Aren't comedians supposed to be funny?
That's the question I had after watching two interviews this week. The first interview featured a buffoonish jackass interviewer who fancies himself a comedian because he smirks (Jon Stewart); the interview subject was a buffoonish jackass who fancies himself a militant financial analyst, and who is, in reality, a wimp (Jim Cramer).
The second interview featured a buffoonish jackass interviewer who fancies himself a comedian because he once made someone laugh. The interviewer, for some odd reason, also thinks he is a profound thinker on religion and politics; in reality, he's more famous for dating porn stars than for his philosophical musings (Bill Maher). The interview subjects were Michael Eric Dyson, the sort of faux intellectual beloved by the academy (Dyson teaches at Georgetown University), and our own Andrew Breitbart.
I'm not going to focus on the guests - their various performances speak for themselves (although I'd argue that Cramer was a sad-sack sissy; Dyson was purposefully obfuscatory and pretentious, as befits a lifelong "academic"; and Andrew was both brave and trenchant for taking on a hostile crowd and refusing to back down).
Instead, I'm going to focus on the hosts.
Jon Stewart and Bill Maher are both supposed to be funny. Stewart has a show on Comedy Central, of course; Maher does stand up. Yet from these two interviews, you would have thought that Stewart and Maher are angry sociology undergraduates from Brown University. Stewart beat an apologetic Cramer into submission by citing, of all the ridiculous clichés, his grandmother's retirement account. Maher slandered Rush Limbaugh as a racist, then slammed Bush's stem cell policy, which is far more nuanced and ethically coherent than Barack Obama's "science must not be challenged" amorality.
Neither of them were funny.
Now, I'm a conservative. I'll admit that some liberal humor just doesn't appeal to me -- Sarah Silverman grates like nails made of bitchy on a chalkboard made of whining; Family Guy
has become an irritatingly dull version of The Simpsons
, relying largely on shock value rather than actual humor.
But I contend that there's one objective indicator that Stewart and Maher have lost their ability to be funny: their audience is so stacked that they laugh at clearly unfunny lines - they're living laugh tracks. Here's Part II of Stewart's interview with Cramer
Listen to the audience at 4:48. Stewart says he can't reconcile Cramer's financial brilliance with the "crazy bulls***" you do every night. And the audience laughs. Now, there's nothing funny about that observation, the use of the word "bulls***" notwithstanding. The rest of the interview is like that, too. Joe Scarborough was right on the money when he said, "Basically he's got 100 people working for him. They scour the Internet and TV night and day. They find people that put themselves out on the line. ... whether they're politicians or commentators. Then if somebody makes a little mistake here or there ... I'm talking if a politician stumbles over himself. They take it out. They edit it. He runs a clip and then he makes a funny face and then the whole audience has a Pavlovian response." It was a comment that enraged Stewart, but the clips demonstrate that Scarborough was speaking absolute truth on this score.
The same holds true with Bill Maher. During Maher's interview with Andrew and the deliberate obfuscator Dyson (a man of tremendous hypocrisy who claims to read others' motives through their "code words," then simultaneously claims that he is not into ad hominem
attacks), Maher got laughs from his primed audience.
Watch this segment in Part II at 2:02
Maher compares the schools shifting bad teachers around to the Catholic Church shifting around pedophiles, a stale joke at best. The audience goes for it. The joke, however, is so stale that after Maher repeats it, the audience doesn't laugh - even the living laugh track can't be bothered to wake up for that one.
Political comedy can be funny. But political comedy requires that the comics do not see themselves as crusaders standing up to the man. The "speaking truth to power" folks are about as humorous as a punch in the groin, and nearly as painful.
There's a bigger problem here than the death of comedy, however. The biggest problem is the holier-than-thou Stewart and Maher types posing as comedians for purposes of self-defense. If you're going to enter the political battlefield, don't claim to be above politics. It's gutless and pathetic.
Let's remember that while Stewart went after Cramer with a chainsaw on his show for Cramer's manipulation of the market, he originally
went after CNBC because many CNBC-ers, including Rick Santelli and Cramer, opposed Barack Obama's spendathon plan. He went after Cramer personally only after Cramer turned on Stewart's object of worship, Obama. Likewise with Maher - Maher hates religion and pretends to be bipartisan, but his show has become a virtual cult of Obamamania. Watch the interview with Andrew and Dyson and see if there's a single thing Obama has done that Maher, that incisive critic, actually touches.
And yet when commentators attack partisan hacks Stewart and Maher, the "comedians" hide behind the shield of comedy.
It must be nice being a "comedian" in the mold of Stewart or Maher. It means never having to defend your positions. It means you get to go on shows like Crossfire
and state that they're bad for America, even if you grill conservatives and bootlick liberals on your own show. It means you can pretend to be the everyman - the "layman," as Stewart so cloyingly states in his Cramer interview -- even when you're representing a rabid partisan base that cheers your every move.
Now Stewart and Maher are down in the political mud. With Stewart's decision to enter into direct combat with anyone who lays a glove on his White House valentine, he becomes fair game. With Maher's anti-religious documentary and his shilling for the Obama administration, he too enters the pantheon of hard-nosed politics.
So here are a couple starting questions for Stewart and Maher:
Jon: You said in your Cramer interview, "When are we going to realize in this country that our wealth is work?" Is Warren Buffett's wealth "work," or is it wise investment of capital? How about Bill Gates? Should we all sell our stock and stop trying to invest our money in companies in which we believe? You also said this financial crisis was because of "guys that had leveraged 35 to 1," not because of "mortgage holders." We can agree that the guys who allowed the 35 to 1 loans were idiots. But let me ask you this: didn't the borrowers leverage 35 to 1? Even if you're a borrower, aren't you just a bit complicit in bad leveraging, particularly if you lie about your salary to get the loan? And speaking of leveraging, isn't Obama's plan leveraging phantom future dollars for current spending precisely the problem you're talking about here, except on a far larger scale?
Bill: You claim Rush Limbaugh is racist. Yet he has not been sued based on alleged racial comments. You have
. Does that mean you're a racist? Or should we examine your words for "code" based on such allegations? Meanwhile, you rip religion on a regular basis, and you state that you believe in science. Fair enough. But do you believe that science inherently provides moral checks? Are you willing to defend Larry Summers' research on women in hard sciences? How about Charles Murray's works? Or, if you're willing to go all the way for science, how about Dr. Mengele or the experiments at Tuskegee?
I know you're both comedians, and therefore that you are at a higher moral level than the rest of us poor political schlubs. But now that you've deigned to descend from on high, how about answering a few questions yourselves?