On humor

After Joan and I returned from our night on the town, we settled in to watch the “nerd prom” otherwise known as the White House Press Association dinner. We watched it on CNN.

CNN had a panel of talking heads, with a video link to Ben Stein sitting in California. Stein, lawyer, actor, economist, and former White House speech writer, is the exemplification of the word “mordant.” He thought the comedian who spoke at the dinner was not at all funny and  that the fellow was “too god damned mean.”

Lots of other people, particularly those who are younger and familiar with the savage humor of Joel McHale, thought the comedian was both hysterically funny and not at all “inappropriate.” McHale told the most controversial joke of the night — one that combined former President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal with his daughter Chelsea’s pregnancy. “When the baby is born, do you give Bill a cigar?” McHale asked.

Anyway, I came away, not surprisingly, agreeing with Stein. McHale was not very funny, but he was very mean. But, Stein and I are the same age more or less. We are old.

This morning I got to thinking about my failed “dirty old man” post on the attire of women lawyers. As I think back about that firestorm, I am reminded that Scott Greenfield’s essential point is true. Humor, indeed much of language, is exquisitely sensitive to rapid changes in the norms that shape our values and underlie our views about what makes us laugh and why.

Really mean is now really good. And, by all accounts, it is really funny too.


7 responses

  1. Judge:
    Perhaps it’s me but I never quite understood the point of the White House Press Association Dinner (they don’t call it the “Nerd Prom” nothing!). The sheer sycophancy of such a thing runs opposite the idea of a free press holding to account those in positions of power. That being said, I never understood the surprise that some have when a particular comedian goes overboard in his/her remarks. After all, the comedian in question is chosen on the basis of their previous performances so, in effect, how can people be surprised when they had to have known what it is they were getting in the first place? As to your further thoughts about the infamous “dirty old man” post, it is true that humor is a reflection of the wider culture. Today, it seems that snark and vulgarity have replaced the well thought out and well-timed joke. I, too, am old but not so old that I can’t appreciate good humor when I hear it.

  2. I’ve not yet had the chance to see Mr. McHale’s performance. When I do, I will, undoubtedly, compare it with Stephen Colbert’s, so-called scorched-earth performance (which I enjoyed, even if there was an occasional groan elicited from a few overly-mean bits). I wonder (fear) that the reaction this year will push the WHCA to back off of the comic entertainment and move to something else.

  3. In his new book, I’m Dying Up Here, Knoedelseder chronicles what he calls stand-up comedy’s “golden era.” He says that Los Angeles wasn’t always the epicenter of the comic universe, but when Carson moved The Tonight Show from New York to the West Coast, the comedians seemed to follow.

    “Johnny Carson was the arbiter of what was funny in America for a very long time. If he thought you were funny and put you on his show, you had a career,” he says.

    Knoedelseder describes a tight-knit community where today’s big name comics would hang out at the bar together between sets, writing down jokes on napkins.

    “It’s hard to imagine now, but on a random Friday night you could see Letterman and Leno and Richard Lewis and Robin Williams and Elayne Boosler all on the same stage,” he says.

    He writes about one particular night in which Ringo Starr began heckling Letterman:

    Starr was seated just as David Letterman took the stage, and the former Beatle immediately began heckling him, which attracted the attention of every comic within earshot. Letterman had a reputation for eviscerating hecklers, and as word spread along the back hallway, other comics started filing into the room to watch the impending bloodshed.

    It wasn’t a fair fight. In the spotlight, Letterman couldn’t see who the heckler was, so he showed no mercy, and Starr was too drunk to appreciate how badly Letterman was beating him up. Finally, one of the comics took pity and called out, “Hey Dave, it’s Ringo.”

    “Oh, that makes sense,” Letterman shot back in the direction of Starr. “You ruined your career, and now you’ve come here to ruin mine.” George Miller almost fell off his stool laughing.


  4. Dead MildlyDisturbed,

    Thank you for this. As I read the link, and your note, I felt something. I think the word is “nostalgia.” It felt good.

    All the best.


  5. Ron,

    If they back off the comic entertainment, no one would watch. I would like them to pick an accomplished person, who is not known to be a comedian, but who is funny and has a bent for politics. Charles Barkley comes to mind. In 2013, Rolling Stone included him among the 50 funniest people.

    All the best.


  6. Comedy is highly topical and has a short shelf-life.

    But “Who’s on first?” is still the funniest routine ever. Really, I think, good comedy–even political comedy–lives on. When Lord Castlereagh said to John Wilkes, “You sir, will either die on the gallows or be felled by the pox,” Wilkes replied, “That, m’lord, depends on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.” Still funny, even though we don’t know who Castlereagh or Wilkes were, what policies either of them embraced, nor anything about the mistress.

  7. Jon,

    Sorry for the late reply. But I sure want to thank you for sending me one of the greatest sardonic exchanges about politics that I have ever read. I might add, as I am sure you know, that “question time” in the House of Commons frequently produces such gifted wit while shaming we Americans in the process. Thanks again. All the best.


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