Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

'Tain't Funny, McGee

From time to time throughout my adult life, I've pontificated about differing notions of what's funny and what it means to have a sense of humor. When I was younger and taking actual Comedy and Satire courses in college and frequenting local comedy clubs, I was a bit fresher at this but also tended to go on a bit much, so after all these years y'all get a somewhat truncated but more honed version of this speech.

It usually starts with Person 1 (usually a straight white thin guy) accusing Person 2 (usually not a SWTG) of having "no sense of humor" because Person 2 didn't laugh at or go along with a joke that Person 1 found "obviously" funny. About 8-9 times out of 10 the joke in question involved put-down humor directed against the societal group of which Person 2 was a member (i.e., it was sexist or racist or fatphobic or homophobic), and the incredulity of Person 1 that Person 2 wouldn't participate in his or her own societal group's minor humiliation. Very much the "lie back and enjoy it" school of thinking used in past decades to excuse or shrug off the "inevitability" of rape.

What this accusation does, of course, is allow Person 1 to set the terms of what's funny (in much the same manner as many conservatives have been able to set the terms of political debate by being first out of the gate with their various accusations and slurs, particularly against reasonable people who don't believe political debate should consist primarily of such slurs). Person 2 is put immediately on the defensive, and when you've suddenly been unexpectedly shoved it takes a few moments to even regain your balance, much less mount a counter-attack, especially when you weren't angling for a fight in the first place. It's the classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario.

When I've been presented with this sort of situation hypothetically and asked my advice, I've often responded that the only way to "win" this game is not to play it. Ignore the idiots; you know very well the kind of comedy you enjoy, and it's not worth arguing with people who have no clue that "different sense of humor" doesn't equal "no sense of humor." But in reality, confronted with belligerent verbal bomb that demands immediate defusing, that's hard to do. I've found through the years that a response, like humor itself, is pretty much circumstance-dependent. Sometimes ignoring the idiot is absolutely the best course; sometimes it's worth a little time investment to educate folks or flaunt credentials ("published The Firesign Theatre's newsletter for 10 years" often does the trick for me) or even employ humor as a response mechanism (like agreeing with the accuser's absurd premise by admitting "I had a humorectomy in my last feminism class, it was required for a passing grade").

Of course, the world changes and we do as well, and what a certain consensus once considered funny may not be so any more. In those instances, it pays to be cognizant enough of the changes that you don't act like a schmuck. For instance, even before 9-11 it was considered poor taste at best to make jokes about hijackings or bombs while in an airport. And yet, even in this day of hyper-paranoia, people still insist on acting like schmucks. Via Anne Zook I learned of the case of Samantha Marson, a 21-year-old student arrested at MIA for telling a TSA official during a baggage security check, "Hey be careful, I have three bombs in here!" Scotsman opinion columnist Fiona McCabe is outraged, claiming Marson's subsequent detention is proof that US officials have no sense of humor, rather than even allowing for the possibility that in certain contexts some things just aren't going to be seen as funny and perhaps intelligent travellers really ought to know better than to be schmucks. After all, she cites as proof, look at what professional comedian (as opposed to clueless tourist) Aaron Barschak got away with (only he didn't). [Amazingly, Marson is far from the only ditsy Britsy airport schmuck - a 48-year-old from South Tynesdale "arrived late at Newcastle Airport for an easyJet flight to Paris this afternoon, and became aggressive when she was told she could not catch the plane," whereupon she "made threats towards staff that she had a bomb in her luggage."]

Even as "the funny" shifts with time and circumstance, it pays for professional comedians to remember certain universals. One of the more obvious is, if you do topical humor, you will generally get more laughs and therefore be more successful making fun of people in power (whether politically or societally) than you will supporting those people and making fun of the have-not sectors. The main exception to this seems to be what I'll call the Totie Fields Rule (if only because invoking the late great Madame Fields covers Jewish jokes and sexist jokes and fat jokes all in one) - you can get away with making fun of a societally-disadvantaged group to which you belong. It's why the women at Sequential Tart can use a pun like that to identify themselves but it didn't work the same way when Bill Jemas referred to them as "Sequential Whores." (And even exceptions can have exceptions - Jeff Foxworthy may be a redneck, but many other comics still consider rednecks fair game because, even though many Southerners are indeed financially disadvantaged and therefore unfairly disparaged, the stereotypical reputation rednecks have of white male bigotry persists, and another view of comedy holds it as acceptable, even imperative, to counter hatred.) But as a rule, if you're a white male comic and your schtick is politics and you don't want to be seen as an elitist schmuck, your job is pretty much to puncture the people in power. I just don't consider it appropriate to kick folks when they're down, and laugh whilst doing so.

Which is what makes the strange case of Dennis Miller so pathetic in the eyes of so many. For quite a few of us, Miller was the comedic equivalent of observant pundits like Christopher Hitchens - he never dumbed things down, so his rants made us feel it was okay to be smart and funny and politically astute. And then 9-11 happened and, as with Hitchens, Miller just seemed to become mean. And that shift hurt, it felt like a betrayal. Here was the guy who used to pal around with A. Whitney Brown on SNL, for cripe's sake, suddenly talking about all these radical right-wing loonies with admiration, as though they weren't making the world less safe after the tragedy via policies that incubated more terrorists. I saw it starting to happen back when he still had the HBO show, I watched disbelieving as the once-funny rants turned into righty-libertarian "I got mine, now shove off" manifestos. Miller hadn't had a lobotomy, you could tell the brain was still going a mile a minute - he had just decided to abandon the primary rule of political comedy, and firmly side with the haves against the have-nots. This undoubtedly makes him popular in the corridors of power, and as he's already well-off (and undoubtedly well-protected) he needn't fear for his personal and financial security at this point - but to me it also makes him tragic rather than funny. Mark Evanier has similar thoughts on what Miller has become. [Update: I also want to pass on what Mark Morford says about Miller's new show in his Morning Fix e-mail column: "Miller is a familiar figure from his years on SNL, HBO and Monday Night Football, but he will be in a different role on his daily show -- that of a total suckwad right-wing prickmonkey who's just a sad and miserable and crusty shade of his former self. This is the Miller who has appeared at fund-raisers for Bush, ridden with the president on Air Force One, sat in the gallery at last week's State of the Union speech and was even talked about as a Republican senatorial candidate in California. This is the Miller everyone used to think of as cool and articulate and hilariously hyperintelligent and able to dissect relatively complicated issues with deliriously inspiring rants that were able to sub-reference Nietzsche and Bela Lugosi and chaos theory usually all in one sentence. What a pathetic and moribund loss. What a sad blow to articulate thinking. What bilious and dank forces of right-wing fearmongering and neurosis and tax-break bullshit must've attached themselves like rabid leeches to Miller's seething soul to suck him so far over to the Dark Side. Dennis Miller, the new RushHannityStern of the Right. How sad. As if you needed another reason to ignore CNBC. "]

Mark Evanier also links to this interview with George Carlin, another comedian who seems to have shifted for the worse lately. Carlin's personal politics still appear solidly against those who wield power unfairly and screw ordinary citizens, but his on-stage shift has been away from the type of politically-related observational humor for which he'd been best known (like his anti-censorship routines) and much more in the direction of, again, hostility towards members of his audience, being what the article terms a "gleeful irritant." Says Carlin, "I don't like topical stuff. It's too easy. Anybody can make fun of Bush... That's like shooting fish in a barrel... The more resistance and discomfort I can feel from the audience, the better I feel, the happier I am... I do not care about changing anybody. Nobody. I go out there to show the rest of the Americans how badly they're doing." Sense a pattern here? Never mind that it seems pretty topical to "show the rest of the Americans how badly they're doing." The "comedy" of meanness and discomfort isn't funny to many folks; it's just bullying with a smirk, particularly when coming from an old rich white guy. And I say this as someone who still sees a lot of potential in some of Carlin's new material - potential that I just don't think is fully executed any more when his goal is to make his audience squirm rather than laugh.

Above all, it's important for even me to remember that comedy is subjective. I can articulate why I don't find Carlin as funny as I used to, or why I no longer find Dennis Miller funny at all, in the same way I can articulate why I still find The Daily Show and The Firesign Theatre so rewarding, why Ellen DeGeneris makes me smile, why I'm very psyched for Out on the Edge (I'm so old and out of touch with the stand-up scene nowadays, my "gay comic" markers are Kate Clinton and Robin Tyler, let alone Ellen or Margaret Cho). But I know better than to give an unqualified "this isn't funny" or "you have no sense of humor" to anyone. And so should y'all.