Magazine | September 22, 2014, Issue

And Now You May Laugh

I presume there is a healthy overlap between Emmy viewers and NR readers, so apologies for covering well-worn territory. However, those of you who missed last month’s awards show failed to see a comedy bit involving Sofia Vergara — Latina bombshell and co-star of the hit series Modern Family — being placed on a literal pedestal as the chairman of the Television Academy discussed his organization’s commitment to diversity while admitting that “what truly matters is that we never forget that our success is based on always giving the viewer something compelling to watch.”

The joke was a bit hammy and Bruce Rosenblum’s delivery of his lines was a bit dry. (Vergara, of course, was perfect; if anyone belongs on a pedestal, it’s she.) What fascinated me, though, was the intensity of the response the skit provoked from many precincts of the Left. It was not critiqued on its comedic content. No: It was denounced, viciously and vociferously, as an affront to women everywhere. It was sexist — nay, misogynist! — in the extreme.

In the Obama era you see a fair amount of this sort of thing. The president himself, of course, is more or less untouchable. Mocking the sitting commander-in-chief presents a real risk. You won’t be criticized as unfunny for uttering such jokes. Rather, you will become the subject of dark insinuations, or outright accusations, that you harbor racist tendencies. Who can forget the way the Left lost its collective mind when a rodeo clown wore an Obama mask during a bull ride? Never mind that George H. W. Bush had received similar treatment (to say nothing of the mockery his son received in the next decade). It didn’t matter that Obama himself had sported a similar mask on Saturday Night Live. We were treated to a national conversation and presented a healing moment, and, perhaps most important, the smart set was given a target to decry, denounce, and destroy.

Such campaigns aren’t aimed only at conservatives. Liberal cartoonist Ted Rall faced the wrath of the righteous mob when a Daily Kos diarist decided that Rall’s caricature of our 44th president looked too simian for his taste. Rall’s biggest crime is being a mediocre illustrator; no one who is familiar with the leftist lion could honestly believe he is a racist who was seeking to make the man in the Oval Office look like a monkey. No matter: He had strayed too close to the ever-shifting line marking what is allowed and, as a result, he had to be crushed.

Comedy in the age of Obama is concerned less with what is humorous than with what is appropriate. It is inappropriate to humorously put a perfect woman on a literal pedestal, just as it is inappropriate to mock the appearance of the president. What’s appropriate is flattering the biases of those in charge, assuring them that they think all the right things and argue in favor of all the right causes. The belly laugh is out; “clapter” is in. It’s why we wake up every morning to a barrage of headlines at Slate and Salon and the Huffington Post apprising us of whom Jon Stewart DESTROYED and whom John Oliver EVISCERATED and whom Stephen Colbert CRUSHED the night before. We are told that these are comedic news programs, but the jokes are lame when they’re not drearily obvious. The role of this new breed of court jester is not to persuade or dissuade or amuse, but to serve as a communal source of confirmation and affirmation.

Even television shows that are legitimately funny, such as NBC’s Parks and Recreation, are designed to flatter the sensibilities of those in charge. In Parks and Rec, self-proclaimed nerds and wonks have adopted liberal bureaucratic functionary and occasional elected official Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) as one of their own. Her overeager chirpiness and her constant ability to one-up her hyper-libertarian boss mark her as a role model for those who believe that government is a force for good rather than a necessary evil.

Perhaps it is true what our comedic class tells us: Barack Obama is simply too cool, too stylish, too suave, too perfect to land a blow on. That’s what Saturday Night Live writer-producer James Downey said during an interview for an oral history of the show: “If I had to describe Obama as a comedy project, I would say, Degree of difficulty, 10-point-10. It’s like being a rock climber looking up at a thousand-foot-high face of solid obsidian, polished and oiled. There’s not a single thing to grab onto — certainly not a flaw or hook that you can caricature.”

And Downey is the conservative on the show’s staff! He’s described by onetime cast member Horatio Sanz as the “Karl Rove of SNL,” the guy who pushed “right-wing sketches” that were “out of tune with the audience,” as if only the Left watched our nation’s premier sketch-comedy program. As if comedy that was “out of tune” with the ideology of the viewer were, therefore, inherently unfunny or unworthy of airtime. As if challenging preconceptions — speaking truth to power, if you will — hadn’t been celebrated in decades past as one of comedy’s core functions.

Sanz’s views seem to be quite commonplace among our comedic elite, unfortunately. “I don’t think the president has to pitch jokes,” Scott Aukerman, the creator of the Internet sketch-comedy series Between Two Ferns, said when asked about Obama’s appearance on that program to hawk Obamacare to recalcitrant Millennials. “He just says jokes and we enjoy them.”

If there’s a better summation of comedy — and comedians — in the age of Obama, I’ve yet to hear it.

– Mr. Bunch is the managing editor of the Washington Free Beacon.

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