The Day the Humor Died
And they were singing:
Why, why, does America cry,
over magazine covers that make jokes of a lie?
The good old joys of making cracks that are sly,
are as dead as nails, don't laugh now just sigh.
(Sing to the tune of "American Pie" by Don McLean)
I am not a subscriber to New Yorker magazine, for two simple reasons: First, that it is high-falutin', and second, that its writers intentionally and pretentiously flout the conventions of the high-falutin'. I suppose that this is an unfair critique for what is supposed to represent the best prose west of Cornwall.* If it is unfair, it is because I am envious of those writers who get published in the New Yorker.
However, when I am among those who read the magazine avidly, I also pick it up, and for one reason: I read the New Yorker for the pictures. I am all about the cartoons. New Yorker cartoons have me laughing panel-for-panel even more frequently than Dilbert. (Note to New Yorker editors and cartoonists—this is high praise.)
During the frenetic political season of a presidential election year, New Yorker published a magazine cover depicting the Obama couple as radical Islamicist terrorists, and it ran a caption which explained the joke. It hit newsstands on Monday, July 14th.
Maybe that was the problem. New Yorker does not normally explain its jokes. If you don't get its jokes, it is because you are a rube from such backward frontier provinces as Chicago or, God help us, Arizona. But they explained the joke. Any humorist will tell you that a joke that is explained is emptied of its humor quotient. Thus, the cover became unfunny by virtue of its explanation. Since it is unfunny, it is taken as offensive by the presumptive nominees of the two largest political parties in the United States.
I suppose that somewhere down the slippery slope of McCain's Campaign Finance Reform we will find further abridgments to the First Amendment, such as a "War on Satire," which might be part of a broader strategic picture called a "War on Joy." The weapons for this war do not need to be approved by Congress in appropriations bills, because this war can easily be fought and won by the humorless in civil courts and public opinion. Around five years ago, wit became unfashionable. Now it is under threat. No agent of the Homeland Paranoia department need ring up the editorial staff at the New Yorker. Simply have campaign spinners and media wonks craft such rhetoric as to make subscribing to this rag a liability, thus causing the New Yorker to enter the walk-in deep-freeze of self-censorship and let the door fall shut behind them.
The current candidates for the Democrats and the Republicans, Tweedledum and Tweedledummer, are playing the music together like a piano, in the perfect harmonies of ebony and ivory. But they are still the Tweedletwins, stuffed shirts whose speech-writers and spin doctors are together taking as dim a view of wit and irony and satire as does the sitting President. How about the Obama camp ripping on Bernie Mac after he opened for the candidate at a fundraiser? Thanks a lot, Senator. Memo to campaign staff: If you don't like jokes, don't have a comedian deliver a speech. But Obama had to choose between Mac, and the two or three rubes in his audience that heckled Mac. It is those two or three that are at war with humor in the United States.
Maybe we are of the opinion that if we have soldiers in harm's way overseas, that this means it is wrong to laugh. Or, that the only laughter still appropriate is reserved for the crass physical humor of Larry the Cable Guy (an artful comedian I respect), and when our sitting vice president vulgarly insults a colleague on the senate floor (I cannot honestly state that I have respect for Vice President Dick Cheney).
Yet John Steinbeck, writing of his experience in Italy as a correspondent during the Second World War, included a visit from the comedian Bob Hope:
"You boys have it lucky here; you get to use all the latest things. Like these new powdered eggs you get to eat. Back home we still have the old kind you have to crack open." (John Steinbeck, Once There Was a War.)
Would our administration have laughed at such a joke? Or would it have send a general or a secretary to respond defensively to the press corps, "We feed our soldiers breakfast with the breakfast we have." Soon every news program and cable news network would have leaped on the bandwagon, running four-minute human interest segments on army cooks, the "unsung heroes of the war whose sacrifices keep our women and men refreshed and nourished for their grueling duties in the War on Terror."
Within a week three cooks representing the integrated diversity of the army would be given a White House dinner and a photo-op with the President. "All of us Americans in America thank you and all the other army chefs for keeping our soldiers ready, as a former president said, ‘with pot in every chicken.' Er, uh, chicken and…you know, pot. That's how you serve it. God bless you."
A few years ago I wrote a tribute to the comedians of the Blue Collar Comedy tour. I have at various times paid tribute to Dave Barry. It seems to me, however, that we need a revival of Laugh-in. We need the next generation of Smothers Brothers. We need to be reminded that our presidents and our vice-presidents and the issues that surround them are not more immune to caricature.
We also need to be reminded that the unfair slurs and lies that are spoken to smear rivals, can also be lampooned. Our society is filled with internet rubes and bloggers and e-mailers who actually open and read and believe the stuff they get that is marked "fw:fw:fw:fw: Obama one letter away from Osama!" New Yorker ripped the rubes, by showing them a picture of their own nonsense. New Yorker always rips on rubes, because New Yorker is written by and read by snobs.
Both Tweedletwins, playing their one piano in the key of "Oh Gee," know full well that rubes are their base. So they have leapt to the defense of rubeness. It is not the bloggers they are defending, of course. It is those rubes who will see the New Yorker cover and not get the joke. Forgotten is that the joke was not drawn for the rubes of America; it was drawn for the readers of the New Yorker.
America's rubes get more than their share of time. Entire cable news networks and their broadcast affiliates are devoted to both the left-wing's and right-wing's worship of the executive branch. I could easily get into a tangent about the need now, more than ever, for Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite. But this article is about the freedom to laugh in the United States, and Murrow was not exactly a guy who tickled the ribs.
The Fox television cartoons are as close as we are getting to the kind of refreshing satire and irreverence that punctures and deflates our overblown posturing. Still, there is power in seeing the words spoken by flesh and blood. Come back to television, Goldie Hawn. Maybe you can start by guest-hosting Saturday Night Live.
Meanwhile, rubes of America, I'm middle-brow and a snob, and you can search my columns for those explanations. Just remember, I don't read the New Yorker either; I just look at the pictures. Please let the readers of the New Yorker have their refuge. Just because you've been told by the Tweedletwin you worship that the New Yorker is tasteless and out of touch, doesn't mean you need to get riled up. Of course they are out of touch with you. They don't want to be in touch with you! They're snobs! God bless America that they can cater to their own snobbery without fear of the law.
If the Tweedletwin candidates need to remember their base, the New Yorker needs to remember its market. The worst thing its editors and artists and writers can do right now is back off, or retract, or apologize. Instead they should all get together and toast themselves and get back to work. Next cover, put McCain in a cowboy hat and have him riding a nuclear bomb as it falls towards Tehran, a la Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove. And that can be your caption too: Election 2008, Slim Pickins. Or have I already explained the joke and made it unfunny?