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?”