Make no mistake: The new right-wing comedy, An American Carol, is just as bad as you imagine it to be, if not worse. Even as I walked into the theater I couldn’t believe I was plunking down cash money for a film that, despite its not entirely off-putting pedigree, was doomed to failure from the very moment it was conceived.
Why was it doomed? Quite simply, conservatives aren’t funny. It’s a massive overstatement, I know, and utterly unfair to some of the not-inconsiderable talents involved in the making of this film, such as Airplane director David Zucker, his regular muse Leslie Nielsen, and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer. But there it is: Conservatives aren’t funny. And after all the evidence that’s piled up recently, who’s gonna argue the point?
Twice in the past three years, Fox News has attempted to develop satire-based comedy programs to provide right-wingers with an alternative to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report; both Red Eye and The 1/2-Hour News Hour tanked miserably and were pulled off the air within days. (The latter show was created by 24 mastermind Joel Surnow, but the only torture on THHNH was in watching flop sweat engulf the “comedic” anchors.)
A few weeks ago, Bill Maher sent his cameras to Minneapolis to see whether attendees at the Republican National Convention could pull off a segment of “New Rules”; the results were disturbingly unamusing.
Then there’s the strange, sorry descent of Dennis Miller. Since drinking the Bush administration’s warmongering Kool-Aid after 9/11, Miller has lost both his comic talent and his drawing power (except among the types who shout “Kill him!” at Sarah Palin rallies). After his lousy CNBC talk show crashed and burned in 2004, he’s now rarely seen on television apart from occasional appearances on Fox News (including THHNH, where he was no help) and SNL reruns from the better days. He does have a radio show on right-wing talk stations, and you can catch even his stand-up act right around Election Day – if you live near St. Charles, MO, or Altoona, IA.
And now comes An American Carol. A twist on, of course, A Christmas Carol, the new film lampoons (though that word implies actual humor, so I’m using it loosely) Michael Moore, antiwar activists, the ACLU, academics, gays, feminists, all Muslims everywhere, all forms of disagreement with Bush/Cheney principles of warfare … you know, the basic Republican bogeymen. That’s all fine; if Hollywood can fill theaters with comedies like American Pie, In & Out and The 40 Year Old Virgin … and Showgirls … then there must be room for An American Carol. As long as it’s funny.
Which it’s not. Oh, goodness, it is not. Zucker, co-writer Myrna Sokoloff, and Chris Farley’s unbelievably less-talented brother Kevin deploy Moore (or, at least, the standard far-right caricature of him) as an America-hating Scrooge, plotting to abolish the Fourth of July and ignoring the sick children of his nephew who’s about to ship out for Iraq. Again, all of this is fair enough, but then the filmmakers can’t think of anything more clever to do with Moore than shove food in his face (because Moore is so fat – get it?) and find innumerable ways for him to get slapped, stomped, and smacked in the head by clanging bells (of liberty, I suppose). ACLU lawyers, for no discernable reason, are portrayed as zombies who must be shot, Living Dead style, apparently so that eavesdropping, Gitmo and torture can go forward unimpeded. Hilarious! University professors get a song-and-dance number about how they’re going to “indoctrinate” students into their radical-hippie worldview regardless of parents’ objections. Outrageous! Meanwhile, over in Afghanistan, all the towelheads have the same name (Muhammad Hussein, of course), and back in the States anyone with a turban and a beard who isn’t profiled by the subway police is obviously carrying a bomb in his backpack. As Homer Simpson would say, “It’s funny because it’s true” – in wingnut fantasyland, at least.
I could go on, but must I? The question is not whether An American Carol is really so bad just because Popdose’s most militant liberal says so – let’s face it, the film wasn’t even screened in advance for critics, which is a classic harbinger of infernally low quality. (Though in this case it wouldn’t surprise me if the producers insisted they were merely “trying to speak directly to the American filmgoer without the ‘filter’ of the critical mainstream media.”) The real question is, why? Why can’t the right wing get comedy right? I’m not sure I have all the answers, but here are a few:
1. There’s a fine line between mockery and meanness. Unfortunately, conservative “comedians” tend to jump that line before it’s even drawn. Take Dennis Miller’s torrent of supposedly humorous invective against Harry Reid, linked above. Miller spends three minutes hammering away at Reid’s milquetoast demeanor and hangdog looks, and to what end? I can’t for the life of me remember what he was getting at, but I sure do remember the nastiness. Compare that to the sublime simplicity in Jon Stewart’s mockery of Joe Lieberman, via the device of a two-second Droopy Dog imitation.
2. Bullying isn’t funny. Of course, bullying is what “serious” conservatives like Hannity and O’Reilly and Limbaugh do best, both when they have guests in the studio and when they’re trashing somebody like Moore in a monologue just to get their audiences ginned up. But when O’Reilly appears in An American Carol, slaps pretend-Moore a couple times and says he’s doing it “just because I like slapping you,” he thinks he’s being funny – but he’s really just engaging in wingnut wish-fulfillment. The slapstick comedies Zucker imagines he’s invoking didn’t just pick a villain and pummel him; Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd and the Keystone Kops were funny because they were willing to bear the brunt of the abuse themselves. But just as Hannity or Bill-o would rather shut a guest’s microphone off than brook opposition (at least until Tuesday’s phantasmagoric takedown of Hannity by Obama advisor Robert Gibbs), Zucker & Co. couldn’t allow any of their paragons of all-American virtue to take it on the chin even once as pseudo-Moore gets pounded.
3. Bigotry isn’t funny, either (at least not anymore). Yes, yes, we all know that one of the key elements of populist-conservative victimhood is Political Correctness, so boo-flippin’-hoo if millions get offended when John McCain offers a jovial reference to “that one.” But the fact remains that the last funny bigot was Archie Bunker. Yet Ann Coulter insists she was just making a riotous joke when she called John Edwards a “faggot,” and indeed a roomful of mainstream conservatives laughed their asses off, which says a heckuva lot more about them than it does about Edwards. A note to David Zucker: Stereotyping black men (“I speak jive”) may be funny in a non-political farce like Airplane, but stereotyping all Muslims as terrorists in a film designed to skewer liberal concepts like “tolerance”? That calls not only your values, but your intelligence into serious question.
4. Blind devotion is the enemy of humor. Say what you will about Stewart or Colbert’s position on the political spectrum, but they and their audiences know how to make fun of Democrats as well as Republicans – and how to make fun of themselves. George Carlin certainly was an equal-opportunity offender as well, particularly in his later years when nothing seemed to make sense to him. Political humor, to put it simply, must make fun of power – the people who have it, and the policies that represent it. But in an era when American conservatives would rather change their entire worldview and then disparage the “reality-based community” than admit their leaders were wrong or corrupt, those same conservatives inevitably have difficulty creating (or tolerating) humor about those same leaders that has any teeth to it. To do that might be disloyal, and when your own leaders have made clear that no dissent will be tolerated from the other side, you tend to back down quickly.
So what’s left, then, for conservatives to make fun of? All too often, it’s the common targets of trumped-up, right-wing grievance: the poor, minorities, gays, Katrina victims, immigrants (legal or illegal). That’s a delicate dance, to be sure, because these days it’s less uncomfortable to get laughs when you aim jokes upward on the social stratum, or at least sideways, rather than downward. Too much of An American Carol – way, way too much – leaves a viewer shifting uncomfortably in his seat, feeling complicit in unfunny jokes that really shouldn’t have been told in the first place.
Let’s give credit where it’s due: PJ O’Rourke used to be funny, and Republican politicians like Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul have their moments. (Of course, they’re outliers in their own party, which opens all sorts of opportunities for humor that their fellow candidates can’t match – Rudy Giuliani, anyone?)
And it’s only fair to note that humor from the left is bound to dominate at a time like this decade, when all the power is on the right. What will happen next year, when Republicans likely will have no power at all? Already, Stewart has noticed that he’s more willing to make fun of liberals in an election year than his fans are willing to hear those jokes. Hopefully liberals as well as conservatives will remember Stewart’s admonishment to his audience after an Obama joke fell flat a couple months ago: “You know, it’s OK to laugh at him.”