PBS is airing a new program called “Make Em Laugh,” a six-part documentary history of a century or so of American comedy. There’s plenty to like about the program, especially the film clips of so many great comics. Unfortunately, PBS feels compelled roughly every 15 minutes to have someone, typically not a top comedian, tell us that comedians “are our truth-tellers,” or words to that effect.
Actually, the relationship between comedy and truth is more complex and more tenuous. Most comedians need to work within a paradigm, but the views that fit that paradigm need not be “the truth.”
Consider jokes about mothers-in-law. They can work whether or not a majority of mothers-in-law fit the stereotype on which the jokes rely. Indeed, they probably will work if only a small percentage fit that stereotype. Or consider ethnic jokes (here I’ll write in the past tense). For these jokes to work, members of the target group need not have been less intelligent (say) than average. All that was required was for the audience to believe that they were less intelligent, or even just to assume this for purposes of the joke. The joke was then “judged” by how novel and witty it was within the genre of jokes about that group or other groups who were treated the same way by comedians.
Political humor, which seems to get a disproportionately large amount of attention from PBS, has, if anything, an even more tenuous relationship with “the truth.” A joke targeting a particular figure or concept does not depend for laughs on the truth of its attack. Assuming that the threshold level of wit (often low) is met, the joke requires only that the audience agree with the joke’s thrust or simply that it dislike the target.
For example, the documentary shows Stephen Colbert getting a laugh at the White House correspondent’s dinner by saying that “reality has a well-known left-wing bias.” This line got a laugh because the assembled MSM members, as leftists, agreed with Colbert that leftists have the correct understanding of reality. (President Bush, for example, did not laugh). The laugh these kinds of jokes produce does not depend on whether Colbert is a “truth-teller.” The laugh will be equally robust at the time the joke is made whether or not it turns out, as Colbert assumes, that the left has the better understanding of reality. PBS inadvertently proves the point by playing what it considers a funny clip of Jon Stewart ridiculing President Bush for claiming that the “surge” was producing “progress.”
PBS devotes an entire episode to political satire. It includes not a single clip in which a Democrat or a liberal is satirized. This result isn’t very surprising given the two filters at work. First, comedians take many more shots at conservatives than at liberals; second, when comedians do take shots at liberals, PBS (and possibly those funding the documentary) probably doesn’t see much humor.
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