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.

RGK

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