Katy Burns: In times like these, laughter helps

  • Comedians Tommy (left) and Dick Smothers are shown on April 5, 1969. AP

Monitor columnist
Sunday, February 19, 2017

Okay, so the Dems lost the presidency. And the Senate. The House. The Supreme Court. A huge swath of state capitols – well, pretty much everything. But, hey, guys, look on the bright side.

You’ve pretty much cornered the humor market.

Yep, Republicans (and conservatives generally) have for years had a total lock on talk radio. That became clear back in the early 2000s when a bunch of well-meaning progressives kicked off Air America, designed to combat the Rush Limbaughs, et al., of the right. Despite such luminaries as Rachel Maddow and Al Franken, it pretty much limped along, mainly in a few big urban markets, and was put out of its misery in 2010.

But comedy? That’s a different story!

Google something like “who are conservative comics,” and most likely you’ll get three names – Drew Carey, Jeff Foxworthy and Dennis Miller, who wasn’t funny even back when people thought he was a liberal.

Otherwise, liberals, progressives, Democrats – and whatever else they call themselves – rule the comedy roost.

And today, in 2017, with the Donald Trump administration beginning its reign of chaos in our nation’s capital, political wits are exploding with creativity as the president and his crew – equal parts scary and inept – offer an endless supply of material.

It’s not just a reinvigorated Saturday Night Live and late-night comics, but everything from normally staid major newspaper columnists with newly developed satirical skills to public radio to newspaper comic strips. As readers of the Monitor have seen, some pretty sharp political barbs have popped up in both Non Sequitur and Pearls Before Swine, not to mention last Friday’s hilarious Bizarro.

Public radio’s Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me has always has been concerned with the outlandish and quirky in the week’s news, but these days the show is a flood of first-class snark, with participants falling over one another to make high fun of politicians in high places, particularly the White House.

Late-night comics are truly in their element, producing so much good material that the New York Times – the erstwhile staid Gray Lady of newspapers – has begun a daily feature focusing on the more choice tidbits from the previous night. And the real Stephen Colbert, successor to Dave Letterman at the Late Show, has readopted some of the attitude of his fake Stephen Colbert character to surge in the ratings war with other nighttime hosts.

SNL is of course at the top of the list, with Alec Baldwin’s meticulously observed and imitated Trump, Melissa McCarthy’s hilariously insane Sean Spicer terrorizing reporters with his mobile podium, and Kate McKinnon’s turn as everybody from Jeff Sessions to Kellyanne (“Bowling Green Massacre”) Conway.

A lot of faithful SNL viewers are now devoutly hoping that the role of Trump’s scary political strategist Steve Bannon, currently played by the Grim Reaper, is assumed by Trump arch-nemesis Rosie O’Donnell. If nothing more, such casting would send the putative leader of the free world into a paroxysm of incoherent tweeting. The unfettered Trump id is a wondrous thing to behold.

The most common tagline when contemplating yet another Trumpian mess is, “You can’t make this stuff up,” and for sure you can’t. Including (just Thursday) Trump’s describing his White House operation – which still hasn’t yet even figured out how to get the popular White House tours back in operation – as “running like a fine-tuned machine.”

Mockery of presidents has been, of course, an American tradition in recent decades. Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush, however dissimilar their philosophies, seemed to have pretty good senses of humor about their comic critics. And each seemed to grasp the essentials of the First Amendment. But I’m pretty sure that there were times – for both men – that they would have cheerfully sent their mocking detractors to the inner circles of hell if they could.

“Would have . . . if they could” are the operative words. I’m not at all sure Donald Trump really knows he can’t, particularly considering his oft-declared loathing for free speech and free expression. Who knows how hard he’ll push to curb speech he doesn’t like.

And it occurs to me that we should all be thankful for the all-day, everyday explosion of news and entertainment we enjoy these days through radio, newspapers, television and uncounted online sources. If this president – or any president – tried to squelch the laughter, especially laughter at his own expense, he simply couldn’t.

Trying to keep Alec Baldwin’s wickedly accurate imitation – or something else equally offensive to the president or some other high personage – from popping up everywhere would be an exercise that would make Whack-a-Mole look like a walk in the park.

Not that long ago it was a lot different. Just ask Tom and Dick Smothers, the betes noires of late 1960s TV.

Uh, who?

It was just 50 years ago that The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour made its debut on CBS-TV. These were the days when there were just three dominant national television networks. Viewers got the entertainment the network powers wanted to give them. Period. No reruns, no recording, no Internet to store it all for streaming later. No streaming! Watch it or lose it.

So a lot of people watched the Smothers Brothers, who not only had a terrifically memorable name but were clean-cut all-American folk singers – satirists, really – who were young and cute and sang things like “Boil That Cabbage Down” and “The Measles Song” while they engaged in hilarious on-stage sibling rivalry (“Mom always liked you best!”). What could go wrong?

Oh, a lot, as David Bianculli outlined in a recent essay in the New York Times. It’s worth searching for online. But here’s a short version.

The brothers – sons, by the way, of a West Point graduate and Army officer who died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp – hit the air just as the Vietnam War and opposition to it were heating up. They replaced safe guests like Jack Benny with younger, hipper entertainers – Buffalo Springfield, George Carlin – and subversive lyrics and plots began slipping into their outwardly sunny songs and skits.

CBS censors intruded with growing aggression, cutting more and more material, including whole sketches. Among the last straws for the network was singer Pete Seeger – blacklisted for 17 years – who managed to get onto the air a song (“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a savage critique of the Vietnam War) deeply offensive to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who even before that had personally phoned CBS board chairman William Haley to complain about the show’s disrespect for him.

Not too long after, Tom and Dick were fired – at the height of their popularity – and their show canceled. It had lasted barely two years.

And that was that for the Smothers brothers. They continued to perform and record, but their chance at sustained stardom was cut short because they were denied the mass audience they’d begun to attract – the people who had begun to listen to them and their guests and to question what was going on. And there were no equally accessible outlets to take up their causes, to give voice to their guests, to keep their bravado alive.

The Smothers Brothers were reaching people – effectively, too effectively for the establishment – through comedy, and so they were stopped. That couldn’t happen today.

At least so we hope.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)