Everyone wants to love the comedian. Everyone likes a good laugh. But most comedians aren't entertaining a generic audience of 7 to 77 these days. We've transformed culturally from the whole family tuning in three fuzzy networks with rabbit-ears antennas, to 57 channels of cable and comedy around the clock, with a specialized slice of giggle-baiting for each family member.
As humor specialized and audiences became more fragmented, the jokes grew nastier. Planting his flag at the top of the best-seller list is Al Franken with his book "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them." He's been a darling of the media, not because he's a deep thinker but because he can be funny. Franken can trade on his legacy at "Saturday Night Live," where he performed hilarious impressions of both Democrats (Sen. Paul Simon) and Republicans (Pat Robertson).
Political humor generally breaks down into two categories: nonpartisan foible humor that pokes at personal qualities, policy fiascoes or verbal miscues; and partisan humor that either ridicules the lack of compassion or logic from the opposing team, or cuts sharply at the other team's leaders.
The first kind is the Leno-Letterman variety, making fun of Dan Quayle's spoiled spelling bee or placing a photo of Bill Clinton's face next to an order of McDonald's french fries. The second kind could be a Rush Limbaugh song parody like the old Hillary-poking "She's a Little First Lady with Megalomania." Even the mildest humor about the Clintons was often scorned for its insensitivity, and there is a fine line between wit and bile, between "edgy" and poisonous.
Taste is often determined by your own personal views. Liberals who love Hillary Clinton think Rush was mean to her, and conservatives think that his humor was a badly needed corrective to a Hillary-worshipping TV elite. Conservatives today who scorned Dennis Miller when his comedic targets were on the right (myself included) probably enjoy him more now, comparing Sen. Robert Byrd to that crazy grandpa no one wants to sit next to at Thanksgiving dinner.
But tastelessness can still be judged with a polling majority. For example, Miller went too far in the mid-1990s by suggesting on his HBO show (notice the tiny pay-cable niche) that Newt Gingrich wanted to put the poor children in orphanages, and if they're sickly, "we hold their little heads in our hands ... and crush them like walnuts." It's hard to say things like that and then withdraw to "just kidding!"
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