Monday, October 30, 2006

Nancy Pelosi's mother wears combat boots

Involuntarily retired comedian Dennis Miller went on Hannity & Colmes the other night and, sounding like a drunk in a barroom who's behind on his alimony, let loose a rant against Nancy Pelosi, insulting her as if she was his ex-wife and he'd just spent the afternoon with her lawyers.

Miller takes the possibility that Pelosi might become Speaker of the House personally.

Not worth quoting. Boils down to "Nancy Pelosi's stupid and she dresses funny and I don't like her."

Stop me if you've heard this one. The way to kill a joke is try to explain why it's funny. Analyzing humor is like dissecting a live frog to find out how it jumps. As soon as you open it up, all the humor drains out.

Fortunately, that's not a concern when talking about Miller's jokes because there's no humor in them to start with.

As a self-appointed court jester to the Right, Miller has found a bad comedian's dream---an audience that doesn't care if he's funny.

A lot of desperate Republicans and their even more desperate media and blogging apologists have been trying to make Pelosi an issue in the campaign. Possibly they're remembering how much mileage the Party got out of making Tip O'Neill the personification of tax and spend big government.

Pelosi's fair game. If we had Newt and Tom DeLay to kick around, we'd kick them around. Instead we have to make do with George Bush and whatever mangy characters the Republican Scandal of the Week has tossed up.

Those Tip ads were kind of funny. There was a truth to them too. The Democrats at the time were a little too comfortable with their deficits. But the anti-Pelosi stuff is different. The attacks on her are tinged with a peculiar hysteria that's all too easy to explain.

She's a woman with power and she represents San Francisco where everyone, you know, is gay, including the fishermen, dockworkers, Barry Bonds, and the 49ers' entire offensive line. She's Right Wing men's two worst nightmares in one small, convenient package. The idea of a woman with power causes their genitals to retract deep into their abdomens, and when they think about homosexuality they automatically see themselves naked in a prison shower, having just dropped the soap.

I don't know the depth of Miller's own insecurities, but he's a dutiful clown and not above playing to the homophobia and castration anxieties of his audience. Although by now I ought to be used to the shamelessness of people like Miller who should know better, who do know better, I'm disgusted by his shamelessness. Or I'd be disgusted if I wasn't so surprised by how completely unfunny he's become.

Not that Miller was ever a comedic genius. He's never been much more than a smirk and a tone of voice. He must have heard that Jack Benny once said that a comic says funny things and a comedian says things funny and thought that meant comics have to write actual jokes while comedians can get laughs telling people they have cancer if only they say it right and he decided to become a comedian because it was less work.

Good jokes, real jokes, are truth turned sideways. They aren't generally true. They are specifically true. Most people are stupid, and everybody's stupid some of the time, but you don't get a laugh by calling someone stupid---that is, you don't once you've left the cafeteria at your junior high school for the last time---you get the laugh by showing just exactly how they are stupid.

If you want to call Nancy Pelosi stupid, you have to make it clear that she is stupid in a way that is peculiarly Nancy Pelosi stupid. If you want to say she dresses in a funny way that reveals something ridiculous about herself, then just saying she dresses funny won't cut it.

Everything Miller said about Pelosi in his "monologue" another bad comedian could have said word for word about any Republican woman. It applies to Lynne Cheney, Condi Rice, Ann Coulter, or Sue Kelly just as well as it does to Nancy Pelosi---that is, barely at all.

Miller's "satire" is a riff on Your mother wears Army boots!

It's the lowest and dumbest form of insult humor.

Whenever I hear him I ask myself, Does his audience really think this is funny? If they do, where did they get the idea that this is humor?

Then I remember I know the answer. They do think it's funny and they got the idea from being alive and semi-sentient for any part of the last 30 years.

This is what humor has been since the dawn of Saturday Night Live.

Actually, it's what humor has been since the dawn of time. People have always gotten their biggest laughs at watching other people make fools of themselves. Seeing other people get hurt has always made human beings roar.

It's the Mel Brooks axiom. Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.

But since SNL premiered, that's been the hippest form of humor.

Although Second City was a big influence on the original cast and writers of SNL, another big influence was the Harvard/National Lampoon. The Lampoon style took over when the cast began to move into movies. The movie comedies that followed Animal House all accepted its worldview:

There's us, and there's them. We're hip and cool, they're not. They're just a pack of fools---the most foolish thing about them being their refusal to recognize that our being hip and cool makes us better than them---and anything ridiculous that happens to them they deserve and brought down on their own heads.

I love some of these movies, but when you think about them, you see the same dynamic at work. Animal House, Stripes, Caddyshack, you name it---in all of them a small circle of cool is identified. Those within that circle are charmed; those outside it are victims and buffoons and villains and, most importantly, targets.

The plots are the same too. The villains and buffoons oppose the desires of the cool kids, and that's enough justification for the cool kids to do anything to clear the villains and buffoons from their path.

(Of course, there's much more going on in the best of these movies, as MoXmas points out in this comment.)

Humor is simply a weapon. The point of a joke is to knock the other guy down.

It's easy to see how this can appeal to the weak and insecure and how people who already tend to think of everything in terms of winning and losing, power, dominance, and submission would adopt it as their personal favorite brand of humor.

To a mind that thinks that all issues of right and wrong should be decided by Trial by Combat, winning is the same as being right, and when the weapon of choice is comedy you win by making the other guy look ridiculous any way you can.

There's more going on with Rush and Ann Coulter, maybe more going on with Miller, but it's no wonder that their audience thinks that making fun of the sick and disabled and mocking grieving widows and wishing Supreme Court justices would die is funny.

It does what humor is supposed to do, make them feel superior and make their political opponents, the villains and buffoons, appear, in their eyes anyway, ridiculous.

You think Nancy Pelosi would be a good Speaker of the House?

Oh yeah? Well she's stupid!

Har har!

And she dresses funny too!

Har har har!

We win that one, suckers!

The Heretik on the right way to spell Pelosi, the way Aretha would, baby---R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

Recommended re-runs: TBogg reviews The Dennis Miller Show. Scott Lemieux puts Miller in context. And Blue Girl was up late one night and flipping through the channels on her TV accidentally caught some of Miller's Vegas act in which Miller tried to get yuks by pointing out that Senator Robert Byrd is old.


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