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Limbaugh walks into the joke

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Every father should tell his children the hard-won lessons he has learned about life.

For example, never get into an argument with a clown. He will just get out of his tiny car, slap his outsized shoes on the sidewalk and honk his silly red nose. It is hard for a normal person to remain dignified in such a confrontation.

Rush Limbaugh, a father figure to many in the conservative movement (heaven help us), has forgotten this wisdom.

He has picked a fight with Stephen Colbert, the comedian recently named to become host of the CBS "Late Show" next year. He will succeed David Letterman, who is retiring to the Old Clowns and Comedians Home, there to entertain the inmates with stupid pet tricks and top 10 lists.

It is a wonder that the Vesuvius of Pontification would erupt over the brilliant Stephen Colbert, but perhaps, as a clown himself, he expects professional courtesy in return.

"CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America," Limbaugh said on hearing about the "Late Show" plan. "No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatism. Now it’s just wide out in the open. What this hire means is a redefinition of what is funny, and a redefinition of what is comedy."

This can be fairly interpreted as: "Boo hoo! Stephen Colbert makes fun of conservatives and he’s going to make more fun of them." Let us consider this in more detail for a bit of a laugh.

First, CBS is not declaring war on the heartland. It would not be good for ratings. Besides, lots of conservatives like the faux conservative character that Colbert has famously played (and will put aside). Not trusting the meaning of French words, they haven’t believed the faux part. So long as he remains satiric and ironic, he should remain happily misunderstood by millions of literal-minded conservatives.

Second, comedy is not a covert assault on American values. Comedy — i.e., the merry province of humor and laughter — is itself a traditional American value. It is an assault on absurdity in the cause of sanity. Do not blame comedians for the fact that the far right provides a steady stream of yuckable material.

(Oh, sure, the Obama administration provides its share of absurdity, and you can keep your health insurance so you won’t die laughing, but compared with Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, et al., that crew is amateur.)

Third, humor was long ago redefined. As old conservatives knew it, jokes about crippled kids, women drivers, gay people or those of different races and ethnic backgrounds used to be very popular. Not so much anymore, not in public anyway.

So why does Limbaugh fear the competition at the higher reaches of celebrity fame? My theory is that his irritation is a hint of a greater insecurity: unease that humor is a subversive agent with the power to make ridiculously conservative people appear more ridiculous than usual.

But at this point of the column, a disclaimer is needed. Is there a disclaimer in this fun house? Yes, plenty of conservatives have a fine sense of humor. Many are intelligent, an essential trait in processing humor. I know this because I count some of them as my friends, so maybe they are not all that smart — but smart enough not to be Rush Limbaugh fans.

So I am not talking about them, but instead the now more numerous red-meat eaters of the right, who, as it turns out, are not so different from the crackpots of the far left. Ideologues make poor humorists.

To get a joke, you need to think on several levels at once. You need to have a general sympathy for humanity and you need to be rooted in reality. To the sort of conservative Limbaugh appeals to, that’s strike three at the old ball game.

This sort of explains why there are so few conservative comedians (all I can think of is what’s-his-name and the other guy). It is hard to coax a laugh out of folks with one-dimensional minds inclined to sourness. The joke has to be mean and expertly targeted at some disadvantaged person, but often the mirth drains out of it.

Let me put it another way: A priest and a rabbi and a Rush Limbaugh fan walk into a bar. The priest says to the rabbi, "Where’s the joke?" and the Rush Limbaugh fan says, "There’s a joke?"

Stephen Colbert will do just fine. Mirth can grow on anybody.

 

Reg Henry is deputy editorial-page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

 

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

 

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