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We’ve Become a Nation of Comedians

“If Jesus Christ were to come back today, people would not crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, hear what he had to say, and then make fun of it.”

–Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

If Carlyle thought we were wallowing in self-satisfied snarky humor back in the mid-19th century, he would positively flip his powdered wig over what’s available on cable TV today. If I see one more slap-stick impersonation of Donald Trump and his hair, one more comedian “doing” his version of Trump’s pomposity, or one more groaning send-up of Trump’s speechifying, I’m going flip out myself.

In no way is this to suggest that humor is unworthy of us or is inappropriate when applied to politics. No one is advocating the abolition of political humor, or urging people to take to the streets in protest of it. After all, humor is good; humor is salutary, it’s refreshing, it can serve not only as a tonic but, as Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain can attest, as an inspiration.

What we’re saying is that just as “bad money” tends to force out “good money,” crap humor—facile, reflexive, ain’t I the cat’s ass humor—tends to force out genuine “wit.” Mort Sahl and John Stewart have been euchred by jackasses like Andy Dick and pompous faux-philosophers like Bill Maher. (Has there ever been more of an “applause whore” than that guy?)

But here’s the frustrating part. Humor, especially mindless, in-your-face, tabloid, E-Network-style humor, has become the currency of the “cool” Left. Wicked humor is now the Left’s idiom of choice. Everybody is now a comedian. Again, it’s not that hip jokes are inappropriate, disrespectful, or unworthy of us. Far from it. In a word, they have simply become boring. In another word: fangless.

Granted, this sourpuss view could be the result of context and simple arithmetic. Given the emphasis on mirth that began in the early 1980s, with the explosion of comedy clubs, cable TV, comedy specials, comedy concerts, the emergence of literally hundreds of brand new stand-up comics, to say nothing of “open-mic” nights down at the local pizza parlor, maybe we’re just burnt-out. Maybe the paradigm of the “stand-up” comedian is exhausted.

Not only do most political comics not seem inventive or particularly funny, they don’t seem the least bit “dangerous.” There’s no risk involved for these people. The days of Lenny Bruce being arrested and thrown in jail for subversion and obscenity are long gone. Indeed, a man or woman comic can stand in front of an arena audience today and defiantly refer to President-Elect Trump as “that dumb motherfucker” and be greeted with cheers. Not exactly Oscar Wilde, but we get the point.

Makes you pine for the days of post-Weimar, pre-Nazi Germany, when “edgy” political humor still mattered, when cabaret comedians dared mock the ascendency of that charismatic screwball Adolf Hitler. Not only were those incendiary times, but the attendant comedic material was exceedingly risky. As risky as Lenny Bruce doing his nightclub act.

Obviously, once Nazism took hold, you didn’t see those people on stage anymore. Too dangerous. And of course, there were no stand-up comics in the USSR under Stalin. They didn’t exist. (“Ladies and Gentleman, please give it up for Shecky Ivanovich”) But we not only have them in the United States, we have too many of them. They’re as ubiquitous as Starbucks, and as annoying as expansion baseball teams. Enough already.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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