With rare exception (I despise Rush Limbaugh as a person, but some of the parody songs he plays on his show are hilarious), “Conservative comedy” just isn’t funny. I think I’ve figured out why, so here goes.
Ultimately, comedy is based in truth. Comedians see the truth in a way that “normal” people don’t. Comedy reveals the underlying truth to people, helping them to accept it by making it funny. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, if you will. Carlin, Hicks, Louis CK, these people expose the dark underbelly of society in a way that is uncomfortable, which is why they need to make it funny. They’re not lecturing us, they’re letting us in on the secret, making the implicit explicit.
Today’s conservative movement is deluded. By conservative movement, I mean the modern GOP, not individual conservatives, many of whom disagree with today’s GOP. Look at the number of bald-faced lies made in RNC convention speeches. Several cases can be made for showing Obama the door (although I think they are all invalid if the replacement is the current GOP). If actual arguments exist for their side, why does the GOP continue to invent arguments?
I have theories, but I’ll save them for another time.
The reason “conservative comedy” doesn’t work is because it’s not based on the truth. Hurr Hurr Teleprompter! Any reasonably intelligent person who thinks about a teleprompter joke for a moment sees the lie. Would someone who relies on a teleprompter do well at a debate? Oh, he wouldn’t? Then how come Obama outperformed McCain at the debates? Oh…it’s bullshit, isn’t it?
So, if you want to know why conservative comedy doesn’t work, remember that last week, a national party built a convention on an out-of-context statement that anyone with half a brain can see through. A convention built on lies? Congratulations, Republicans. You DID build that.
In general, I want to stay away from politics on this blog, at least for the time being. Talking about politics ostracizes people who don’t agree with you, and it’s not a smart idea to alienate potential readers. However, my interest in language takes me into the realm of politics today, although I will attempt to treat the issue objectively.
In yesterday’s Congressional hearing on the confirmation of Judge Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions said this: “Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another.” This quote is absolutely ludicrous.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, empathy is defined as:
1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner ; also : the capacity for this.
Notice that there is no mention of bias in either of the definitions. As a future educator, it disgusts me to see empathy, which I feel is vital to fully understanding any subject, used in a negative connotation. Empathy is being able to see another point of view, it has nothing to do with being biased towards that point of view.
Many people have asked me*, “Jimmy, why do you plan on leaving such a brilliant career in unrecognized comedy writing to teach English to high school students?” I firmly believe that the value of literature is that it helps us to understand ourselves and the world around us. In addition, studying literature involves developing skills like empathy that help us better ourselves.
After following the events taking place in Iran the past few weeks, I began to think about how the situation there was so much different than in Iraq, and how it represents two different ways of going about achieving a democratic government. In Iraq, we basically told the Iraqi people, “you want a democracy because democracy is the best and you want it.” The Iranian people are standing up for themselves, without outside assistance or provocation, and demanding that their voices be heard. It’s a huge difference.
As I was flipping through my Norton’s Anthology of American Literature, Volume II last night, I came across an epigraph W.E.B. Du Bois used for his essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” He quoted a line from a Byron peom: “Hereditary Bondsmen! Know ye not / Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?” (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto 2, 76.720-1)
I know this is not exactly earth-shattering analysis of literature’s value, but I thought it was a good example of why I’m planning on spending my life studying and teaching it. I think that our world would be a little better if everyone turned off the television and read for an extra hour a day. Try it, it can’t make things worse!
*These conversations take place entirely in my head.
While most people know George Carlin as the guy from the “7 words” bit, I believe that he was much more than that. I see him as an Orwell-like defender of language, and for that we should be eternally grateful. Very near the top of my list of Orwell’s important works is his essay “Politics and the English Language,” which, among other topics, discusses the abundance of euphemistic language, and its damaging effect on writing.
Carlin’s bit, “Euphemisms,” addresses the same issue, and even more clearly shows the effect of euphemistic language on discourse, and, even more importantly, thought. Since language is the concrete instrument by which we convey abstract ideas, the language we use has a monumental impact on thought. In the bit, Carlin traced the history of the concept initially labeled “shell shock” to its present day incarnation of “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Most important is the end, where he says “I’ll bet you if we’d of still been calling it Shell Shock, some of those Viet Nam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll betcha. I’ll betcha.”
Carlin points out, as Orwell did repeatedly, that the language we use affects the way in which we think, which affects the actions we take, individually and as a society. While politics is the most obvious forum for euphemistic language, it has contaminated our language’s water supply, impacting every aspect of our lives.
Both Carlin and Orwell believe that we use euphemistic language to avoid dealing with the harsh realities of life. It’s become progressively worse over time. It hurts when a loved one dies, so we say that they “passed away,” which may make it sound better in the short term, but at some point we have to deal with the certainty that we will never see that person again on Earth (or never if you do not believe in an afterlife). They are gone, and it sucks. You can deep fry an anchovy repeatedly, but once you bite through the layers of delicious dough and powdered sugar, it still tastes horrible inside.