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Dead Tree Alert: Comedy Is Not Pretty

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This Tuesday, I deep-sixed the TIME column I had already written to write a new one about the politics of humor(lessness). If you’re a regular, much of it incorporates some of what I already posted on the New Yorker Obama cover hoo-hah earlier this week. (I know, I know; but the shamans whom we pay to analyze such things tell us there’s a lot less overlap between time..com and Time magazine readership than you might think.) My print column, though, also tries to picture-picture the issue by looking at the strained relationship between comedy—especially irony and satire—and politics in general:

Comedy, good comedy, is not just unsafe; it’s uncontrollable–satire most of all. Satire takes a real position and exaggerates it to the point of absurdity. By nature, it is, if it is any good, subject to interpretation. The knock on the New Yorker cover was like the old critique of Archie Bunker: that some idiot bigot somewhere might take it literally and enjoy it.

This is why true believers suspect satirists, even those–as for liberals upset with the New Yorker–in their own camp. Satirists don’t make crystal clear how you’re supposed to read their work. They don’t give you a road map to correct thinking, because a joke explained is neither funny nor persuasive. They give voice to the enemy’s beliefs. And this makes it easy to call them traitors.

Suspicion of irony and satire, in fact, is a great unifier of the left and the right. Daniel Radosh, in his book Rapture Ready!, about Christian pop culture, explains why irony is anathema to Fundamentalist entertainers: it is too dangerous to introduce the slightest possibility that someone might not get the joke and thus might be led to moral error. Better safe than funny.

I briefly reference John McCain’s own, and storied, history of offending people with his jokes in the column, but it could really be an entire article in itself. And indeed, if you’re interested in reading yet more on the subject, Ben Smith has written exactly that article in Politico.

My own thoughts: some of the jokes McCain has told, or has been reported to—e.g., the Chelsea Clinton joke—have a mean-spirited streak to them, much like his buddy Imus’s. (Like I wrote about Imus after his own media eruption last year, the thing that’s always bothered me about him is not that his humor is bigoted, but that it’s self-aggrandizing; his entire shtick is about positioning himself as the alpha dog.)

But if I’m being honest, I doubt I would ever not vote for a candidate I was otherwise going to vote for because of these jokes. (As I’ve disclosed before, I voted for McCain in the 2000 New York primary, when his obnoxious jokes were already in the press; and while I’d be surprised if Obama made some of the same jokes, it wouldn’t change my vote for him this time.) Humor is a weird thing, and it’s a mistake to use it too literally to gauge the joker’s true, earnest personality.

In fact, I’m suspicious that anyone actually does change their vote on the basis of a candidate’s offensive humor, so much as they use it to confirm what they already believe. But if I’m wrong, I’d be very curious to hear examples.