It’s here! Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, DC! It’s for those, says the website, “who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.” Indeed.
Which got me to thinking, since Jon Stewart is frighteningly funny, who’s actually funnier, Democrats or Republicans?
You might think the answer is obvious, since Democrats are generally smarter and have wider access to more sophisticated forms of wit than Republicans.
But true students of humorosity (humor as a category of rigorous scientific testing) say the jury is out. Consider this anecdote:
The View’s Joy Behar, with evident anger issues, calls Sharron Angle a “bitch.” Angle sends Behar flowers and a nice note: “Joy, raised $150,000 online yesterday. Thanks for your help. Sincerely, Sharron Angle.” Humorosity scientists agree, that’s funny.
Behar shoots back: “I would like to point out that those flowers were picked by illegal immigrants and they’re not voting for you, bitch.”
Citing the need for further investigation, humorosity scientists refuse to comment.
An anecdote, of course, settles no issue. I happen to think Republicans, or their ilk, are funnier these days — P.J. O’Rourke, Matt Labash, Dennis Miller — but it has not always been so.
A sense of humor in politics is typically a function of electoral optimism. When you’re winning, you’re more relaxed, and funnier. When you’re losing, you’re sulky and humorless. (“Power corrupts, but lack of power corrupts absolutely.” — Adlai Stevenson)
Democrats were winning big in 2008, and were pretty funny.
Compare these lists of bumper stickers for Democrats and Republicans. I think any earnest and objective assessor of humorosity would have to agree that the Democrats were funnier. Democrats had bumper stickers like “McPalin: A Bridge to Nowhere” (which nicely built on the Alaskan origin of the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere”), “If I Owned 7 Houses, I’d Think the Economy Was Great Too!” (which has been removed from most bumpers), and my personal favorite: “Jesus Was a Community Organizer, Pontius Pilate Was a Governor.”
An idiosyncratic digression: would we really prefer Jesus over Pontius Pilate as President of the United States? I mean, really. Think about this. Think you’re done thinking about it? Think some more. That’s all I’m going to say.
Meanwhile, Republicans sported relatively tepid stickers like “NObama,” and “Yes Mac Can.”
There were some good ones: “Obama For Change? That’s All You’ll Have Left In Your Pockets,” “Your Wallet: The One Place Democrats Are Willing to Drill,” “McCain ’08: Proven Leadership So We Don’t Have to Hope.”
But as humor, notice how long it took to get to the point. Democrats could get instantaneously to the point with “John McCain: Continue the Pain,” “McCain is a Fossil Fool,” and “If Sarah Palin Is Qualified, So Am I.” The best political campaign humor is always succinct — and inevitably so because broadly shared cultural understandings fill in the blanks and permit much more to go unstated.
Notable as well in 2008 was relative meanness. Oddly, Democrats were meaner. I say oddly because typically electoral optimism makes one more relaxed, funnier, and more magnanimous. Yet Democrats were demonstrably meaner. The assault on Sarah Palin was amazing in its meanness. Some bumper stickers: “Pregnant Unwed High School Dropouts for Palin,” “Sarah, While You Were Looking at Russia, Maybe You Should Have Been Watching Your Daughter,” “Abstinence-Only Education Really Works, Huh Sarah?”
I have a theory about this. Americans, like voters in every democracy, have always been mean in electoral politics. When Benjamin Disraeli called half the British Cabinet “asses” during parliamentary debate, a member rose to demand that he withdraw the statement. Disraeli responded, “Mr. Speaker, I withdraw. Half the Cabinet are not asses.”
Okay, that’s not technically a testament to the meanness of the electorate — I just love that story, believe it should be taught in schools, and couldn’t fit it in anywhere else.
The relative meanness in 2008 wasn’t Democrats being meaner, just typically mean. Meanwhile, the great majority of Americans in 2008 were unwilling to be mean to the first ever African-American presidential nominee. It was a kind of enforced civility — yes, a double standard — but the more admirable because this moment was historic, and very American.
The spike in meanness about Obama now? An enormous advance for African-Americans. The great columnist Carl Rowan, who died at the end of the 20th century, once wrote that “A minority group has ‘arrived’ only when it has the right to produce some fools and scoundrels without the entire group paying for it.” The 21st-century corollary of that wisdom is this: a minority group has arrived when it can produce the leader of the greatest nation on the planet, and that leader is treated with the same level of contempt as previous leaders.
But back to funny. So a Republican farmer in rural Ohio gets targeted by the Ohio Department of Labor for failing to pay proper wages to his help. The DOL agent assigned to the investigation tells the farmer, “I need a list of your employees and how much you pay them.”
“Well,” says the farmer, “there’s my farm hand who’s been with me for 3 years. I pay him $400.00 a week plus free room and board. The cook has been here for 18 months, and I pay her $300.00 per week plus free room and board.”
“Any others?” asks the agent.
“Well… there’s the half-wit. He works about 18 hours every day and does about 90% of all the work around here. He makes about $10.00 per week, pays his own room and board, and I buy him a bottle of Bourbon every Saturday night. And sometimes he sleeps with my wife.”
“That’s the guy I want to talk to, the half-wit,” says the agent.
“That would be me,” replied the farmer.
I just think Republicans are funnier these days. Maybe just because they can be.
But I’ve always been weary with conspiracy theorists, birthers, truthers, Oliver Stone… So I close with this true story:
A group of conspiracy theorists were traveling to a conspiracy theory convention. Their bus crashed and they were all killed. At the gates of heaven, it occurred to them, they could finally find out what really happened. The leader of the conspiracy theorists approached God and said, “we just want to know, who killed John Kennedy?”
God said, “Lee Harvey Oswald killed John Kennedy, and I have forgiven him in My way.”
The leader of the conspiracy theorists went back to his group, and reported, “guys, it goes much higher than we thought.”
Kendrick Macdowell is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C.