Politics, Humor and Hierarchy: An Interview with F.H. Buckley

F.H. Buckley wrote the book on the social meaning of humor. The Morality of Laughter, published in 2003, was his attempt to collate and systematize not only what makes us laugh but why it makes us laugh. Last week, I had a chance to interview him about how his ideas apply to aspects of the 2012 election.

We'll get to the interview in a moment but first it will be helpful to have a basic understanding of Buckley's ideas about humor. It turns out to be a fairly complex issue but there are certain social realities that under gird nearly all of our jokes. There are three persons needed, at least implicitly, for any joke to work--the wit or person telling the joke, the audience and the target or butt of the joke:

Laughter can be modeled as a three-party game in which the parties bargain for inclusion in a two-party coalition (wit and listener) that excludes the third (the butt). No one party can dictate what is risible. Instead, the selection of butts is a matter of negotiation between wit and listener. The wit proposes a butt for laughter, and this offer may be accepted by the listener through a return of laughter or rejected through silence. In such a laughter exchange, individuals may be seen to trade off butts through implicit agreements about who is risible. These bargains determine what counts as a comic vice...

A comic vice is something about a person which can be altered, i.e. a personality or behavioral flaw. If you've ever been in a room of old friends cracking jokes at one another, the way this plays out in the real world should be familiar. It's about identifying those in the room with vices (drinking too much, driving too fast, etc) which need to be pointed out and negatively reinforced by the group. But there will also be some members of the group who are less likely to be the butt of jokes because they are widely respected. In this way, humor establishes hierarchy.

The same rules apply to our political humor on the national level. In fact, with the country nearly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats it's inevitable there would be an ongoing battle of wits as each side seeks to form coalitions that exclude the other side as risible (and therefore worthy of the audience's laughter, not their vote). We saw this in action recently at the Al Smith dinner where both Romney and Obama made jokes at their own expense (acknowledging a comic vice helps defuse it) and at the expense of the other candidate.

Romney: In the spirit of Sesame Street the President's remarks are brought to you by the letter "O" and the number 16 trillion.

Obama: Sometimes it feels like this race has dragged on forever. But Paul Ryan assured me we've only been running for two hours and fifty something minutes.

Romney's line attacks the President as a big spender running a juvenile campaign. Obama's line attacks Paul Ryan as someone who exaggerates his achievements. Laughter is a signal that people agree these are undesirable characteristics.

So its noteworthy that in the past four years comedians have struggled to find reasons to laugh at President Obama. Not so much with Mitt Romney. An examination by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found late night comics told more than twice as many jokes aimed at Romney as at Obama in the month of September. (The ratio was 5 to 1 on Letterman.) The number of jokes aimed at Republicans as a whole was also double the number aimed at Democrats. I asked F.H.Buckley how his understanding of humor could help explain these elements of the 2012 race:

Breitbart News: When you see the inability of late night comics to laugh at the President, what does that say? Why can’t America laugh at Obama the way we did at Bush and Clinton?

F.H.Buckley: I think something has changed, sadly. This isn’t the country it was 30-40 years ago. In the past, political humor was bipartisan, and Carter and Clinton came in for their share of ridicule. But with Obama it’s different. We don’t laugh at the redeemer, the Awaited One.

It’s not as though he doesn’t give us plenty to laugh at. The narcissism, the grandiosity invites ridicule, and in the past he would not have survived the winnowing process of American politics. What is interesting is not Obama, then. It’s what has happened to Americans, to permit them to elect an Obama.

I simply don’t understand why he doesn’t creep people out. We don’t vote the Democratic ticket so much as identify with “My Obama.” For some reason, one didn’t hear about “My Truman” in 1948. I don’t say that voters back then were pillars of republican virtue, but I do think they would have found the 2008 Obama icons—the Obama logo, the Hope picture—not a little distasteful. If we don’t feel that way today, it’s because we live in a different country.

That’s part of the answer. Then there’s race. White Americans over, say 50, can easily be made to feel guilty on the subject of race, and not entirely without reason. That tends to make people go tippy-toe around the subject of the first African-American president. But if that gives a candidate only one bite at the apple, it doesn’t explain the adulation of a failed president.

Finally, there’s the herd instinct. Most people want to be liked, Americans possibly more than most people, and inside-the-beltway conservatives most of all. Our side doesn’t punish people with whom we disagree. The other side takes no prisoners, and has a special place in their hearts for the conservative who is willing to urinate over another conservative. Even the most brain-dead (that would be you, Kathleen Parker) gets a Pulitzer for that.

BN: What about Clint Eastwood’s skit/presentation at the RNC? Why was that an important moment in the national dialogue?

Buckley: Eastwood was brilliant. I heard him first on the radio and cringed. Then I saw the video and realized how important his message was. What he did was to give ordinary Americans a permission slip to laugh at Obama. The guy is an empty suit, he told us. The Emperor has no clothes. Eastwood cut through it all in a way no one else in Tampa was willing to do.

They were serious. Eastwood wasn’t. He told us “it’s okay--you can go ahead at laugh at Obama,” and laughter can communicate information in a way a sober speech never could.

If Romney wins, the Eastwood speech will be remembered as one of the two crucial moments in the campaign. The other moment was Obama’s performance in the three debates, which revealed that he can’t hide his contempt for the average American unless he is heavily sedated.

BN: We’ve had a couple reporters busted for cracking “jokes” at Republicans’ expense recently. In August, Yahoo fired David Chalian for saying Republicans were partying while black people drowned. He later said this was “an inappropriate and thoughtless joke.” Similarly, Tuesday morning McKay Coppins of Buzzfeed was leading a pool report and said over a live mic that there was a “40 percent chance Romney will say something stupid.” A reporter at Politico defended him saying it’s silly to expect reporters not to “joke” about the people they cover. How do you interpret this sort of golf clap humor? What does it tell us about folks who engage in it?

Buckley: That kind of laughter should not be confused with wit. It’s not really funny, is it? What it does is two things. It communicates contempt. And it invites the listener to recognize that he belongs in the blessed group of the saved, of those who are permitted to hug themselves in self-delight.

I saw something like this at a David Mamet play in San Francisco some years back. [Ed. note: This was prior to Mamet's break with the left] The play wasn’t clever or amusing. It portrayed a George W. Bush president and invited the audience to laugh at him. And so they did. They held their sides and roared. The stench of ego and smug self-satisfaction drove me from the theatre before the intermission.

BN: Any other thoughts on this election you’d like to share?

Buckley: I think I’ve finally figured it out. Obama supporters are members of the Church of Scientology and Tom Cruise has told them how to vote.

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