January 20, 2006


It'll be all right on the night: Political correctness has crippled the left's sense of humour. (John Birmingham, January 21, 2006, Sydney Morning Herald)

What is surprising is just how successfully the new right, for want of a better tar brush, has been at colonising this outpost of public discourse. If you're looking for a year zero from which to trace this development, you could probably do no better than 1987 when P.J. O'Rourke published Republican Party Reptile and inspired a generation of conservative satirists to begin poking fun at the sacred cows of the left. Reptile was not just genuinely funny, it was dizzyingly, irresistibly, shockingly so. [...]

He managed to synthesise a right-wing, almost Hobbesian, political philosophy - "neither conservatives nor humorists believe man is good. But left-wingers do" - with a libertarian paradigm of personal freedom taken to excess, which was a core faith of the 1960s counterculture and the comedic engine of his seminal 1979 article in National Lampoon entitled How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink. [...]

The thing about humour, unfortunately, is that it is often sick and wrong... [...]

By establishing an exclusion zone around a whole category of topics that are ripe for exploitation by comics because of the very tensions they create, the left abandons the field to the enemy and often confuses itself over just who are its friends and who are its foes. Silverman, for instance, is often cited as an example of toxic conservatism, and yet her skewering of identity politics is as dangerous to reactionaries as to anyone. Likewise the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, were excoriated by some critics for their pitiless treatment of Hollywood liberals in Team America: World Police, as well as racking up black marks for the unholy trinity of racism, sexism and homophobia. Yet Team America remains one the sharpest satires of the war on terrorism so far released, while South Park offends everyone eventually.

The stand-out feature of Parker and Stone's work, indeed of all successful comics, whatever their medium or subject matter, is confidence. Confidence that their joke is inherently funny, even if millions of people refuse to agree. And confidence of course is a defining characteristic of the right in its resurgent form. To read Mark Steyn on the Islamisation of France, for instance, is to encounter a man speaking the unspeakable and doing so with an unshakeable self-assurance. But it is also to witness a comic genius at work, sharpening an already finely honed wit to a razor's edge on the rock-hard noggins of his enemies.

The left, on the other hand, has indulged for so long now in the guilty pleasures of relativism, protected by a value system that says discussion of certain topics is off limits, that any sense of confidence they might have had at one time has now entirely disappeared. And with it their sense of humour.

The basic mistake here is to presume that the Left ever was funny and that liberalism could do humor if it wanted to--which it doesn't, because, gosh darn it, how can you laugh and be happy when there's so much suffering in the world.....

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 20, 2006 11:52 PM

Hadn't noticed before that you've reviewed books by both O'Rourke and Christopher Buckley (3 each). Damn, them two's funny. Ditto Trey and Matt, of course, although their portrayal of g-d is ... er ... unusual. Not much anthropomorphism there!

Posted by: ghostcat at January 21, 2006 12:14 AM

Not to mention the way that Birminghma deftly moves from "conservatism" to "reactionaries" as if the two are synonymous. When it's obvious who the real reactionaries are.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 21, 2006 12:23 AM

It's not just the lack of humor, but the way they think repeating the same bumperstickers with the same "Bush should burn in hell" type statement is the height of wit.

I remember O'Rourke's books as being rolling-on-the-floor, I-can't-stand-up, I-can't-breathe funny when they came out. I should reread some of them to see if they've held up.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 21, 2006 12:28 AM

Incidentally, oj's most self-revelatory comments ... by far ... are embedded in his book reviews.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 21, 2006 12:41 AM

NPR's Garrulous Keister is quite funny--but his humour is generally rooted in his conservative upbringing. When he comments on politics, he's just another effete schlub.

I've heard rumors that Bill Mahr said something funny once--maybe in '97. Or was it '99? Anyway, it was sometime during the Clinton Administration of Blessed Memory. But he seems unable to tear himself away from his prized collection of Hef's crusty and threadbare bathrobes--the May '78 model being a particular favorite.

Some of the SNL impressions are good for an occasional chuckle, but that's about it. Who's left? Dowd? Ivins? Franken? Garafalo? Chen? Please. You'd do better to pump Art Buchwald full of meth and lock him in a room with Bill Burkett's '73 Selectric. Jon Stewart couldn't do it if he snorted a couple of grams of Hunter Thompson's ashes. And found his "h".

In fairness, it's probably hard to be funny when you're losing. In the words of the old negro spiritual, "World To End: Women, Minorities, Sense of Humor Hardest Hit".

Posted by: Noel at January 21, 2006 1:59 AM

Ghost: Thanks for the warning.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 21, 2006 11:35 AM

Was flipping channels last night, and came to the CBC station during the first few minutes of "Royal Canadian Air Farce". Okay, there's an election Monday so the anti-Amerikkkan stuff should be at a minimum, and they might actually be funny again. The first joke I see is to show a slide of the "new official Conserative wave"— Harper holding out his hand in what could be construed as a fascist salute, if you see Hitlers everywhere. I changed the channel.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 21, 2006 12:27 PM