That’s Not Funny!

Okay, you know what? Humor is subjective. I, for one, find the Stooges boring, Seinfeld repugnant, and I’m completely indifferent to Raymond. So, although I mostly stand by my earlier thoughts on those who found Stephen Colbert’s performance last Saturday unfunny, I’ll allow for the possibility that it just wasn’t some people’s cup of tea.

But the thing is, I would never argue that the Stooges, Seinfeld, or Ray Romano are, categorically, not funny. A squillion other people think they are funny, so they’ve obviously all got something. I, personally, just don’t appreciate their respective somethings. I also don’t personally appreciate raw tomatoes, expensive cars, or children old enough to talk. Lots and lots of people think all three of those things are just fantastic, yet I disagree. But that’s all it is–I disagree. There’s a big difference between “I can’t imagine myself ever liking tomatoes,” which is true, and “I can’t imagine how anyone could like tomatoes,” which is pathologically self-obsessed. Also, stupid.

So not finding Colbert’s act funny doesn’t necessarily mean you just don’t get it, or it hit a nerve, or you’re a prig–just as finding Larry the Cable Guy funny doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a fucking moron. You just have a different opinion from me, and I can acknowledge, despite the headache I’ll get from clenching my jaw, that my opinion is not necessarily more valid than yours. (Yes, my earlier rant certainly crossed the line into “my opinion is the only one” territory, which makes this arguably hypocritical, but I don’t give a rat’s ass, because A] I only have 4 readers, B] I wasn’t only talking about matters of taste, and C] admitting this now means I can recognize when my previous thinking was flawed, unlike the goddamn President of the United States.) But if it’s strictly a matter of taste, then you don’t get to say these 40,000-odd people, and probably at least a few million more are wrong; you just get to say you disagree. And hey, what the hell–you’re also more than welcome to detail the reasons you disagree, in hopes of persuading some people that your opinion is correct, or at least understandable.

I, for instance, would argue that many of the Daily Show segments in which some poor slob who doesn’t get it is allowed to demonstrate in excruciating detail just how much he doesn’t get it–including many interviews done by Colbert himself–are not particularly funny. And I would explain that I think they’re not funny because generally, humiliating people for sport, even if they’re sort of asking for it, is behavior I find too fundamentally icky to laugh at. And I would certainly hope that other people share that opinion, because that might make me a little less misanthropic. But even then, I would not present my opinion as gospel, if only because I can think of at least one obvious exception–humiliating the current president and the press corps for sport (among other reasons) is fucking comedy gold. Says me.

There’s a reason it’s called a sense of humor. Without getting into stoned-college-student-style extreme relativism, let’s just say that sensory impressions do not represent facts. Some people find the scent of burning sage delightful (speaking of stoned college students); I think it smells exactly like cat piss. I think Brad Pitt is weaselly-looking. I think having my feet tickled is almost unbearable torture. Ditto listening to Celine Dion’s voice. And you already know where I stand on tomatoes. My aversion to each of those things is, for me, very real and strongly felt–a fact, of sorts–but obviously not indicative of any big-picture truth. I recognize that none of them is intrinsically bad. Even Celine.

So, what does it mean to say Colbert was not funny at the Correspondents’ Dinner? Dick all. It means you didn’t think he was funny. I love the people trying to bolster their arguments with “I know funny! I am funny! Tons of people will attest that I’m funny!”–well, same goes for me, but see above about the Stooges, et al. More importantly, same goes for Colbert, times a zillion. I’m pretty sure he could get a hell of a lot more witnesses than Richard Cohen and I combined. And yet, there will still be people who don’t find him funny at all, and people who–like me, let alone those who hated his performance last Saturday–don’t find him funny all the time. How can that be??

If you want to argue that his behavior was improper for the occasion, that he failed to entertain the crowd right in front of him, that he did not do the job he was hired to do, that he was sneaky and vicious, or that he made himself a lot of powerful enemies, go nuts. Those are things you can argue, and what’s more, even I think they’re all true. I’m just not remotely persuaded that any of that means he shouldn’t have done it. And that’s the problem–nobody who loved what he did disagrees with the salient arguments against doing it; I’d imagine Colbert himself would give his critics all those points. The only argument coming from this side is, in this rare context, subverting propriety to the extreme was morally appropriate. (And ballsalicious.) That, ultimately, is also a matter of opinion–but one that does relate to big-picture truth, at least, so it’s worth discussing. “Funny or unfunny?” is about as relevant as “Hot or not?” (Although, lord god, I vote both funny and hot.)

I haven’t really seen any detractors engage the question of whether it was morally appropriate, though–weighing the adminstration’s naked contempt for the democratic process, six years of habitual dissemblance, an unjust war, torture, Constitutional violations out the woo, and a press that’s been largely complicit in all of the above (even if only because its understandably cowed), against one man’s decision to be a turd in the punch bowl. You want to tell me why the latter’s more profoundly offensive, I’m all ears.

And after all that, here’s what’s really up my ass: those who would offer the crowd’s poor reaction as evidence of his unfunniness. Breaking news–people are sheep. And I don’t exclude myself from that. Noam Scheiber offers up the observation that even Ed Helms wasn’t laughing! as his trump card. Dude, I’m of the opinion, intellectually, that it was fucking hilarious, but I wouldn’t have been laughing in that room, either. I didn’t even laugh much watching the video; I was entirely too stunned, not to mention distinctly uncomfortable, sitting all alone in my jammies. There was just so much going on there, I was busy with about a dozen emotional reactions that superseded my desire to laugh, although it was very much present. And if I’d been in that room, thinking, “Holy shit, the President is right there and will hear me“–i.e., precisely the thought that’s made the size and composition of Stephen Colbert’s testicles a national obsession–forget about it. At best, I would have been holding it in like a kid in church. And that’s only assuming–which might very well be flattering myself–that my basic opinion wouldn’t have been swayed at all by the negative energy of 2,600 people squirming miserably, either quietly nurturing their burgeoning hatred for Colbert or just trying to determine when it’s okay to giggle. (“Yay, glacier line! Lord knows Bush won’t really be offended by a joke about a trifle like global warming! HA!”)

The idea that it wasn’t funny just because it wasn’t met with uproarious laughter is about as convincing as the idea that The Nutty Professor was indeed funny, just because it was. And what scares me is that so many people–not journalists propagating the “unfunny” meme, necessarily but, like, the trolls on Thank You, Stephen Colbert (who are–rather amusingly, in my opinion–merely adding to the total number of “thank yous” on the home page)–seem to sincerely believe that other people’s laughter is the best, if not only, gauge of comedy. That funny or unfunny is a universal standard to be determined by a majority vote, not a personal opinion determined by, you know, whether you thought it was funny. Am I crazy to be completely freaked out by that? I mean, I always thought groupthink was something that just happened, not something you fucking volunteer for. Are there really people who just sit back and wait for a decision on how they feel to come down from somewhere else?

That would explain a lot, I guess.

2 thoughts on “That’s Not Funny!

  1. I think Cobert’s show is hilarious. But there, in my opinion, he railed on for a long time and it wasn’t that funny. Except for the Cobert-as-Press Secretary/Helen Thomas video bit. That was great.

    Nobody has to agree with me or see it my way, though I do think many in the audience probably did. If you don’t have a passionate hatred of the administration ─ and believe it or not, some people don’t ─ it just wasn’t very satisfying to watch.

  2. I do believe it, just don’t quite understand it. But then, I don’t quite understand tomato-love either, so…

    I think your point actually goes to one of the ones I made in my ramble up there, though–funny or not is basically irrelevant. I don’t think his ultimate goal was to give a successful comedy performance, but to speak seriously to/for those of us who DO have that passionate hatred, while also working within the expected lines just enough that he wouldn’t come off like Michael Moore at the Oscars. So I think he did what he set out to do very, very well. That’s an entirely different question from whether it was funny, which I’m happy to disagree about.

    And it is interesting to get your take, seeing as I know for a fact you’re funny and smart. My apologies for lumping you in with people who aren’t.

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