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Shut up and tell jokes

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 22, 2004

The intersection between celebrity and leftist politics is so well-established that it is pretty much a given that conservative music fans and moviegoers will end up admiring performers whose politics they loathe. That is, unless they insist on only listening to Lee Greenwood (I'm not sure even contemporary Christian music is exactly a liberal-free zone) and watching Chuck Norris films. Popular conservative commentator Laura Ingraham wrote a New York Times best-seller about the phenomenon entitled Shut Up and Sing.

Of course, what conservative Republican celebrities lack in numbers they more than make up for in political success. Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor of California, the state that sent GOP song-and-dance man George Murphy to the U.S. Senate and began Ronald Reagan on his path to the White House. Charlton Heston as head of the NRA had far more practical influence than either Barbara Streisand or Jane Fonda ever possessed. So the propensity of entertainers to dabble in politics is not something strictly limited to liberals.

Al Franken

Comedians are the latest group of performers to try their hand at politics and have found themselves often treated as credible spokesmen for their causes, a lofty status that has eluded all but a select few of their celebrity counterparts from other fields. Actress-comedienne Janeane Garofalo was the public face of Win Without War, one of the more mainstream advocacy groups opposing a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Al Franken has been spearheading the effort to raise the liberal presence on talk radio and has scored a best-seller with his Lies and Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Garofalo has been a co-host on CNN's "Crossfire," representing the left side, while Franken has debated National Review editor Rich Lowry on something like even terms about their respective books.

As someone who became interested in politics because of our first Hollywood movie actor president – I can concur with author Peter Robinson that Ronald Reagan changed my life – I am much less bothered by celebrities' political pronouncements than many of my compatriots on the right. Granted, occasionally I find myself thinking it would be nice to listen to a rock group I enjoy without hearing them denounce me as a misogynistic fiend for not sharing their enthusiasm for legal abortion and I must confess to a certain irritation with the experience of forking over $9 for movie tickets to listen to pampered millionaire actors lecture me about the evils of my race (white), sex (male), religion (Christian) and unwillingness to have half my income taxed away from me to be redistributed to the Third World. But other than that, if Courtney Love decided to come out and endorse John Kerry for president tomorrow, I would find myself hard pressed to care.

But there is something that does bother me about the whole trend of celebrity political activists: It's just not funny. Even talented comedians tend to sound like your garden-variety, foaming-at-the-mouth ideological fanatics when they go on a political crusade. People who believe they can save the world with a government program in my experience generally don't have a very good sense of humor. Something about acquiring this belief later in life now seems capable of draining away whatever sense of humor people who are actually funny have.

Nor is this something limited to the left. The thought actually occurred to me while watching a snippet of comedian Dennis Miller interviewing journalist Eric Alterman. Alterman is an occasionally interesting but usually insufferable character who labors under the delusion that his fanaticism constitutes some kind of iconoclastic intellectual breakthrough. For example, he argues that there is no liberal media because the media generally isn't as liberal as he is (by that standard, I could argue that it is a myth that FOX News leans right). But Miller has been given a political, as opposed to purely comedic, platform and Alterman was on his show talking about the Bush administration's candor and the Iraq war.

Now, it's no secret I wasn't much of an Iraq hawk, but Alterman was just repeating the standard talking points on these questions and I could have found fault with more than a few of his comments. Yet he at least was making actual arguments and attempting to engage in a rational discussion. Miller turned in a petulant and embarrassing performance, refusing to really debate his guest and at one point just wishing for end of the "f—king segment."

It was a temper tantrum and, worst of all given Miller's considerable talents, not at all funny. Instead of skillfully lampooning Alterman or engaging in a witty back-and-forth, he alternated between sulking and acting offended that people with liberal opinions exist.

For the sake of comedy, ideologues should leave their politics out of their routines. Sure, there is a long tradition of radicalism in stand-up. Similarly, some people argue that good comedy is inherently conservative. But this works best when the material is distinguishable from a candidate's speech. Comedians are most effective when they have either a healthy detachment from their subject or a whimsical view of it. Once you have seriously devoted yourself to a cause, this becomes difficult to achieve.

When Franken talks about what he sees as the dishonesty of right-wingers he isn't voicing healthy skepticism; he's angry. His best material relied on the ability of people to laugh at themselves, a gift he tends to lose when his topic is politics.

The same goes for Garofalo, who is an interesting case. Cute without being attractive in the conventional Hollywood starlet sense (a characteristic that made the 1996 film The Truth About Cats and Dogs, in which she co-starred with Uma Thurman, a success), she specialized in the sort of cynical (in a good way) humor that became popular in the 1990s. But when she ventures into politics, she displays a self-righteous shrillness at odds with her comedic personae and becomes about as funny as the late homeless activist Mitch Snyder.

Late-night talk show hosts like David Letterman and Jay Leno are notoriously bipartisan in their political ribbing. Similarly, while it is usually evident that Jon Stewart and others on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" aren't exactly conservatives, their lack of stake in political outcomes makes their ridicule of people across the political spectrum funnier than those whose comedy amounts to little more than Democratic National Committee press releases accompanied by laugh track.

This isn't to say that there aren't any funny liberals or conservatives. There are also many people who skillfully caricature and ridicule their opponents. Rush Limbaugh has done this masterfully throughout his career and there are signs that Franken is groping toward a knack for this type of humor from the liberal perspective. But note that P.J. O'Rourke and Jonah Goldberg do not do stand-up. Wit can be a component of political commentary, but ideology isn't effective at driving a comedy routine. This distinction is more important than it might first appear.

But the partisan comics are not to be deterred. It has been reported that Franken has his eyes on elective office, possibly a U.S. Senate seat, in Minnesota while Republicans have talked about drafting Miller in California. Who knows what Michael Moore, that prominent booster of Wesley Clark's presidential ambitions, has in store for the unwashed masses of red-state America.

An audience is an audience, and there does appear to be an audience for joke-slingers moonlighting as politicos and pundits. But if they are looking for laughs, aside from the knowing chuckles of people who already agree with them, they ought to consider other subject matter. These comedian-commentators are just too damn serious.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.


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