Magazine | June 25, 2018, Issue

Monkey Hear, Monkey Laugh

Samantha Bee (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)
On the so-called humor of Samantha Bee

The great tragedy of George Carlin’s life was that he stopped being funny before he stopped performing comedy. The great tragedy of Samantha Bee’s life is that she stopped before she started.

Watching Carlin’s final HBO special, It’s Bad for Ya, is a useful illustration of the social power of comedy. The program runs for 67 minutes, during which Carlin never quite manages to say anything that is funny — it is not even obvious that he is trying to. He’s angry and bitter, though in a way that’s more like George Carlin doing a George Carlin impersonation than anything suggesting genuine rage. And what would he be raging about? He lived a life of privilege and ease: educated privately in Christian schools, sent to a beloved summer camp in New Hampshire (he was so fond of it that he had his ashes scattered there after his death, a strange gesture for a man who claimed to reject superstition), and sustained by a 36-year marriage that ended with the death of his first wife — all while he grew immensely wealthy mocking the bourgeois values and institutions that shaped and sheltered him. He was, in that sense, a typical product of the 1960s counterculture.

What’s interesting about late-period Carlin is that it illustrates how things that are not actually funny can still get a laugh provided they are presented in the form of a joke, or with the familiar comedic bump-set-spike vocal modulation and other stand-up genre conventions. There is tremendous subconscious social pressure to laugh when presented with something that is shaped like a joke — how many times have you seen somebody laugh at a joke he didn’t get? Humor is in part an exercise in tribe building: When we have shared emotional responses to shared stimuli, we feel like a community rather than a mere group. That is as true of watching stand-up comedy as it is of watching Macbeth, reading the daily newspaper, or attending Easter Mass. These are things we do together, and from that they derive their aesthetic power and their ability to build and strengthen communities.

This may very well be hardwired into us in the so-called mirror neurons that fire in primates both when they perform an action and when they see that action being performed by another. Tribes are hierarchical, and primate brains are evolved to accommodate those hierarchies: A paper authored by scientists at Duke and published in the March issue of Scientific Reports finds that mirroring (“interbrain cortical synchronization”) is strongly influenced by social status — among monkeys, at least. Among humans, social status can be permanent or situational: A celebrity has high status, a person standing on a stage at the center of attention has high status, and George Carlin in performance was both. Hence his remarkable ability to say the most banal things to uproarious laughter. From It’s Bad for Ya:

There’s just enough bullsh** to hold things together in this country. Bullsh** is the glue that binds us as a nation. Where would we be without our safe, familiar, American bullsh**. Land of the free. Home of the brave. The American dream. All men are equal. Justice is blind. The press is free. Your vote counts. Business is honest. The good guys win. The police are on your side. God is watching you. Your standard of living will never decline. And everything is going to be just fine. The official national bullsh** story. 

Can you find the funny part? You would not laugh without a reasonably skilled (and preferably famous) comedian showing you where you are supposed to laugh. Comedy, like tragedy, has its origin in ritual. Stand-up comedy is simply comedy post–Vatican II: The officiant faces the congregation rather than the altar.

No doubt a great many people laughed when Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless c***.” They laughed when Bill Maher called Sarah Palin a “c***” and a “dumb tw**.” They laughed when Howard Stern called Sarah Palin a “c***,” too. Palin really brought it out in them. So did Hillary Rodham Clinton, labeled a “toxic c***” by Fox News fixture Ted Nugent and targeted by professional Donald Trump sycophant Roger Stone with a political group called “Citizens United Not Timid.” The United States has a much more robust free-speech culture than do many of our English-speaking allies: In Australia, a man was convicted of a minor crime for calling former prime minister Tony Abbott a “c***” on a sandwich board (the conviction was later nullified), and a London blogger was charged with “grossly offensive malicious communications” after labeling a Conservative councilor a “c***” on Twitter. Samantha Bee has done a little groveling of the usual dishonest kind: She calls her actions “inexcusable” while asking — and obviously expecting — to be excused for them, silently invoking the assumption that progressives’ hearts are always in the right place, even when their expletives are all over the place.

Samantha Bee has never to my knowledge said anything that is funny. Her business is the sort of thing that would be of keen interest to those monkeys in the Duke study: the ritual raising and lowering of status — which, as Tyler Cowen and Arnold Kling and others have argued, is what politics is mostly about. The same holds true for media criticism, which is of course only another form of politics. Professor Cowen: “I have a simple hypothesis. No matter what the media tells you their job is, the feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status. . . . The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close. . . . Indeed that is why other people enjoy those media sources, because they take pleasure in your status, and the status of your allies, being lowered.”

Samantha Bee does not sell humor or satire: She sells status adjustment. She got her start on The Daily Show, which of course is nothing more than an extended, tedious, witless exercise in concentrated status-lowering: hence all that chest-pounding excitement every time Jon Stewart destroyed! somebody or another, which is precisely the sort of thing that gets the ol’ chimp juices flowing.

Calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless c***” on television is a win-win for Bee et al.: One possibility is that Ivanka Trump offers no response, in which case her status is lowered by her being obliged to endure outrageous insults by a relative nobody on TBS; the second possibility is that she responds, in which case her status is lowered by her being obliged to condescend to respond to the outrageous insults of a relative nobody on TBS. The proverb holds that the problem with wrestling a pig is that you both get dirty but only the pig enjoys it. Samantha Bee is that pig.

It’s a piggy world out there, which is why every anonymous coward on social media claims to be a multimillionaire investment banker and special-operations veteran (with a super-hot girlfriend somewhere in the Niagara Falls area, no doubt) when he wants to bolster whatever nonsense he’s claiming on any given Tuesday night. Hence the “You’re just jealous!” — they mean “envious” — response to criticism of President Donald Trump. It’s the same monkey business.

It isn’t about being right or wrong. It’s about being a big enough deal to call Ivanka Trump a “c***” and get away with it. Which, of course, is what’s most likely to happen. This isn’t some pleb such as Roseanne Barr we’re talking about.

Samantha Bee on her worst day, like Samantha Bee on her best day, is a reminder of one of the most underappreciated facts of public life in the 21st century: Mass democracy has no intellectual content. It is, as David French and others have noted, simply an extension of high-school cafeteria-table politics: status-jockeying and status-monkeying 24/7/365.25 and not much else. It doesn’t do much for the country, but it beats working for a living. Keep that in mind the next time you find yourself muttering “Hell, yeah!” when your favorite multimillionaire cable-news rodeo clown lays the rhetorical smackdown on one of his multimillionaire Central Park West neighbors two buildings over while you’re stuck in traffic commuting home to the suburbs from downtown wherever.

A place for every monkey, and every monkey in his place.

In This Issue

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Fair as Feck

To remind her audience that they were good people and so that they could applaud her bravery, Samantha Bee called the president’s daughter a “feckless c***.”

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