Entries from April 2019 ↓

On Being Funny & Knowing Funny

An active sense of humor, at the giving or receiving end, is the great social leveler of American life, though you’d barely know it now as we’ve been squeezed tighter into this grim shouting match that passes for political discourse.

 

 

 

 

For me, being funny or at least “knowing” funny compensates for most political sins and I’ve gotten into plenty of trouble for making such
allowances. There was much about William F. Buckley’s politics that I found irritating and, especially back in the sixties, racist, however much he walked back his segregationist sympathies towards the end of his life. Nevertheless, whenever the subject of Buckley came up among us intense student lefties back in the day, I would often get eye daggers aimed at my forehead when I dared suggest, “Well…at least he’s funny!” This is why for most of my life I could never be considered a reliable enough ideologue or revolutionary.

I blame my upbringing. (Doesn’t everybody?) I grew up in one of those households where if you couldn’t take a joke, you became one. My mother was the lone holdout. “That’s not nice!” she would say whenever the rest of us, especially my father, ganged up on something or somebody. But after a while she grudgingly accepted her role as comedic foil to the rest of us smart-assed Seymours. (Missing you, mom! In your own way, you too knew funny!) If you hung out with us for any length of time, you had to be funny or, failing that, accept your fate. Not everybody appreciated the vibe, but over the years my siblings and I appreciated the leveling effect our collective joshing and jiving had on whatever social milieu was taken aback by our presence.

With my father, though, it was always a risk whether the one-liners would work even with my mother. And when it didn’t work with strangers, he’d just shrug and say, “I make a friend a day.”

Then again, it’s never been apparent, for all the pride we take in our stand-up clubs from sea to shining sea, that Americans can take a joke, even though they’ll all make passes at telling one.

What’s more than apparent is that the incumbent president of the United States is a dreary gasbag who can neither take a joke (thinking mostly of the bad Buster Keaton imitation he gave towards his predecessor’s jibes at a White House Press Association dinner) nor tell one very well, though when he slow-dances with the flag, he’s at least convinced himself that he is funny.

 

 

 

My friend Colin McEnroe, who’s not only a lot funnier than President Trump but a whole lot funnier than anybody who’s after Trump’s job, conjectures that 45’s idea of funny came from repeatedly listening to Don Rickles’ 1968 LP, Hello Dummy at an impressionable age, though I would think that at 22 (assuming he’s not fibbing about his age), Prince Don had outgrown his need for role models. Just as generations of would-be comics thought from listening to Richard Pryor’s albums that all you needed to buy into his renown were jokes about farting and fucking, Trump likely inhaled all of Rickles’ rude noises without digesting his timing and craftiness.

 

 

 

 

Is it really so hard to be funny? To know funny? If you really want to gauge what’s been lost over the last fifty years in degrees and dimensions of political wit, compare any YouTube video of Buckley on his Firing Line talk show with ten random minutes from Fox News, his alleged ideological descendants. You may not make it past five. Tucker Carlson’s petulant browbeating veers at least forty miles wide of Buckley’s vulpine stealth. Neither Carlson nor anybody else on the Fox schedule displays anything close to Buckley’s twinkly indulgence of opposition viewpoints, during which interval either a rhetorical hammer or pointed stick loomed overhead.

Things aren’t all that giddier over on MSNBC, where one finds surfeits of enthusiasm, earnestness, passion, energy – and relatively little to make even a partisan laugh except for a sarcastic whoop here and there. I might feel a lot better being on Chris Hayes’ or Rachel Maddow’s side if every so often their respective commentaries emitted smoky-spicy ironies redolent of Fran Lebowitz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which, some may agree, might not be necessary. Because, as you’re already dying to tell me, we don’t need the MSNBC gang to bring the funny as long as the Jon Stewart Alumni Association – Colbert, Noah, Bee, Oliver, Cenac and company – is at work at its members’ respective platforms. I’m not disagreeing. As I’ve written elsewhere, comedians appear now to own the kind of credibility once claimed by journalists, though at least Oliver has said aloud that if it weren’t for journalism, nothing he has to say on HBO would matter. What worries me about those guys, however, is that their repeated bashings against what often seems a granite edifice of clueless cruelty could exact such a toll over time that they could become too absorbed by the chaos to be an antidote against it.

Besides which, wielding snarky comebacks in public brawls, however cathartic the blows may feel, isn’t as satisfying as the leveling process that comedy at its most bracing can yield. Though John Oliver at least will season his outbursts with dorky self-deprecation (making them somehow more effective than those of his peers), you wish for more of a kind of ecumenical acknowledgment by all sides that when you come down to it, we’re each as full of shit as the next person. This shouldn’t narrow the prospects for more and better funny. Quite the opposite.

But because the aforementioned discourse is now set at Defcon 3, or lower, that equanimity seems even more unreachable. Everybody’s more skittish and defensive about what they say, when and where they do it. So there’s a whole lot to laugh at – and not much that’s funny.

Or maybe it’s the other way around. I’d ask my dad about it, but he’s no longer around. But if he somehow found his way back to our present-day reality…well, the first thing I’d do is apologize for whoever did such a thing to him. Then I’d give him time to get a sense of how truly fucked up things are on all sides. And at some point he would say something he always did whenever bullshit was piling up all around him from friends and strangers alike:

“At least I know I’m fulla shit!”

Do you have a comeback for that? Then it sucks being you.