When comedians play mean

Posted: Sep 28, 2003 12:00 AM

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!"

Franken crosses a line of meanness regularly in his new book, which should be expected from the man who also wrote "Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot." With that book, Franken claims, he established a difference between "fair mean" and "unfair mean," defined as a difference between knowing satire and vicious lying. But Franken doesn't try to stay on the "fair mean" side. For example, Franken treats it as obviously true that George W. Bush snorted cocaine in his youth. That may seem like an odd, unproven salvo in a book about nasty conservatives who make odd, unproven statements.

To recount the 2000 election fiasco with panache, Franken creates a fictional tale around real-life GOP lobbyist Mac Stipanovich and Katherine Harris, the Florida Secretary of State. In this mini-novel of a sordid sexual affair mingled with Republicans stealing the election, Franken writes Stipanovich "knew where the bodies were buried. Hell, he had buried more than a few of them himself."

The most visible example of tastelessness is the comic strip that runs from pages 313 to 323: "The Gospel of Supply-Side Jesus." Franken's fictional preacher explains to the masses in Israel that "the only way to gain entrance to God's kingdom" is to "become a Supply Side Jesus Pioneer and have access to me at our annual Yom Kippur 'Break the Fast' Dinner." So there's shades of Bush in this ersatz savior, and he's about to be betrayed by an apostle "with a gambling debt," which brings us to a caricature of "William Bennett Iscariot."

If you didn't like that example, there's always Franken's trip to Bob Jones University with a fake son (his real one wouldn't play the gag) to try and trip up the wacky Christians and suggest that maybe they could bend their wacky rules for some major donations. Their college guide wouldn't bend from his "path to Christ." Franken summed up: "A good honest day's work done, lying to God-fearing people. We'd sleep well tonight."

The sales numbers suggest Franken's poisonous satire must be hilarious to someone, people who hate the president and think Christians are a freakish menace to society. But it's worth hoping that if a majority of Americans read this book, they would conclude that Al Franken is not qualified to judge anyone else about lying, the "tone" of public discourse or just plain mean-spiritedness.