That, dear friends, is US Representative Anthony Weiner (D–NY, net worth $108k) laying it in there like an old pro—okay, like a gifted amateur—at the Congressional Correspondents Dinner. The CCD is to the White House Correspondents Dinner as Congress is to the White House, which is to say as Larry Wilmore is to Stephen Colbert.* And yet Weiner rose to the occasion, delivering a series of remarks re: his own name even better than that one—at one point he pleaded with John Boehner, “Come on, brother, I’m not Anthony Way-ner”—mocking CNN’s declining ratings, and gradually isolating Rand Paul until Weiner was examining his every response like Don Rickles. He also showed a picture of himself looking eerily like Horschach from Welcome Back, Kotter. In short, he was funny—which when you think about it is kind of surprising, considering that Weiner is a rising star in possibly the least funny political organization in American history.
The problem of progressivism being less funny than conservatism has cast a long shadow over American politics, particularly on the identity-oriented progressivism that emerged in the mid-sixties. As PJ O’Rourke observed in the preface to Republican Party Reptile, the difference between a Democrat and a Republican is that a Republican will tell you you shouldn’t make fun of the handicapped, whereas a Democrat will tell you you can’t. If that’s not a fair description of the parties’ respective attitudes, it’s a realistic assessment of the positions dictated by their rhetoric. If your argument is that we must improve the American system to better serve groups that have have been historically, immorally and harmfully disenfranchised, there’s not a lot of room for jokes.
That conservatives are winning the entertainment race seems clear from even a cursory look at talk radio, cable news and the Drudge Report-World Net Daily-Newsmax axis of blogospheric miasma. Among people who consider politics a species of entertainment, conservatism is crushing it. If I asked you to take me to a fun show,would you pick the Tea Party rally or the MoveOn protest? The notable exception to conservative infotainment dominance is The Daily Show, which also stands out from the other examples by being actually funny. Rush Limbaugh may be audacious; Glenn Beck does gags, and Sarah Palin likes mean-spirited crowing, but only Jon Stewart can actually cause an audience of (kinda) neutral observers to laugh.
This brings us to an interesting distinction. Conservative rhetoric makes far greater use of the form of jokes—statements that are identifiably gags in structure if not in effect, which signal to a willing audience that now it is time to laugh—yet the actually funny remains almost entirely the province of liberals. There is, of course, a false equivalence at work in this assessment: guys like Jon Stewart or the writing staff of Saturday Night Live are funny people first and political people second, whereas with a Limbaugh or a Krauthammer, it’s the other way around. But I think there is a larger, almost demographic phenomenon at work here. Like that other unspoken but universally-prized conservative virtue, wealth, being a humorless stiff appears to be hereditary. Consider Rand Paul:
Motherfucker is up there thirty seconds before he starts describing a cartoon. In his defense, though, he does set a personal record by going fifteen without mentioning his dad. At 2:53, as if to make the phenomenon even more clear, he points out Ben Quayle. The viewer cannot escape two impressions: 1) if half the people in the room were felled by simultaneous heart attacks, the other half would be given their car keys, and 2) Rand Paul learned everything he knows about comedy from his father the doomsaying obstetrician.
It would appear that Republicanism, a bad sense of humor and a yacht are all things you get from your dad. As Rand Paul, Ben Quayle, William F. Buckley and George W. Bush have demonstrated, you also get an audience. Conservatism can be understood as an unbroken chain of connections to the past, and within that rubric, the success of conservative entertainers and their unyielding refusal to be funny no longer seem like disparate elements. On the contrary, Republican politics is the best place for a consistently unfunny person to get laughs.
Democratic politics, on the other hand, is a great field for people who are too scared to make a joke. The obvious humor superiority of our Democratic representatives to our Republican ones has, like most areas of Democratic superiority, gone completely unexploited. That’s a shame, not for liberal politics but for American politics. The sure sign of a conversation between liars is that nobody says anything funny. Perhaps, if they would like to speak more sincerely to the American people, Democrats might try making a couple jokes on the weekdays.