The iconoclastic tradition of American political humor includes such legendary social pundits as Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Ambrose Bierce, Will Rogers and Lenny Bruce. These disparate wits were famed not just for being funny but for being serious social critics. Yet they remained popular and even influential as they imparted often unorthodox insights into the hot topical issues of their times.
Take the infamous Fatty Arbuckle case of the Prohibition-era 1920s, which resulted in the country becoming gripped in an anti-Hollywood hysteria that led to the formation of the restrictive Hays Code. In the face of such mass apoplexy, humorist Will Rogers said in a speech: “The toughest charge against (Arbuckle) now is being from Los Angeles. The grand jury is out now, and are going to turn in a verdict favoring cremating everybody south of Bakersfield.”
Rogers’ response was similar to those by hundreds of standups in 1992 after then-vice president Dan Quayle decried a “Murphy Brown” episode as a slap against “family values.” The difference is that Rogers was a major American entertainer, chummy even among presidents. That didn’t stop him from taking on popular opinion, however.
Check what passes for mainstream political humor right now: Leno’s middle-of-the-road monologues, Letterman’s aimless scowl, Bill Maher’s wandering round-table political chats and Dennis Miller’s “Citizen Arcane” culture spoofs. Funny is a given, but what’s become of the bracing point of view, the smart comedy corrective that snaps us out of slavish groupthink?
Radio shock-jock Don Imus was pilloried for his Washington address to the Radio and Television Correspondents Assn., not because he jokes about the Clintons, but because he dares call the Washington press corps a pack of rodents. Filmmaker Michael Moore is dismissed by the newsweeklies for his “leftist” slant and his trenchant TV newsmag, “TV Nation” is axed without making a blip in the ratings or the national cultural consciousness. In the rebellious ’60s, his skewering of the business and political establishment might have made not just ratings, but headlines.
Of course, the Clintons are nightly given their generally harmless — worse yet, pointless — ribbings by the wise guys. “Forgetful” Newt Gingrich is in the comic crosshairs a lot these days. Old mossback righties like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond are slow-moving, easy targets for even the most unschooled wit-wielder.
The question isn’t one of frequency, duration or artful tact, which has always been in short supply. (Abraham Lincoln was regularly called a jackass and a baboon.) It’s more of confusing hipness with enlightenment, expletive with daring, derision with comic discovery (was it that long ago when a few swift razor cuts from Johnny Carson sent presidents buzzing for their advisers?). And sheer sameness.
Observers will point out that comedians can’t be exempted from the general dumbing down and coarsening of American culture. And they’ll cite television’s infinite, and infinitely debasing, power as a corporate-owned medium engineered to herd population into consumer ghettos (the rest of the entertainment industry is not free of this charge either). Our current pack mentality is hardly new, but it’s damaged our political immune system in a dangerous way.
“The attacks are meaner and more personal than they used to be,” says author and historian Paul F. Boller Jr., who’s written several books on American politics, including a compendium called “Presidential Anecdotes.”
“When Mark Twain poked fun at Congress,” he continues, “it was never personal. Now you can have Rush Limbaugh saying, ‘They have a cat in the White House named Socks and a dog named Chelsea.’ I think that’s despicable.
“You’ve had lots of instances of public leaders caught lying, like Nixon and Watergate. That’s led to an atmosphere of mistrust which has been fueled by the ubiquity of the media. The concentration of wealth among corporations has only added to it. And it’s affected behavior in Congress. Where once you could respectfully disagree, now you have to make your opponent out to be corrupt or a sexual deviant.
“All this is worrisome to me,” Boller adds. “Where once you assumed we had a good system of government with some bad people in it, now the system itself is perceived as corrupt. It’s a lot like the Weimar Republic now.”
Paul Krassner and Mort Sahl, both contemporaries of Lenny Bruce, are two of the very few contemporary comics who carry on Bruce’s mission of challenging the audiences’ prejudices and perceptions, while getting a good laugh for their efforts. Like their comedic ancestors, the edges of their political humor swords are rarely dulled by catering to popular opinion.
“What passes for political humor today is a perpetuation of stereotypes,” says writer-comedian Paul Krassner. “Everything about Clinton is about eating junk food, or his libido. Everything about Dole was grumpiness and age. If you want humor that explores ironies, inconsistencies and the hypocrisies in issues, you’re seeing humor that’s in a sad state.
“The definition of hip now,” Krassner adds, “is to share references, whereas the real definition of hip is to have an individual point of view. For example, if Dennis Miller says something is ‘very Susan Faludi-ish’, the audience laughs at the reference, not at an insight. There’s nothing inherently funny about Susan Faludi. And if they don’t laugh, he’ll say they are not hip” — as Miller did on a recent show, referring to the audience as a “bus-and-tunnel crowd in here tonight.” (Dennis Miller and Bill Maher declined to be interviewed for this article).
Sahl, dean of American standups and still their principal ironist, sees the shabby state of political humor based on something meaner in the American grain — politics itself.
“Comedy expresses opposition,” he says. “It’s based on a recognition of injustice. But over the years, Americans have been beat up for being political. The leftists and the union organizers of the ’30s were like the antiwar protesters of the ’60s. They got subverted and beaten down. In the meantime, you had the McCarthyite ’50s, which took a terrible toll on people, particularly in Hollywood. Because the establishment didn’t stand up to the inquisition, it became guilty about its failures. People became self-righteous in their guilt. You see it to this day.
“Ralph Nader said an interesting thing to a questioner at UCLA: ‘You’ve become corporatized in your thinking.’ That struck me. The dissolution of resistance has led us to a state of corporate fascism.”Where do the comedians as running commentators fit in? According to Sahl, “We’ve come to a point of economic strangulation, where the majority of comedians are in it for fame and fortune — comedy as a career move. The so-called rebels of the ’80s, like Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison, threw mud in the well and further poisoned it with obscenities. They didn’t leave much behind. Red Skelton and Danny Kaye, even Bob Hope and his rah-rah routine, they may have given us cotton candy, but they had hope. What do we have now? If I were the establishment, I’d want the quisling ‘Saturday Night Live’ on the air. For them, nihilism is the perfect substitute for dissent.”
How do the Krassners and Sahls keep body and soul together? By sticking with the one who brought them to the dance: the live audience. “They’re more intelligent than they’re given credit for,” says Krassner, who recently played the revived Ash Grove on the Santa Monica Pier. “They’ll see through your pretenses. You have to treat them as peers.”
Sahl recently had two sellout runs at the Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood. At the end of each night he’d pause to say to the audience, “You’ve kept me going. I’ve never lost faith in your ability to tell the truth.”
It’s not hard to perceive the meaningful distance between that closer and “Hey, you’ve been great. Thanks and good night.”