Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Letterman and Humor - commentary

This column will contain a couple of generalizations, and, yes, I know all generalizations are false including this one. However, most generalizations include a modicum of observable truth and that is why we use them.

I suppose every sophomore college newspaper columnist wants to write humor but soon discovers there is no more difficult writing task and soon abandons the effort. I believe Dave Letterman must have hired some of these humor writing drop outs as his gag writers when he referred to Governor Sarah Palin as looking like a “slutty airline hostess” and her daughter getting “knocked up” during the seventh inning by a well known baseball player.

This brings me to one of my generalizations: The further left of center one’s politics the more difficult it is to make jokes about those to the right of center without getting very nasty, crude, and mean spirited. I first noticed this phenomenon when I attended a gathering in Anchorage back in the 70’s of environmentalists, gay activists, animal rights people, etc. The evening was a toast of sorts and as long as the speakers focused on their own movements and foibles, they were very funny, but when they began to focus on those to the right of the political spectrum they became nasty and crude, much as Letterman did in the Palin joke. I have watched this over the years and when it comes to poking fun at their opposition, comedians on the left lose all sense of appropriateness.

A very recent example was Stephen Colbert’s appearance at the 06 White House Correspondents Dinner. His humor was miles over the line and President George W. Bush, being polite, sat there and took it. However, to their credit, the crowd did not honor the comedian with loud laughter and applause. Another recent example would be Whoppi Goldberg using Bush’s last name while making sexual jokes.

Just as disturbing as Letterman’s joke was the reaction over the next couple of days by pundits such as Keith Olberman and Chris Matthews and analysts they brought on to discuss Letterman’s remarks. Their general consensus seemed to be that it was all in good fun and that the Governor was just being a little sensitive, that she just has trouble taking a joke. Never mind that he had also insulted airline hostesses, a famous baseball player, and the Governor’s daughters. And by using the crudity “knocked up” he insulted every pregnant woman in the country.

Though Colbert told his jokes with Bush present, I imagine Letterman would have thought twice about telling his joke if he’d been on an Alaskan moose hunting trip with the Governor’s husband present.

This brings me to my next generalization: The further you go to the right of the spectrum, the less humor you find. Those people are very serious, often deadly serious as we have seen in recent days with the shooting of doctor Tiller. I was one time invited to be the emcee at a gathering of Baptists. I very carefully selected my jokes from a book of Reader’s Digest jokes, feeling they would be safe as I too have a problem of coming up with acceptable jokes. They weren’t safe and the group had no sense of humor. I was never invited to fill that role again.

One time I was standing on Temple Square in Salt Lake City and noticed that the Angel Maroni way up on the very tip of the temple spiral was a very shiny gold while everything else up there was drab and dirty. So, I asked one of the older elders posted on the square to answer tourist’s questions about it. He answered that the angel was coated with gold leaf and they had just finished putting new leaf on it. “I guess you might call it angel relief,” I replied. No sense of humor. I didn’t even get a smile. To the right I say, “loosen up a little bit. None of us are going to get out of this life alive anyway.” I’m told, and I wish someone would confirm it for me, that the Koran says paradise has a special place for those who make their brothers laugh. I’ve read the Koran, but I must have missed that part, though I hope it is true.

The problem with humor is that it almost has to be about serious subjects: sex, religion, race, politics, or tragedy. For me, it just makes life run more smoothly except when I tell the wrong joke in the wrong environment. Kids and I kept each other energized in the classroom and interested in the topic with humor. Teachers who have no sense of humor have bigger problems in the classroom that those who do. A student asked me once, “Do you know what I got sent to the office for.”


“I asked the teacher what the fish said when it swam into a concrete wall.”



Either that teacher was too anal retentive or she didn’t get the pun. We need humor, but we need to be careful with it. Good humor is usually about serious subjects, but it is very easy to cross the line into crudity, mean spiritedness and personal insults.

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