Comedy Vs. Washington: When Show Business Is Politics For Obnoxious People

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Bill Thomas Writer living in Washington, D.C.
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Everywhere you look these days funny is in serious trouble.

Take the recent White House Correspondents Dinner. Several jokes about women in the Trump administration were so crude and unfunny even reporters who despise Donald Trump and company thought Michelle Wolf, the insult comic hired for the evening, had gone too far.

And how far is that?

Let’s just say it’s a good thing the headliner wasn’t Kathy Griffin doing assassination shtick.

Griffin, who took a brief hiatus from comedy last year after she appeared in a photo pretending to hold Trump’s severed head, showed up at the event acting as if all was forgiven. Which, of course, it was.

Presidential assassination gags have been replaced lately by vicious attacks on any woman who would work for Trump. Keeping the Democratic resistance revved up for the November elections requires a different human target every few weeks.

But with so many subjects out of bounds — like sex, race, size, smell and mental capacity — telling any joke risks committing a hate crime. (If the wrong person is telling it.)

This is especially true in Washington where the difference between acceptable and unacceptable humor is always complicated by political considerations. The nation’s capital has its own set of performance rules that change from administration to administration.

During John F. Kennedy’s presidency, a comedian named Vaughn Meader had a short career making fun of JFK’s Boston accent.

David Frye’s impression of Richard Nixon getting stoned will forever be comedy gold.

It’s pretty tame stuff, however, by the comedic standards of 2018. Washington’s left-right divide, which has been widening since the Bill Clinton era, is now like two distant shores with a sea of self-righteous rancor in between. No wonder show business has become politics for obnoxious people.

Official Washington has never been a laugh riot, which is part of the problem. Humor, according to a directive from the venerable Gridiron Club, should “singe not burn.” Scorched earth is for the politicians.

But there’s something else going on. When political comedy became popular in the late 1950s, the establishment was conservative, and the best comedians — Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Woody Allen — were in the vanguard of liberal counterculture.

Two generations later, the political and cultural establishment is liberal. The counterculture is conservative. But you will never see conservative comics such as Dennis Miller, Tim Allen or others playing the correspondents dinner, where most of the diners are establishment liberals.

Margaret Talev, president of the Correspondents Association, wrote that her group’s annual dinner “was meant to offer a unifying message about common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility… not to divide people.” Wolfe’s monologue, she said the morning after, “was not in the spirit of that mission.”

And what made her think it would be? Isn’t she a reporter? And aren’t reporters supposed to do their homework.

Oh wait, that was before Donald Trump became president, and Talev’s employer Bloomberg News, like the rest of the mainstream media, went into Trump Removal Mode.

Audiences have changed and suitable topics for stand-up comedy have been reduced to a precious few. If Henry Youngman were still around, he could never deliver his famous line, “Take my wife… please” without a trigger warning: spousal abuse.

The only fair game in every comedy club, late-night monologue or celebrity venue like the White House Correspondents Dinner is Donald Trump. But without the president in attendance for the second straight year the dinner is missing its most vital component, the object of everyone’s anger.

And each year Trump’s not there, the comedy act gets worse, the event is more boring and guess who steals the show.

Bill Thomas, author of Club Fed: Power, Money, Sex and Violence on Capitol Hill and other books, is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.