Tuesday, November 04, 2003

THAT WAS SO FUNNY I FORGOT TO LAUGH. David Frum reviews Al Franken for FrontPageMag. We all know what to expect, of course, though the Conscience of Canada does manage to surprise in one respect: rather than just slam the politics, he actually attempts to assess the humor quotient of the national best-seller. Less surprisingly, he finds it wanting, at least in comparison to the work of his favorite humorists.

And whom might they be? Mark Twain? George Ade? Dave Barry? "Not to be invidious," invidiates Frum, "but the best right-wing funny men -- P.J. O'Rourke, Rob Long, Mark Steyn -- truly are laugh-out-loud funny. I have been on airplanes on days when Steyn's column is running in the local paper and heard the laughs exploding from the seat in front of me like artillery shells out of a howitzer."

This last is an interesting metaphor; maybe Frum's fellow passengers were actually choking on airline peanuts. Or maybe they were reading the latest statement from the Fed. Or it could be that he was riding on Air Force One, and the President's men were trying, with as much lung power as they could muster, to plant a message on the credulous frostback.

Anyway, Frum deduces that, since purchasers of the book cannot possibly have bought it for its humor, they have shelled out chart-topping amounts for Lying Liars because they are looking for "villains and scapegoats." That's worth twenty bucks, isn't it, folks? He even compares these readers to supporters of Islamic terrorists ("How had the once-wealthy and all-conquering Muslim world been overtaken by the despised Christian West? Al Franken's Lies can be read as one Democrat's attempt to grapple with an analogous problem.")

Of course, I may have misread him -- maybe he thinks Franken's readers are Islamic terrorists:
...like the enraged Muslims... Franken repudiates both self-examination and self criticism. It is all somebody else's fault. The faithful have nothing to learn from anybody. The solution to their problems is not reform, and it is certainly not self-criticism. It is a return to the fundamentals of the faith -- and war against the unbelievers.

Whew. Heavy analysis for a joke book with cartoons.

I have to admit that I don't find most overtly political authors very funny. (Witty and eloquent in some cases, yes, but not hardly risible.) About the best of the right-wing lot is Florence King, but after that it's a dry gulch; even O'Rourke's post-Lampoon career baffles me. (The joke always seems to be about how drunk he can get and still file dispatches, and how bad hippies smell.) And, truth be told, Franken is only mildly amusing in his attack mode (though I liked the Jesus comic very much) -- he was much funnier with Tom Davis.

But that's the nexus of politics and humor for you. Hell, even Twain's political work is less funny than chilling. I modestly propose a theory: political humor is only really funny when your contempt for your adversaries so exceeds your desire to make a point that you leave the orbit of politics altogether, and achieve satire. See Waugh, Heller, and even Franken in the hilarious intro to Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot (in which Jeanne Kirkpatrick finds herself obliged to review the book).

(I do laugh at Roger Ailes, BusyBusyBusy, and a number of others. But that's only because I hate America or something.)

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