Remembering William F. Buckley’s wit

Adam Hirst Freelance Writer
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Earlier this month, the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale organized lectures and a dinner to mark the 60th anniversary of the publication of Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale.” One of the topics of conversation was Buckley’s famous wit. We recalled that he was self-deprecating and that his humor derived from both his love for humanity and his skepticism of the human condition. In listening to his friends recount how witty he was, particularly on “Firing Line,” the debate show he hosted for 33 years, I couldn’t help but notice how little wit exists in our current political debate. And no, it’s not because it has all migrated to Twitter.

The loss of Buckley’s wit is a major loss to our political discourse. His self-deprecating style and wit were instrumental in making issues, not individuals, the center of debate; in creating a tone that allowed honest debate to occur; and in engaging folks who cared about, but weren’t obsessed with, politics. In short, it was a balm to many of the problems folks complain infect our political discourse today. In order to understand how bad things are, let’s consider the political debate television shows that the normal American family can watch on MSNBC, Fox News, Comedy Central and PBS on a typical weekday evening.

If MSNBC is the MSNBC of comedic wit, Chris Matthew is the Alex Trebek of political hosts. Trebek is the smartest man on television. He knows the answer to every question on “Jeopardy.” And do you know why? Because the answers are written on index cards that a producer hands him. Many a host would be cognizant of the fact that the luxury of choosing the question and researching the answer prior to airing doesn’t make him a genius. It makes him literate. When he hosted “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” Regis Philbin was such a person. Trebek is not. Trebek is smug. Trebek provides patronizing rationalizations and fictional explanations for why contestants answered questions incorrectly. They were thinking of the Latin when they should have been thinking of the Aramaic. Had they only said the secretary of state not the attorney general of the incorrect answer given by a fellow contestant two questions ago … had they only read “War and Peace” a second time like he (reading verbatim off the card) said he had.

Matthews, like Trebek, tries to trip up his guests by asking them factually difficult questions, sometimes unrelated to the topic of discussion. He does, from time to time, stump a guest. Kudos to him for that. It’s worth pointing out, however, that where Buckley demonstrated his intelligence through witty repartee and an almost unparalleled command of the English language, Matthews uses Google and his guests’ inability to read his mind and ascertain which questions he might ask. Wannabe know-it-alls are only funny in parody. Thus it’s not a coincidence that both Trebek and Matthews have been parodied by Will Farrell and Darrell Hammond, respectively, on “Saturday Night Live.”

Ed Schultz’s pedantic lectures to his Republican guests and sycophantic approval of his Democratic guests can only be as funny as lectures and sycophantic approval can be, which is to say not at all. Schultz spends much of his show yelling at his viewers. Sam Kinison did the same thing to greater effect. And with more sensible policy proposals.

Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell are smart and logical and honest and, at times, likable. But they lack the ideological flexibility to draw in viewers who don’t share their beliefs — O’Donnell is a self-described socialist. They also lack Buckley’s charm.

Though Fox News’s hosts have philosophical outlooks that are similar to Buckley’s, they don’t share his intellectual rigor or command of the English language. Since Buckley’s humor was a product of his intellectualism and command of the English language, their humor could not be the same. Sean Hannity’s eponymous show has strengths and weaknesses, but the biggest weakness is the quality of its guests, who tend to know very little about the topics they’re discussing. Ignorance can’t be witty. Stupidity only proffers unintentional humor. Bill O’Reilly doesn’t go for laughs and, at times, it doesn’t even seem like he’s trying to entertain. His shtick is going after hypocrisy and hypocrisy is the realm of tragedy, not comedy.

Which brings me to “The Daily Show.” Jon Stewart can be extremely funny at times, but his comedy comes from the same place as O’Reilly’s seriousness — in his own way, Stewart is a “culture warrior” going after what he sees as the hypocrisies of the left and the right, more often the right. If you laugh, you laugh because you share his sensibility that the future is grim, our political system is a joke, our political candidates are all rubes, our non-governmental institutions, especially the media, are corrupt and incompetent and there is no one alive capable of being consistent and competent.

In format, “The Charlie Rose Show” may be the closest thing to “Firing Line.” But Rose doesn’t debate his guests so much as engage them. He is the straight man, a wonderful straight man, the Ed MacMahon of our times. So when the jokes come, and they sometimes do, they are from the guests, not Rose. Which means the interview can only be as funny as the guest. And since most people would have gone into comedy if they had the chops for it, Rose’s interviews with politicos are rarely funny.

Many people across the political spectrum wax nostalgically for the humor of William F. Buckley, Jr. And they are right to. But gosh, what does it say about our current discourse that no current debate host can match the wit of a Yale-educated conservative Catholic, a demographic, if I may, not renowned for its contributions to American comedy?

Adam Hirst is a graduate student at Yeshiva University. He is a 2010 graduate of Yale University.