Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The art of the possibly funny

“Scott! Why do you always feel it necessary to bash the Clinton-Gore administration, as you did in your most recent weekly commentary? Sure, they weren’t perfect, but didn’t they express high ideals about social justice and America’s international role, not to mention presiding over the strongest and longest-lasting economic boom in the country’s history? What is your problem? Are you some sort of right-wing Republican apologist?”

No, that isn’t an email from some irate reader. It’s my conscience talking.

I keep waiting for someone to call me on my occasional Clinton and/or Gore jokes, but surprisingly no one ever does. Either my readership (to the extent that it exists) isn’t very politically engaged, or else they are all extremely mellow.

The truth, of course, is that I started making Clinton jokes for the same reason that Jay Leno still makes Clinton jokes, even a year and a half after he left office. The man is just too funny not to make jokes about. The Clintons’ private life, as chronicled by the press, was “reality TV” (actually, it was more than “reality TV”; it was “reality mass media”) before “reality TV” had to sink to the depths of the Osbournes and Anna Nicole Smith. We knew way more about this president’s private life than we ever wanted to know about any human being. And it was phenomenally great fodder for humor. The strange thing about this is that there is every indication that Clinton has always been in on the joke. He is a man who loves being talked about, even if the chat has to do with interns and cigars.

When a new administration took over, the late-night comedians dutifully transitioned their jokes to the Bushes, usually spinning gags about W.’s supposed low I.Q. But the sad truth is that George W. Bush just isn’t as funny as Clinton was and still is. Audiences laugh at the jokes almost out of obligation. Even if W. is a moron, it just isn’t that comical. Not like the stuff about interns and cigars. Arguably, the 20th century’s greatest wit, Groucho Marx didn’t know from interns, but he definitely knew about the comic impact of a cigar.

But the astute reader will have noted long ago that there is more going on in these monologues of mine than mere light-hearted banter. It was evident in my election eve commentary, wherein I described one of the candidates and then (hopefully) amazed my readers by pointing out that my description actually fit both candidates. Or last week’s harangue, in which I dubbed Gore “the illusion of political choice.”

Yes, I have been espousing the view that there isn’t much substantive difference between the standard bearers of the two major American political parties or, by extension, between the parties themselves. This may seem a cynical view, but I actually find it comforting and reassuring. No, I don’t exactly think the Democrats and the Republicans are in cahoots with each other, only pretending to be adversaries. But I do think that most serious professional politicians know what the American people will take or not take. And I also think that each politician tailors his or her rhetoric to specific groups to maximize their monetary and electoral support, while always keeping the larger picture in question. That’s why I believe that the two major parties love closely divided houses in Congress. It allows them to declare their support for the law or principle that most satisfies their particular constituencies, while at the same time permitting them to blame the opposing party for not enacting the most radical of their declared platform. At the same time, measures that enjoy widespread support sail through.

The most annoying thing about the major political parties is the way they have seized on certain hot button issues for the cynical purpose of manipulating large voting blocs. My personal day of emancipation came when I vowed never again to vote for or against a candidate solely on the basis of his or her position on abortion and/or gun control. These issues are largely resolved and yet are kept alive for the sake of sucking in additional monetary donations and votes. Raising them in alarming tones in the course of a campaign is merely a way of manipulating voters in the same way that large supermarket chains manipulate lots of people into buying things they don’t mean to buy, by issuing them plastic loyalty cards.

Does this mean that it makes no difference at all if it’s Democrats or Republicans that get elected? No. But the difference in real-world results is way smaller than the gloomy, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it rhetoric of the two parties would suggest. Look at Clinton’s record, for example. His radical health care reform proposal, for good or ill, was summarily dispatched by both parties. It was only when he co-opted the seven least radical points of Newt Gringrich’s Contract with America that he became a “successful” president. You might argue the merits of these results, but the majority of Americans seem to have been perfectly fine with them.

So then, why do the Democrats always seem to get the brunt of my humorous jabs? That’s easy. Hypocrisy is funny. The Republicans’ frequently self-serving agenda fits right in with the party’s philosophy of open capitalism. The Democrats, who express much loftier principles, inevitably fall far shorter of their stated ideals.

And what does any of this have to do with movies, which is the alleged province of this web site? Nothing. So sue me.

-S.L., 15 August 2002

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