though I don’t always say so. This time I took issue with what I felt to be an oversimplified dichotomization of society, so I said something. If you only want comments that are accompanied by a pat on the back, I’ll keep reading but can keep my thoughts to myself.

      • Peter
        October 11

        No, I don’t need you to be a cheerleader and yes, I am always happy to hear what you think. I wrote this because a) I thought it was funny and b) I refuse to cede the right to rant and have tantrums to the trolls on the Right. I understand why Obama is being civil and bending over backwards to try to compromise, but then he’s running for reelection and I’m not. I haven’t paid any attention to any of those you listed; I ignore them happily. I was just citing them to make a point.

        Comment as much or as little as you feel like; I enjoy getting comments and yours are always intelligent, but I don’t want you to feel obligated. My goal is above all to inspire people to cook more and better food for themselves. But every now and then I need to get something off my sweaty, hairy man-breasts chest. And when I do, I promise you that I will do my damnedest to make it as funny as I possibly can.

      • Andrew
        October 11

        I didn’t mention it because I was getting too verbose already, but the Emeril sweaty, hairy man breast imagery was classic. I read that one out loud to my wife last night. Hilarious, but disturbing, though not as disturbing as the photo of Perry fellating a corndog. Rant away, but do tread carefully… I think you offended a lot of vaginas with this post!

  5. Peter
    October 11

    El: You, on the other hand, appreciate how poor and innocent I am. And I dig that about you.

  6. October 11

    Thank you, Peter: I’m now going ot have nightmares about Dennis-Miller-esque vaginas.

    Yet another reason to be thankful that I’m a redhead. #teamcoco

  7. Peter
    October 11

    Kaela: I live to serve. Feel free to hate-tweet me at 3AM when you wake up screaming.

  8. Andrew: My vagina isn’t offended so much as deeply, deeply hurt.

    • Peter
      October 12

      You should date guys with shorter penises.

  9. October 12

    Earlier this year I had a conversation with a guy (I don’t want to drop names; let’s just say he’s a noted art critic) who said that conservatives had a huge edge when it came to humor. He’s a liberal, I’m not (registered Republican, temperamentally libertarian), and I wondered what the hell he was talking about. He attributed the advantage to innate cruelty. Initially I struggled to think of examples. But he’s right, when it comes to literary humor. Robert Hughes, on a proper tear, penned some of the funniest art criticism ever written and it was no less insightful for it. Christopher Hitchens employs humor like no one else writing nonfiction. And as hilarious as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert are on their shows, their books are terrible. It’s simplifying things too much, but since it sounds cute: My team needs to stay off the stage, and yours needs to stay off the page. (Actually, as a libertarian, fuck my team. I’m only in it for Paul and Johnson.)

    The “both sides do it” thing is boring, but I will note that while Dennis Miller lost his broadcasting gig, Janeane Garofalo lost her whole radio network. Took out Al Franken too. Air America was painful to listen to, not because of the politics, but because because of the chirping of crickets after the attempts at humor in the talk radio format. NPR’s attempts at political an social humor make me want to go on a shooting spree, with the exception of Peter Sagal. Alan Grayson and P.J. O’Rourke (who, really, has no liberal equal) were on Bill Maher the other night. O’Rourke did pretty well considering that the audience was hostile and he probably wasn’t sober. Grayson, though, was trying to be funny, and came off as a big, limp dick. At one point he made a crack about Chris Christie’s weight. I was like, dude, get on a scale. You have the physique of a malformed hot dog. So much for self-awareness.

    I guess I’m trying to say that things might be a wee bit more complicated than you’re describing.

  10. October 12

    I forgot to mention, regarding “hateful, greedy dicks with no morals”: I think Dennis Miller went off the rails when 9/11 happened and he found his moral compass. Moral ambiguity may be better for stand-up, which would explain why liberals are better at it.

  11. Peter
    October 12

    See, I saw the clip of Grayson on Maher and IMHO he schooled O’Rourke, who was rendered speechless by AG’s soundbite-friendly summation of what #OWS is about. Because O’R was trying to flog the tired, hackneyed hippie/patchouli angle and AG was simply telling the truth.

    If you think DM found his moral compass by going all-in on Iraq/torture/everydamnthing else the Cheney/Bush cabal did, then we can agree to disagree about that.

    And Ron Paul is nuts. His Son is worse. I know you really really like him, but you have an affinity for Modernist absolutism that I find incompatible with the real world.

  12. October 12

    He wasn’t rendered speechless at all – he was steamrolled by Grayson in full-on blowhard mode, and Maher put his hand on O’Rourke’s arm and cut him off to do New Rules when he was ready to counter. I actually like Grayson pretty well in general, but O’Rourke fed him a couple of lines to let him look like the better guy, and Grayson responded with no class whatsoever. It was a dickish display.

    I’m not saying that DM found the right moral compass. Listen, for two weeks in October 2001 I could have been persuaded to nuke Tora Bora. I understand perfectly looking around at the liberal response to 9/11 and finding it wanting. But the path that Bush/Cheney took fucked us all. My point regarding comedy is that it requires a sense of how absurdity pervades the universe, which makes moral stances simultaneously necessary and provisional. Hitching his wagon to Bush/Cheney was a mistake, not just because of their mendacity and greed, but because hitching your wagon to any political figure for more than three weeks is going to end in something that’s not comedy.

    Regarding Paul, I would stop at one “really”. I don’t know why you say he’s insane, unless you think everyone you don’t agree with politically is insane. I have never tried to persuade you to give up your liberal outlook, and never will. But there’s a constant danger that one’s personal politics are going to devolve into a massive exercise in confirmation bias, and from this post it looks like you’re more than halfway there.

    My affinity for modernism precludes absolutism. We can talk about that another time.

  13. Peter
    October 12

    Ron Paul is a Libertarian except for when he isn’t: civil rights, the 17th amendment (which is part of the Constitution, I believe) not to mention being a climate change skeptic. He thinks the unregulated free market will solve everything, including Internet pedophiles. It’s hallucinatory Randian nonsense, and it’s nuts. He’sa fundamentalist, making no allowances for the fact that the world changes in ways that no document, no matter how brilliant, can anticipate. And coincidentally, just about everything he supports is corporate-friendly.

    And FWIW, I find both Hitchens and Hughes to be bombastic and heavy-handed. They remind me of some obnoxious drunks that I know. O’Rourke fits right in with them.

    I have to write a post about mushrooms now.

  14. October 13

    Here’s Paul on global warming: “It is clear that the earth experiences natural cycles in temperature. However, science shows that human activity probably does play a role in stimulating the current fluctuations.” Here’s what he wants to do about it: “We should start by ending subsidies for oil companies. And we should never, ever go to war to protect our perceived oil interests. If oil were allowed to rise to its natural price, there would be tremendous market incentives to find alternate sources of energy.” So if he’s a corporation-friendly climate change skeptic, this is a funny way of going about it. I could address your other objections to him in the same way, but you get the point. There’s a wide diversity of opinion within conservatism and libertarianism, but if every idea presented under those banners just happens to reinforce your opinion of them as a monolith of idiocy, then your liberalism will be weaker for it.

    I look forward to the mushrooms.

  15. Peter
    October 13

    But that’s not funny at all. He should really hire Patton Oswalt to punch it up a bit.

  16. Leif
    October 19

    You do not want to go off on a rant, but you do? Way to retain a reader base. Look within your own ranks. You will find much the same sort.

    If you had only stuck to the theme of your blog.

    I will miss you. There is no room for hate in my world – blog world or real.

    • Peter
      October 23

      Traffic’s been great, but thanks for your concern.

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