A capital 'Saturday Night Live'

Posted: May 04, 2006 1:05 AM
The human race has one really effective weapon, Mark Twain famously said, "and that's laughter." The weapon usually has a particularly sharp edge at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner, the glittery bash where Washington dresses up in its fanciest party duds and the jokes fly as fast as a hummingbird in pursuit of a sip of honeysuckle. Ever since Calvin Coolidge appeared at the dinner in 1924, presidents have showed up for a roasting. Sometimes they pour on the hot sauce themselves.

This year the president invited Steve Bridges, a clever and dead-on impersonator, to appear with him as his alter ego, to say what the president is really thinking when he offers the words canned by his speechwriters. So when George W. said, "I always look forward to these dinners," his doppelganger set the audience straight: "How come I can't have dinner with the 36 percent of the people who like me?" The president even got off one of the best lines in his own voice: "I'm feeling pretty chipper tonight — I survived the White House shake-up."

Perhaps nothing is as American as the robust humor that pokes fun at power, and this includes parodies of the president. The best parody, in fact, is nearly always of the president himself. It's the best illustration of what the First Amendment is all about. Humor deflates power like nothing else. In totalitarian countries, of course, such humor is subversive because it can be so lethal. A joke, as George Orwell observed, "can create a tiny revolution."

Communists have no sense of humor, in China, Cuba or North Korea any more than they did in the old Soviet Union. Tyrants and despots can't afford even a tiny revolution, and anyone who tries making jokes at a tyrant's expense is asking for a ticket to the gulag. "As the system [in the Soviet Union] became harsher, a distinct Communist sense of humor emerged — pithy, dark and surreal — but so did the legal machinery for repressing it," writes Ben Lewis in an article cleverly titled "Hammer and Tickle" in Prospect magazine. One historian who examined the files of Stalin's political prisoners found that 200,000 people were imprisoned for telling jokes, some merely to let off steam. Dissent became dangerous.

Humor reflects the best and the worst of a culture. Those without a sense of humor have no outlet for self-criticism. Humor assuages, and because it does, it threatens. The Muslim riots over the Danish cartoons showed just how tightly wound the radical Muslims are. The riots over the cartoons, caricaturing how terrorists have turned Mohammed into a weapon against innocents, only proved the point.

The Iranian daily Hamshahri, which organized an international contest to find the 12 "best" cartoons of the Holocaust (which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insists never happened), doesn't quite get the point. In one entry, a man goes through a pile of skulls and bones at Auschwitz and says, "I don't think they are Jews." Another cartoon depicts Anne Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler. The entries were vulgar and tasteless, but as any Borscht Belt comic would tell you, they were worse than that. They weren't funny.

Amitai Sandy, an Israeli comics publisher, had a better idea after rejecting the first suggestion that he commission jokes about the mullahs in Iran. "That wouldn't have been right," he says. "You should only poke fun at your own kind." So he did what Jews have always done best, poking fun at themselves. He commissioned a contest for anti-Semitic humor.

One of the top 10 cartoons, published in der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, depicts an orthodox Jew with a Hitler-like mustache giving the Nazi salute. In another, a Jewish fiddler fiddles atop the Brooklyn Bridge while the Twin Towers burn, satirizing the Islamist notion that Jews were behind 9/11. Not necessarily thigh-slappers, either, but they reflect the self-confidence of those free to laugh at whatever tickles them. "Before the others point their finger at us, we'll do it ourselves, and funnier," Sandy says. "We're kosher anti-Semites." It's hard to imagine Muslim red-hots poking fun at over-the-top Islam.

George W. and his doppelganger were so funny because they did go over the top. "The media really ticks me off," his doppelganger said, "the way they try to embarrass me by not editing what I say." For one memorable night, they didn't have to.