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

The top ten things I learned from being a (fill in epithet of choice)

By now, you know my posts (here and here) about lawyers who are females and courtroom attire stirred up a controversy of stunning proportions.  Indeed, the device in this platform that counts such things tells me those stories generated more “hits” than any other related posts except for the ones about how my sentencing instincts suck as evidenced by Shon Hopwood’s remarkable redemption. (See here and here.)

Some of you may know also that I hold an affection for top ten lists. (See, e.g., here.) I revert to that shtick once again.

Here are the top ten things that I learned from writing the courtroom attire posts:

1. I shouldn’t believe my own press. (See here (“Courts”) and here “Miscellany” at p. 126).)  I am not nearly as good at blogging (writing essays) as I thought I was. That is, the only thing bigger than my ass is my ego.

2. A highly regarded legal blogger and true trial lawyer accurately put my grievous error this way:

“Judge Kopf was terribly wrong to have framed his point the way he did. Not because he violated the sensibilities of Millennials and Gen-Xers, who have been weaned on Orwellian notions of language to the point that they can’t even begin to grasp that there are good people who use words that they were taught are evil, but because he didn’t realize that his audience consisted of people for whom these words meant something very different.”

SCOTT H. GREENFIELD, A Poor Choice of Dirty Old Words, Simple Justice (March 29, 2014).

3. I should never, never, never have included my kids and the law clerks in this type of post. As one gentle soul who loves me unconditionally remarked with resigned sadness, “you see your work and the people who are close to you as being the same thing. We don’t see it nor want it that way.”

4. The “true story” I used in the post was untrue, although it was essentially accurate. It was an amalgam intended to take separate but similar experiences of mine in the courtroom and to blend them together precisely so I didn’t identify anyone. But because of my evasion and ineptitude, I set off a snipe hunt. I am so terribly sorry for that.

5. I can’t stop berating myself for giving aid and comfort to those who say federal trial judges shouldn’t blog. This is a powerful medium that can do much good in promoting an honest understanding of the federal trial court (a place that is not an abstraction), but I just handed the other side a sharp-edged weapon to maintain a status quo of sanitized mythology.

6. I despise faux apologies. So, for the uber outraged, hear this: I believe what I wrote. I extend no apology of any kind to those readers who wanted to be offended by my writing. And, eschewing mere truculent defiance, the vitriol will not deter me from judging and blogging in the future. By the way, and I suppose this is quaint, I view blogging as an opportunity to write a collection of short essays around a common theme. From the reader’s perspective, that means one might profitably look at the many blogs posts that come before the one in question. That is called the search for context.

7. I always knew edgy humor was both dangerous and hard to pull off as a writer, but it is much harder and more dangerous than I had ever imagined. That is an observation, not an excuse.

8. Because I was too defensive, I wrote Erin Grace, a real journalist, with a kind heart, that I don’t care how she remembers me. That was also untrue.

9. I harmed my District of Nebraska colleagues. In particular, I put my Chief Judge, Laurie Smith Camp, a person whom I revere, in a horrible position. That makes me sick at heart.

10. Most importantly, the federal trial courts (including the one in which I am privileged to preside) are places where all female lawyers are safe. Thus, I am deeply ashamed that my post generated the following fearful comment from a real trial lawyer that I presume is entirely genuine: “Wow, am I ever glad I don’t have to appear before you. I would be very uncomfortable, having read your post.” Female AFPD [Assistant Federal Public Defender] says: March 26, 2014 at 5:36 pm.

RGK

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