Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Be of Good Cheer: Levity Lives!

I would have loved to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on October 30th in Washington, D.C. Glued to my TV for three hours, it seemed clear that Comedy Central’s extravaganza on the National Mall was a truly delightful experience for those 150,000 or so ardent fans of civil discourse.

The crowd’s signs were clever, evidence of the intellect and wit that energizes viewers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. “I doubt this sign will change your opinion” is one I spotted. “Death to nobody!” read another. Pop culture references abounded with absurdist placards such as “Soylent Green is people” and “Mr. Obama, what are you doing about Twilight?”  My personal favorite: “Ruly Mob.”

I suspect these were my kind of protesters, along the lines of Billionaires for Bush, which was born during the previous presidential administration. They would show up at conservative shindigs, dressed like fat-cat capitalists and waving banners that praised greed. More often than not, the Republicans being parodied did not appear to get the joke.

Satire is a funny thing. When Stephen Colbert was invited to testify before a Congressional subcommittee on immigration reform in late September, his prepared remarks were sharp. “My great-grandfather did not travel 4,0000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants,” was his serious-sounding statement at one point, followed by a punchline: “He did it because he killed a man back in Ireland.” While most of the reporters and elected officials in the room looked befuddled or disapproving, I was laughing out loud at home.

The devastation from America’s ideological divide may be easier to heal than disparate notions of humor -- a word that also can mean bodily fluid. In this sense, our very blood and therefore our DNA is at issue. What could be deeper than that? You might be able to persuade others with facts and logic but what on Earth could ever reboot their hilarity gene? Sarah Palin, for example, ridicules opponents in a nasty way and her minions rejoice with mean-spirited pleasure. They certainly were not amused by Tina Fey’s “I can see Russia from my house” spoof of their idol. Fundamentalists rarely see much other than The Rapture (or 72 Virgins in Paradise) from their podiums, altars and pews.

At his rally to chasten politicians and media pundits, Jon Stewart pointed out that, “These are hard times, not end times.”

Was it always like this?

The comedic history of the United States includes brilliant nuttiness from the likes of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and, later, a plethora of screwball cinematic fare. Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason brought madcap into our living rooms. Mark Twain, Will Rogers, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, E.B. White, Art Buchwald, Dorothy Parker and H.L. Mencken were thoroughly sardonic wordsmiths.

As a kid, I feel asleep listening to the late-night New York City radio show hosted by Jean Shepherd (screenwriter and narrator of A Christmas Story, 1983). His raconteur irreverence shaped -- or is it warped? -- my life more than any other influence beyond rock ‘n’ roll.

Despite the country’s amazing repository of mirth, by the conventional early 1960s -- at least, judging by Mad Men -- people had become hesitant to unleash their inner mischief-makers. The paranoid McCarthy Era that produced Lenny Bruce also destroyed him. In one episode of the AMC series, the advertising executives puzzle over a new campaign by Volkswagen that posits the little Beetle as “a lemon.” I saw this situation as the birth of irony, still lost on most of the characters. Maybe tongue-in-cheek remained elusive, for the most part, until counterculture figures such as Abbie Hoffman rediscovered it.
Every now and then, an Arlo Guthrie tune or a Bob Dylan song also would inspire a few guffaws, especially if the giggle weed had been smoked. “Well, my telephone rang it would not stop./ It was President Kennedy callin’ me up./ He said,’My friend Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?’/ I said, ‘My friend John, Brigitte Bardot./ Anita Ekberg./ Sophia Loren.’/ (Put ‘em all in the same room with Ernest Borgnine!)“

But in a decade roiled by the Vietnam War, the continuing civil rights struggle and various liberation movements, journalist Walter Lippmann observed that America was undergoing a national nervous breakdown. The logical result: Chronic schizophrenia, which has plagued us ever since. Merriment now must seep through layers of public acrimony, though the nightly fix of Stewart and Colbert helps increase the flow.

When they announced their plans for October 30th, a big hurdle loomed. All the port-a-potties in the region already had been rented by the Marine Corps, which was sponsoring a D.C. marathon the day after the Rally to Restore Sanity. For a while, it looked as if the event might have to be renamed the Rally to Restore Sanitation.

Apparently, the toilet gods smiled down upon them and somehow the requisite facilities were found. But therein lies one reason for the decision to not travel south. I went to many such mass gatherings as a youngster -- that’s me and my friend halfway back along the left side of the Reflecting Pool at Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

This time around, when it comes to the bodily fluid of humor, blood is less significant than urine. At my age, I might have been calculating the distance to those port-a-potties instead of enjoying the wonderful whimsy on stage.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author, with Randee Dawn, of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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