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November 28th 2016 print

Steve Kates

The Left’s Gag Reflex

It's not that those of so-called progressive mien cannot be funny, Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld coming immediately to mind. What sets the bad jokes of the left apart is the inclination to laugh at people rather than with them

bottom and headI don’t know what to make of this.

One of the differences between conservatives and we classical liberals is that we do humour better than they do. And way better than the left.

Libertarian humour is a fantastic idea, one that would never cross my mind, but at least I can see the funny side in saying it. I definitely do not read Ayn Rand or Mises for their lighter bits. Humour is essentially the preserve of conservatives. You might say Woody Allen or Seinfeld are funny and note that they are on the left. But that’s just their politics, and here we are discussing what makes what they write funny. Where have you seen humour as conservative as in, let us say, Midnight in Paris or Annie Hall or almost any Seinfeld episode? Portrayed is the world as it is, in which we see life with a comic touch. Here is the list put together by The Guardian of the 100 best novels ever written in English. I have pulle out the ones that are comic (and note they are in date order only). Almost all the authors are conservative by nature, and even where you might associate them with the left, there is no utopian madness.

3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
5. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)
6. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759)
7. Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
9. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1818)
14. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)
18. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
23. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884/5)
25. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (1889)
49. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos (1925)
57. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)
60. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)
61. Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)
66. Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse (1946)
72. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)
80. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
86. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)
88. Rabbit Redux by John Updike (1971)
96. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler (1988)

Now find me anyone funnier today than Mark Steyn or Ann Coulter. The left laugh at people from their smug, superior perch above. (editor’s note: consider, for example, The Chaser’s delight, below, in ridiculing little people.)

To be conservative means not just to understand the human condition but to show sympathy for life’s victims, which is everyone. I was asked the other day for a joke about the Scots which led me to this (and please also note that final bits of dialogue in the story must be in a Scottish accent):

An Australian goes into a shop selling tartans somewhere in Glasgow and asks for a length of MacIntyre tartan. The shop assistant says that he’s terribly sorry but they have sold out of the MacIntyre tartan. This Australian grabs the shop assistant by the collar, shakes him around a bit, and says look, I didn’t come all this way to Scotland not to be able to buy my clan tartan when I got here.

Just one minute, says the shop assistant, I will check with my boss out the back. So he goes into the backroom, and says to his boss that there is this mad Australian out the front, who insists on having MacIntryre tartan even though I told him we had run out.

OK, says the boss, give him this, and throws him a piece of cloth.

But that’s not MacIntyre tartan, says the shop assistant, that’s Dunlop tartan.

That’s OK, says his boss, Dunlops have been MacIntyres for years.

What is quite interesting about the story is that this very short narrative boasts three different personalities, each as real as anyone you might meet. It’s the world as it is. No one is trying to prove some kind of subtle political point, although there’s no reason why they couldn’t. The punchline is no more than a pun, but the humour is situational; you could actually imagine this as a real-life event.

It is this same absurdist humour you find in Steyn and Coulter. It is essential that you agree with their politics before you find what they write funny, but they both write about the world of politics in ways that make you see reality differently, but also more accurately.

Ann Coulter is the more difficult to appreciate because she is so hard-edged. There is no writer I admire more since what seem top-of-her head polemics are actually very well researched analyses of what is going on around us. Her style is brilliant, but only someone with the most highly developed sense of irony could pull it off. This is what she does:

1. Make a factual statement
2. Make a joke about what she has just said.

Here is an excerpt from In Trump We Trust (emphasis added)

The media successfully smeared Romney as an out‐of‐touch multimillionaire, whacking working‐class Americans with his polo mallet. He was helpless. Tasteful people don’t talk about themselves, and they certainly don’t talk about money. Not Trump! Early in Trump’s campaign, journalist Mark Halperin asked him about the “backlash against rich candidates like Mitt Romney—any chance of that with you?” Trump said, “First of all, he wasn’t rich.”

And that was that. How do you attack someone for being rich who is constantly bragging about how rich he is? Yes, yes, I’m a WASP, too—it’s appalling, embarrassing, awful—but oh, my gosh, does it work! Luckily, voting machines register only yes or no—not yes, but I hate myself.

You know, I laughed when I read it for the first time in August and I laugh again now. This is funny even while making a serious point. What is there on the Left that is its equivalent?

BTW if you haven’t read Ann Coulter, or Thomas Love Peacock, it’s time you did.

Comments [10]

  1. ianl says:

    > Thomas Love Peacock

    An entertaining writer, at times even insightful … but surely the unintended irony in his full name ? More than I can bear for the most part. We currently have journalists who use nom-de-plumes like that in all seriousness.

  2. Joel B1 says:

    I haven’t seen anyone mention that the real life Trump was the fictional Jack Gallow’s “rival” in “Just Shoot Me”.

    JSM is probably about the best the Americans can do humour. Sure there are others but none have the running joke of keeping up with Trump.

  3. Michael Galak says:

    Did you notice that a politically correct movie immediately becomes boring even when made by brilliant people?
    Examples – ‘Strange bedfellows’ by Paul Hogan, or ‘Fierce creatures’ by John Gleeson – ye, gods!

  4. Jody says:

    I wouldn’t put Woody Allen into the category of reflexive progressives. The man is debauched, but his jokes are somewhat self-deprecating and that makes him unique. That strain of Jewish humour is politically neutral in its focus on the individual and his/her ‘suffering’ (which one wag described as “having fun in a Jewish way”!). No, Jewish humour needs to be singled out as non-political. Think of Billy Crystal, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Lily Tomlin, the Marx Brothers, Sid Caesar, Don Rickles, Mike Nichols/Elaine May; there was precious little politics in this and it was and is still funny, much of it.

    Where’s the politics in this!!??

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLkuNnnp89g

  5. Jody says:

    Oh, the days before political correctness when Americans could laugh about anything!!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qqE_WmagjY

    • Wayne Cooper says:

      Today Groucho and Harpo would not be thought “funny,” so much as “patriarchal bullies” picking on Margaret Dumont and a series of blonde chorus girls “objectified” for their looks. This is what it has come to: if it is remotely possible that some poor unfortunate could be thin-skinned enough to be offended by a joke, a prank or a sight-gag, then the self-appointed humour police will feel entitled to “call it out,” to use the argot fashionable among the Cretinistia.

      • Jody says:

        Where I do live in hope is “South Park” – the only decent remaining satire on the planet, completely unafraid of censure and unwilling to cowtow to bullies. Bring it on. Watch their take on ‘safe spaces’. They are magicians.

        Yes, so much humour from the past would never pass muster; the midget jokes in the Carol Burnett Show out-take I provided or the funeral skit from Nicols and May. God forbid that they’d ever watch the Hope/Crosbi movies like “Road to Zanzibar” where Bob Hope shows a black female slave how to correctly position a jug on her head for carrying!!!!

        My own family loves these films and gags. I adore this – slinging off at depression, metaphysics, homosexuality, religious minorities and religion:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90Z98ZlvpPU

        Of course, with Allen, there are truths buried under the humour!

  6. LBLoveday says:

    It’s been long time since I have subjected myself to The Chaser, but it seems little has changed – yet again the infantile jerks commit a number of offences, misrepresent, impersonate, lie, interfere with peoples’ legitimate activities and are singularly unfunny. The last may be just the way I am, and others may find it funny, but the other observations are fact.

  7. Paul says:

    Has anyone read A Prayer for Owen Meany and laughed out loud? the author is very pro abortion in some of his books and I guess he would be an american liberal, but I doubt he is a full on Shut Up type of liberal. Anyway he might be the exception – if he is left, he knows how to be funny too