Unraveling Late-night Humor (6/99)

In the 1960s and 70s, "new wave" comedians exploded the stilted forms of comedy and explored deeper issues. An album liner note proclaimed, "In night clubs these days you get group therapy, prayer meetings, sociological community. You get thinking." One theorist even referred to standup comedians as shamans – holy persons, healers, priests of a sort.

That sort of thing was also briefly visible on television. But it’s not evident in today’s widely-heard late-night show monologues. A major opportunity for public participation has become a tension-relieving exercise, warping the public’s perception of society and democracy through its constant distortion of what constitutes critical social dialogue.

The rules of the game were established within an emerging comedy industry pyramid. Only those who obeyed the rules of TV guest spots on the Tonight Show could play, even in lower level comedy clubs. Comedians train themselves to fit the mold, eliminating anything that producers and talents scouts could perceive as likely to rankle anyone in the national audience.

Humor in Society

Many theorists say humor’s most important function is cathartic. Its "unmasking" function brings society’s rulers down to the level of the populace, thereby facilitating democracy. This helps explain the preponderance of sex jokes as political humor. But the negotiation of satirical boundaries has happened since the first jester made a fool out of a king, and changing social relations constantly renew the process. The desire of rulers to appear not to be ruling may create openings for expression that can serve democracy, the illusion of democracy, or both.

In Jokes and Their Relation to Social Reality, Anton Zijderveld contends that unmasking exposes socially accepted meanings to new perspectives, thereby deflating them. But a second comedic function, the "social sublimation of potential conflicts," is exemplified by the royal buffoon. "Sublimation and manipulation," he says, "keep each other in balance."

If the basic elements of a fool’s trade are "fertility, satire, and making merry," today’s batch excise satire. That’s not to demean foolery’s carnival-esque aspects, but merely to point out that in an important sense they’ve been stripped of their social force.

In the 60s, the US’ accelerating post-war hegemonic project hit a bump in the road, with dissent coming from various neglected social quarters. The crisis expressed itself in street demonstrations and violent strife, but also through pointed satire and drama in the media, including television. It was resolved by enlarging permitted social discourse in some arenas – notably increased attention or lip-service to civil rights – and increased absorption of countercultural discourses.

But while African-American sitcoms and more liberatory portrayals of women emerged on television, an opening for explicitly challenging standup comedy was quickly eliminated. When the Vietnam War ended and civil strife calmed, standup comics retreated to safer ground, even as sitcoms from All in the Family to Roseanne tackled new levels of controversy. In fact, more recent monologues resemble those of the 50s sufficiently to make one wonder whether the 60s had any effect.

The oft-dissected ironic stance of "Generation X" is perhaps a self-defense against a brutal and seemingly hopeless world; on the airwaves, it seems to function as a safety valve for youthful rebellion. A viewer’s comment that Letterman’s insolence resonates because "deep down everybody once in a while would like to slap their boss" is redolent of the Janus-faced Dilbert phenomenon: Anti-boss cartoons are given as gifts to employees by bosses.

From Paar to Maher

Jack Paar, the first host of the Tonight Show, has lamented the decline of the talk show. It has become progressively more shallow and narrow, he argues, feeding on celebrity alone. As Paar’s eventual successor, Johnny Carson set the new standard for years to come.

Despite overall blandness, Carson opened up some issues, as when he had American Express replacing the Statue of Liberty’s torch with a credit card. Here, he contrasted consumerism and the ostensible American dream. And yet, Carson summed up his views on social humor by saying, "You cannot be both serious and funny." The obverse – that you can’t be funny without being serious – might be the motto of a comedian dedicated to humor’s unmasking, as opposed to sublimating, function.

The surface-surfing approach to comic commentary is quick, easy, and painless. As David Letterman producer Rob Burnett notes of the reliance on sex scandal references, "This unifies the audience. It creates a premise everyone understands."

In 1989, Time Magazine writer Richard Zoglin said of TV monologuists: "Their political humor tends to be mild, their targets relatively easy." Five years later, he scorned the "easy-to-take, nonpartisan Ôtopicality’ of Leno and Letterman," compared to the "informed, savvy, opinionated comedy about real issues" by Bill Maher and Dennis Miller. Still, he questioned Maher’s habit of "deflating punch lines that provide commentary only obliquely."

Leno and Letterman attract somewhat different demographics: Leno inherited an older, more mainstream audience from Carson while Letterman aims at the younger, putatively more cynical generation. While they lasted, shows like Vibe, hosted by Sinbad, and the Keenan Ivory Wayans Show, also aimed at younger viewers, and had a stronger appeal to African-Americans as well as urban and culturally "cutting-edge" young people. Conan O’Brien has a strong following on college campuses.

Clearly engaging in less political material than most talk show hosts, Letterman evidently plays a more important role in viewers’ lives, in part due to his ironic/cynical stance, and perhaps because of his younger demographic. A third of the respondents to one survey said they tape-recorded the show; three-fourths said they frequently discussed it with friends.

A study by the conservative Media Studies Center reveals that young people watch late-night talk shows twice as often as over-30 viewers. Local TV newscasts are the top source of news for many, and the stories they don’t cover are most likely to be encountered in Leno’s monologue or Letterman’s Top 10 List. In an information-gathering sense, this points up the importance of such monologues.

In his article, "David Letterman’s Shtick Shift," Peter Kaplan asserts that "the television joke guides the nation," though elsewhere he indicates the host’s role is more to "track the mood of the nation" than determine it. Time has opined that the monologues "not only reflect but can even help define the national mood."

Getting Personal

In late 1997, I analyzed late-night monologue jokes for six weeks, looking at the setups – the news items and observations that provoke jokes – and the punchlines. Not surprisingly, 60 percent of the items about the president were converted to sex jokes.

Insight into how and why can be gleaned from the comments of Letterman’s executive producer. Talking about the Lewinsky story, Burnett remarked, "It’s Christmas in January … . The show is written from now ’til June. The last guy who was close to this was Dan Quayle, the greatest friend a comedy writer ever had."

He may be oversimplifying, but in essence he’s saying that a cheap shot constitutes a finished show. In his view, the predecessor to this sex scandal was a prolonged study in the stereotype of (Quayle’s) incompetence. Actually, both topics involve stereotypes and deflect attention from other, more significant political issues. There were, arguably, more important things to critique about Quayle than his IQ. The same goes for Clinton and his zipper.

Another 12 percent of the Clinton jokes dealt with drugs and fat, either Clinton’s or someone else’s, and 14 percent were devoted to popular cultural references or straight humor techniques. This left 14 percent for comment on government issues; the bulk of these were partisan matters as opposed to examinations of the system.

In addition to converting hot topics into sex jokes, it was common to use the investigation of Clinton and his associates as a catchall for free-floating disaffection. Such an approach is as likely to further cynicism as systemic critique. Jabs at corrupt politicians are as cheap as Bill Gates jokes, and about as educational.

Letterman had a higher percentage of pop-cultural setups than Leno, but ended up with the same percentage of pop-cultural punchlines. Maher’s record was the most remarkable, moving from 66 percent political setups to 68 percent pop-cultural punchlines. Despite his reputation as a political comic, a pop-cultural maven lurks underneath.

Overall, pop culture outweighed politics by about two to one in setups and three to one in punchlines. Citing popular culture icons certainly reinforces a common bond. But the overwhelming reliance on popular culture without apparent social significance constitutes front-end censorship, since it takes up time that could be devoted to something more substantial. Generalized anti-Clinton sentiment reveals nothing about corruption’s political framework.

A common defense of the personal focus is that it’s the form in which news happens: people make news. Thus, jokes about events in the Middle East, for example, focused heavily on the personality of Saddam Hussein; at one point, Leno combined scatology and personalization to reduce the region’s problems to Saddam having his head up his ass. But the failure to proceed into the meat of the matter in the name of "sexy" presentations – "if it bleeds, it leads" – represents a neglect of the public trust.

Comics do occasionally take a progressive, possibly risky, stance on an issue. In late ’97, for example, Sinbad supported the Barbie doll remake. While he did it jokingly, he was clearly infusing softened punchlines with his moral stance, and received applause instead of a laugh. He often aimed for conscious recognition of his point. Likewise, O’Brien elicited applause for the release of a Chinese dissident, although that reaction was unlikely in the event of an American dissident’s release.

To the extent that we live in an eternal now, it’s in large measure due to our increasingly mediated interactions with events. Instant coverage, whether through comedy or news, is limited to a very few moments, rendering unlikely any historical or social context. Of course, topical comedy always refers to something current. But while a progressive result could be obtained by linking the event to its context, this is most often the road not taken.

Bombs Away

In November 1997, Leno jumped from a weather report to the Persian Gulf with a forecast for scattered cruise missiles. This was a humorous displacement that, from the Iraqi point of view, didn’t allow the time needed for tragedy to turn into comedy. It made light of death before it happened, placing the joke in an entirely different category – incitement.

Here the comic was exercising his role as representative of the people, elected at the ballot box of ratings. Leno was essentially giving the US government permission to bomb Iraq. Simultaneously, he articulated a consensus and legitimized the action by dehumanizing the targets.

Incitement often melds with belittling as dismissal of a cheap target. Letterman’s query later that month about whether the audience ever visited Iraq, perhaps to stay at their "time-share," implied that no one would really visit such a place.

Leno’s response to the burning of US flags by Iraqis was to ask why they had the flags. He offered no answer, but got a laugh out of the slim likelihood that anyone in the audience had an Iraqi flag. The question was quickly forgotten, but, perhaps unwittingly, he raised a larger point: The US is important enough that people the world over can easily get a US flag. And some of them hate the US enough to burn it.

The next night, he commented on the sanctions, saying Iraqis would have enough clothing if they weren’t burning flags. Even an Iraqi might think this was funny. It also raises intriguing questions: If Iraqis made clothes out of US flags, would the US ban their export to the region? Would they arrest Iraqis for flag desecration? Or just use it as the final reason for war?

The issue of nations or peoples who hate the US is tricky. It’s easy enough to dismiss leaders or dictators as crazy, incompetent, or impotent, and almost as easy to dismiss whole peoples as brainwashed or forced by leaders to demonstrate against the US. But the persistent hatred also forces US citizens into a simmering denial and bracketing of the question.

Leno did address this through a pop-cultural maneuver, responding to Iran’s official "Death to America Day" observances by showing a "greeting card" for the day while lamenting its commercialization. While this made light of a matter, it didn’t clearly reject the Iraqis judgment on the "Hate America" question. It raised a dangerous issue in a way that didn’t close discussion. This result, I suspect, was unintentional.

Community vs. Commodity

To the extent that comedy processes meaning in current events, navigates social contradictions, and mediates social fears and confusions, it places the audience in a new, more stable position at the end of the joke. Irony can be an easy, "sound bite-friendly" way to achieve this. As Paul Brownfield notes, "Better to belittle Congress as a pack of no-good, money-grubbing politicians; that way, you don’t have to think about anything and can still feel on top of the issue."

For the individual, it’s a cheap response, costing little self-examination and less subsequent action. But it’s socially expensive. "It’s a way not to commit to an issue, a way to not stand up for something," says Bill Maher, who ought to know, but often doesn’t seem to. This is suspensive irony – irony as a shield rather a lance that tears open pretension, exposes hypocrisy, and reveals structural patterns. It laughs at corruption, not to destroy it – only to feel superior. This irony is emblematic of a cynical era in which humor, art, and social intercourse turn toward self-defense.

George Lipsitz argues that TV protects people from confrontation with impossible desires by re-framing their frustrations into manageable questions and doling out diluted satisfactions. In this sense, the electronic monologue is doubly satisfying, providing a limited pleasure while simultaneously obscuring larger solutions that would involve far more work.

The way out is through re-integration, re-connection with society and history. But this requires dealing with the elevation of consumerism over social responsibility, and that’s never easy, since consumerism rules, and has its charms. Perhaps it takes a crisis to give people a new perspective on their social lives; regardless, it takes energy, dedication, creativity, and a sense of humor.

Dave Lippman is a political comedian who often appears as George Shrub, the world’s only known singing CIA agent.