You Think That’s Funny? That’s Not Funny

by A. Jay Adler on December 17, 2012
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We’re having an entertaining and enlightening discussion, me and the Snoop, over in the comments section (which is, after all, what it’s for) and the subject of Bill Maher keeps coming up. Actually, Snoop keeps bringing it up, but why split hairs? Maher enjoys not the highest estimation in the Snoop’s regard. I think somewhat differently, but that is not my interest today. It is not the different opinions we have of Maher that I wish to address, but some part of how we may come to those different opinions.

Over at the sad red earth Facebook page – where I frequently post and link to material by others, egomaniacally preserving the blog as my own evil genius’s lair for the manufacture of world-threatening opinion – I quoted yesterday from an interview of philosopher Gary Gutting at 3 a.m. Magazine. In defending the role of philosophy after its 2.5 millennia failure fully to explain life and the universe to us and answer all of our questions, Gutting offered this intellectually utilitarian view:

Over its history, philosophy has accumulated an immense store of conceptual distinctions, theoretical formulations, and logical arguments that are essential for [the] intellectual maintenance of our defining convictions. This constitutes a body of knowledge achieved by philosophers that they can present with confidence to meet the intellectual needs of non-philosophers.

We modestly offer here at SRE that this blog seeks no greater purpose than to endeavor in its modest way to preserve and expand upon those distinctions, formulations, and arguments. Why do I find Bill Maher funny and Snoop not; why is it that Snoop, like others, compares Maher to Rush Limbaugh, and I will not? Let us endeavor to distinguish.

Interestingly, in our discussion about my attempt to distinguish between MSNBC and FOX News (which I will continue in the comments), Snoop makes the fine point, that in my distinction, the

 nuance almost (but not quite, I will grant that) escapes me.

Perhaps Snoop thinks I have moved beyond the Talmudic in my exegesis of the elements into the realm of the casuistic. We’ll see. Is it accurate to say simply that Maher and Limbaugh are both “entertainers”? I think not.

Maher is a purveyor of political humor. There is a long tradition of it. When I was a tadpole, the political humorist of the day was Mort Sahl. Sahl, who stayed within the bounds of propriety sufficiently to appear on television in pre-cable days, was an admirer of Lenny Bruce, Bruce less a straight political humorist than a scathing scatological social satirist. He broke ground for the likes of second and latter stage George Carlin and so many others. More of the American mainstream before Bruce and Sahl was Will Rogers. Were any of these people like Rush Limbaugh? No.

Limbaugh is not an “entertainer” just because he has a “radio show.” There are many kinds of radio shows. The show is a vehicle. It is neither the manner nor the message. Since he became a national phenomenon in the early 90s, Limbaugh has been a political commentator. The element of entertainment in what he does is, for his admirers, in the mockery he makes of those he opposes. For those who disdain him, it is in the buffoon Limbaugh makes of himself in the cruelty and vileness of his social misanthropy. Significantly, since Limbaugh, long ago, gained such influence through his audience’s embrace, Limbaugh has been as powerful an opinion and policy shaper in conservative American politics as any elected official. His favor has been sought and his presence and endorsement, too, at national political conferences.

While Bill Maher, through his brand of humor and the format of his television shows, has ever sharpened his political praise and condemnation, he has never moved into the realm of influence enjoyed by Limbaugh. Whether this is by choice or circumstance matters not in the end. He maintains beyond the realm of television an active comedic touring schedule, one that hardly maintains a wide public light on him. Occasionally, he appears as an opining guest on news shows, but not very often, and when ABC’s This Week one time only placed him around its round table – seeking ratings by treating him as a serious political voice – the producers quickly saw their folly. No one in the Democratic Party establishment or among progressive policy shapers wonders or worries about what Bill Maher thinks. He has, to put a fine point on it, no influence on the American political scene whatsoever.

Clearly, these are distinctions that are significantly the product of circumstance. Had the possibility emerged, would Maher have welcomed, with respect to political influence, a career as a liberal Rush Limbaugh? I do not know. The fact is, however, that he is not.

Ideally, we appreciate the humor on its own terms, as we seek to do with art. If comedy is truth exaggerated, we allow ourselves to recognize even an uncomfortable truth and take aesthetic – and, of course, immediate visceral – pleasure in the comedic technique. With political humor very pointedly, a problem arises if one rejects the truth – which one is more likely to do, and more dramatically, if one is already ill disposed toward the comic. We say that people should be able to laugh at themselves, and they should, but we all have our limits, some far more earthbound than others.

An interesting comparison to make is between Maher and the Dennis Miller of the past decade. Before his post 9/11 turn, Miller was as hip an intellectual and ironic comic, embraced by the alternative and progressive youth cultures, as one could find. He was far more so than Bill Maher, who in the 90s was finding his humor during a Democratic presidency by being “politically incorrect” and hosting Christopher Hitchens when Hitchens would find few bones of contention with the rightwing asylum evaders peddling the idea that Bill Clinton ordered the murder of Vince Foster.

Today, compared to Maher, Miller’s career inhabits a crotchety con black hole. I am not a show biz insider, and there may be reasons for Miller’s career trajectory that I do not know. Conservatives would argue that he has been dumped by the liberal arts and entertainment establishment, and I will not argue with that. We all know, however, that like all business men, the only thing “Hollywood” liberals like better than their liberalism is their profits, and if Miller could now draw Maher’s demographic and help earn HBO, or the like, a vault, he would be back there.

Miller lost the young and ironic. He is no less ironic and cutting than he ever was, but the young and progressive no longer like the cuts. They see the exaggeration, but they do no find the truth. People do not like that. It alienates them. Which is why conservatives do not like Bill Maher, either. But – not to lose our way – that does not make him Rush Limbaugh.

An anecdote.

As a New York Hebrew of Ashkenazic descent, I live in irony. It is the buoy of salvation in the sea of worldly woe. I wake in the morning to ironic humor and lull myself to sleep with humorous irony. So besotted am I with the full figure and voluptuous air of irony that I spin it like a dradle, do tricks with it like a top. I take its counter indicators, its misdirections of meaning, even in the direction of what I do not actually think or believe, all in the service of my amusement. Who was that masked man?

One form of ironic humor is the tease. I tease. I have it on good suspicion, too, that my older brother Jeff was present in the delivery room on the day of my birth, and that even before I heard my mother’s cries of deliverance or the doctor’s “stat,” I received whispered into my ear my brother’s tease.

My mate, the Jewel of “Julia Dean’s Photo Gallery,” above, is from a small town in Nebraska. The people from her town are nice people. They are very, very nice people. Nebraska is a nice state. In fact, if you look on the Nebraska license plate, where on a New York license plate it says “the Empire State” or in California “the Golden State,” you will find that it says “the Nice State.” Check it out the next time you’re on the freeway. Just don’t lean too far out the window if you find yourself having trouble.

Nice people, I have come to learn, do not tease. It is a subject of some dispute whether the contrary is corollary, that people who tease are not nice people. Julia, in making her side of the argument, has claimed that there is always an element of truth in a tease, a tease which makes fun, and by making fun, is therefore mean. I, in offering my counterargument, have pointed to my personal disquisition on irony above. For me, I claim, it is all about the joke. My kingdom for a laugh.

The subject unresolved, as remains a final theory of justice, Julia and I were dining out with Jeff and his wife Anne, when – wouldn’t you know it – somehow the subject of teasing arose. With the final intimate authority that my dear brother tended to deliver any closing comment, Jeff – the prototype, the very model and mold of my own ironic personality – confided to Julia that the reason some people have difficulty with teasing is that there is always an element of truth to it.

Julia crowed with triumph.

I informed Jeff that he was picking up the tab.

AJA

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8 comments

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SnoopyTheGoon December 24, 2012 at 2:29 am

Er… yes, the distinctions between the two are pretty clear to me now. However (I am still Jooish, after all), comparing the two characters mentioned, I didn’t reflect at all on their respective status, which you have characterized precisely.

To me the common between them is crudity and anger. I can still (vaguely) recall the time when Maher displayed some elegance in his humor. No more, to me now he is an angry, crude and bitter – qualities that make whatever remains of his sense of humor hard to detect.

But of course, I am escaping now to the easily defensible domain of personal taste. Good deal, too.

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