(Paul Lewis is a professor at Boston College. He teaches English -- and even a class on Edgar Allan Poe. But don't let that mild mannered facade fool you. Lewis is a funny guy. Or at least he studies the funny guys. He's written a fascinating book called "Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict." The book explores the evolution of humor in American society since the September 11 attacks. DaRK PaRTY caught up with Paul -- despite his business schedule -- and peppered him with some very unfunny questions about his book.)
DaRK PaRTY: Has humor changed in the United States since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001? If so, how?
Paul: In Chapter Four of "Cracking Up"("Ridicule to Rule: The Strange Case of George W. Bush"), I follow the impact of 9/11 not on American humor in general but on the rise and fall of one man's standing as the target of jokes. What's strange about this is not that Bush has been mocked; all presidents and many other public figures come in for this. Indeed, for all the Bush-stupidity jokes and all the Bushism collections, Bill Clinton may be our most joked-about president, though this is difficult to quantify.
In any case, just as the Lewinsky revelations unleashed an avalanche of more and less explicit humor, so 9/11 effectively tamped down Bush satire. One can track the correlation between the President's approval ratings and the quantity and hostility of Bush humor before and after the attacks. In the early weeks and months after 9/11, with the entire country desperate to believe in the competence and effectiveness of its leader, anti-Bush jokes were literally uncalled for.
It's true that some progressive cartoonists started to pick up on Bush's political exploitation of terrorism early on and that this observation generated more and more satire in the run-up to the 2002 and 2004 elections. It's also true that whatever remained of Bush's 9/11 Teflon coating washed off in the waters of Katrina and the blood of Iraq. At this point, when he tries to laugh off an unwelcome implication (for instance, that his administration may be putting out cooked intelligence about Iran just as it did to justify the invasion of Iraq--heh, heh!) no one wants to laugh with him.
So the final turn of the screw may be that Bush jokes will seem less and less funny as his destructive presidency stumbles toward its ruinous conclusion.
DP: How would you describe the humor on John Stewart's "The Daily Show?"
Paul: Stewart is a master of irony and skepticism, a cynic in the brilliant tradition of Ambrose Bierce. Hypocrisy, contradiction, corruption, pride, self-righteousness, false piety, and stupidity are his targets. It speaks well for American comedy, if poorly for our politics, that his talented writers have no trouble finding material.
DP: You find humor in strange places. For example, Rush Limbaugh. What's so funny about Rush?
Paul: As I note in "Cracking Up," progressives have trouble seeing that Limbaugh has a sense of humor. But, like Ann Coulter and Scott Ott, Rush is almost always half kidding. Not in the sense that he's a flexible thinker, not at all. His humor is always pointed, always aimed at people he disagrees with. Being Limbaugh means never having to say you're sorry.
He has been mocking Al Gore for years and still has "Al Gore's Doomsday Clock" ticking away on the Limbaugh Web site. For decades, Rush has ridiculed "dunderheaded," "kookburger," "nutso" "environmental wackos" and made fun of the absurd notion that human beings can radically change global climate. People looking back at our time in a hundred years may be even more pressed to see what was funny about this irresponsible, ill-informed rhetoric.
DP: Humor seems to have become the last refuge of political dissent. Why is that?
Paul: Not the last or only refuge, surely, since there has been plenty of serious criticism of the Bush administration right along. Going back to Mark Crispin Miller's "The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder," this president has been assailed in a series of incisive monographs that have expanded to an entire bookcase by now.
It's true that Jon Stewart got into this early on, that Stephen Colbert has done some heavy lifting in exposing the extremism of the Republican right, and that publications like "The Onion" and"Funny Times" have contributed to the project. Still, not all wags escape punishment. Bill Maher, who tested the post-9/11 humor limits shortly after the attacks and got smacked down for it, is a counter example, though in this time of comedy marketing to niche audiences he has rebounded. Humor can, of course, provide cover for serious messages, as the wise fool tradition suggests.
DP: Who are the three most influential comics in America today?
Paul: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Dave Chappelle.
Labels: 5 Questions, Humor, Paul Lewis