Why Republicans aren't funny

You can’t make us laugh when you’re gaslighting us

Read: The very real chances of Trump losing the popular vote and winning the Electoral College again, the surprising radioactivity of the Marshall Islands, more signs of a recession (except when it comes to chicken thighs and Amazon Prime Day), the most-unsatisfied workers in America, which young Americans are using the news to form political opinions, the best way to read the Mueller Report, the dangers of getting divorced over 50, just how satisfied Democrats are with their primary choices, how stressed, worried, and angry Americans are, how moderating comments affects your view of the news, and the world’s coolest 96-year-old Holocaust survivor.

Watch: What if the entire series of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was a set-up for a 5-minute-long dance scene that lands so hard it needs a grounds crew and fire suppression foam?

Listen: The Flaming Lips have released their best album since the new black actually was the new black, but that’s the cherry on top of an embarrassment of riches in new music this week. Did you know Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes was putting out a solo record? Me neither, but we’ve got an advance track you might like, and that’s just one example. Seriously, dig in.

But first: Why aren’t Republicans funny?

The morning after President Trump tweeted that four Democratic congresswomen should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Griff Jenkins read the tweets aloud on Fox & Friends.

“Comedian in chief,” said one host.

“Someone’s feeling very comedic today,” added another.

The fact that they could argue that the President’s tweets were meant as a joke says a lot about what passes for modern conservatism, and we’ll get to it in a second, but first can we agree that Trump wasn’t trying to be funny? And, fundamentally, that what he said wasn’t funny?

It’s almost worse when Republicans try to be funny. Dennis Miller hasn’t been funny since he dropped the pretense of being a decent person. Mike Huckabee, whose tweets reimagine CPAC as the Catskills, should have stuck to church because he was more believable as a Baptist preacher. Fox News keeps trying to do the funny, most recently with The 1/2 Hour News Hour, which last aired in 2007. Then came The Red Eye and then The Flipside. Before his death, John McCain was funny, and I remember Bob Dole making me laugh in the ‘90s, though that might have been Norm McDonald pretending to be the Kansas Senator on a parody of MTV’s The Real World saying, “Someone ate Bob Dole’s peanut butter!”

Donald Trump has at least given Republicans a comedic template with his schoolyard insults. As joke devices, they range from calling Ted Cruz “lyin’ Ted” and Jeb Bush “low energy” to his latest attempt to put his mocking brand on the Speaker. "Nancy Pelosi, or Nancy, as I call her, doesn't want to hear the truth," he tweeted. “Low energy” is kinda funny, and “Nancy, as I call her” is intentionally so, but they don’t work as insult comedy unless his supporters laugh along with him, and even then it’s not funny, just mean.

Other Republicans have tried to use Trump’s template. Remember when Ted Cruz’s spokesperson said Beto O’Rourke was a “triple meat Whataburger liberal”? The reason these jokes only work for Trump is that he is the top insult comic dog in the Republican pack. Getting insults to stick requires the pack to point and laugh at someone outside of the pack. And that might elicit a genuine reaction of spontaneous laughter, but back in the sixth grade it also would have gotten you detention.

It’s a way of pretending to be funny, really. It’s a socially acceptable way to express anger and cruelty similar to the “just joking” construct. Wait, you were offended when Trump’s former Fed pick wroting that women playing sports was a “travesty”? He was just joking. You didn’t think Tucker Carlson was actually serious when he called into Bubba the Love Sponge’s radio show to say child rape could be prevented if they just got married first, to say Britney Spears and Paris Hilton were “the biggest white whores in America,” or to claim that women like to be told to “be quiet and kind of do what you’re told,” did you?

You liberals have no sense of humor. They were just joking. You really need to lighten up.   

For sure, liberals can get smug, and we see this crop up sometimes in attempts at humor, if you can call laughing at ignorance funny. And in fact there is an argument that Obama mocking Trump in 2011 changed the course of history. But Barack Obama was so unimpeachably (heh) funny at the White House Correspondents' Dinner that I always felt bad for the professional comedians who had to follow him.

“The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is known as the prom of Washington, D.C.,” he said at one, “a term coined by political reporters who clearly never had the chance to go to an actual prom.” At another he playfully criticized Sen. Bernie Sanders “for distancing yourself from me. I mean that’s just not something you do to your comrade.” Later the same night, he talked about Donald Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience. “In fairness, he has spent years meeting with leaders from around the world,” said Obama. “Miss Sweden … Miss Argentina… Miss Azerbaijan…”

Now that’s funny.

There are several legitimate functions for political humor. One, obviously, is to joke about the emperor’s varying states of undress. To paraphrase Jay Leno, there was a time when it was all about Clinton being horny and George W. Bush being dumb. In Clinton’s case, fair. And if it wasn’t quite fair to call someone with two Ivy League degrees dumb, then Bush shouldn’t have said, “No one ever asks the question: Is our children learning” or suggesting that people just wanted to “put food on their family” and that his economic plan was to “make the pie higher.”

Or he could have just not invaded Iraq. Either way, calling W dumb had the ring of truth because it was based on our common experience of trying to process what it meant that a man of limited cognitive capacity was systematically turning a time of peace and prosperity into a massive goat screw.

If the past is prelude, then we all missed a lot of signs, because here we are at a point where the main function of political humor is not to mock Trump but to understand just what in the entire holy hell is happening. Helping Americans process the day’s news is how Stephen Colbert sees his job, and it’s why we all felt the way we did when we heard John Mulaney’s “There’s a Horse in the Hospital” routine.

If you haven’t heard this yet, click here. I’ll wait.

Great, wasn’t it? I mean, the way people laughed when he starts out, “I don’t know if you’ve been watching the news lately,” which is just perfect because damn. The image of a normal person reacting to the news of a horse being loose in a hospital is the perfect metaphor for the confused panic. What’s more important is that John Mulaney got it, and everybody in Radio City understood, too, and then everyone who saw it on Netflix, and then everyone who knows someone who saw it on Netflix. That’s how 4 minutes and 10 seconds of laughter can helps us realize that we’re not crazy.

One reason Jon Stewart was so foundational for liberal humor is that he grounded his humor in facts. The Daily Show even had a senior producer known as Stewart’ “facts guy” who liked to say, “Without credibility, a joke has no meaning.” John Oliver, a Stewart protégé, has a fact-checker working for his show, too, not because he’s trying to be politically correct but because he wants to jokes to work. “If you make a joke about something that is factually inaccurate, the joke collapses,” he said.

Conversely, much Republican humor is trying to sell us on a world that doesn’t exist. Republicans will have an easier time telling jokes that speak to our common experience when they start accepting reality: The climate is changing, mass shootings are a massive and uniquely American problem that’s being driven as much by toxic masculinity as easy access to guns, tax cuts do not lead to greater revenue, and evolution is real, though some of you are making that hard for me to believe. You can’t make us laugh when you’re gaslighting us, much less when you’re trying to say that non-white, non-Christian, and non-heterosexual Americans should go back where we came from.

All good jokes are based on the truth, and that’s why Republicans haven’t been good at telling jokes for a long time.

What I’m reading

Really enjoying Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird. It’s a novel about the absolutely true story of Private Cathy Williams, the only women ever to join the Buffalo Soldiers.

Holy cow. Amazon did more business on Prime Day than on Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

Damn: “Since the 1980s average annual losses from natural disasters have more than sextupled in real terms.”

Dude: “Parts of the Marshall Islands are more radioactive than Chernobyl and Fukushima, study finds.”

Ack: Democrats could win the popular vote by 5 million and still lose the Electoral College.

U.S. retail sales of chicken thighs have increased nine-fold in the last decade.

I don’t think the fact that Turkey—a NATO member—is creating a military alliance with Russia is getting enough attention.

Y’all, K.B. is not getting invited to the Harris County District Attorney’s holiday party where, I kid you not, they will be entertained by a band of musical lawyers who play under the name Death by Injection. The reason K.B. is journalist-non-grata is because apparently the DA keeps a spreadsheet of untrustworthy police officers so they don’t base prosecutions on their testimony. And when a public official creates a record it becomes a, you know, public record, except now the DA says it’s not. Suckers.

Kudos to N.R. for finding this article on a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor who is now the lead singer of a death metal band that is not called Death by Injection.

Speaking of the aged, getting divorced over 50 is harder financially and emotionally than splitting the sheets when you’re younger, which means I’ve made at least one good financial decision in my life.

Everybody is paying more attention than usual to the presidential campaign, and Democrats, especially older, female, and liberal ones, like their choices in the primary. In fact, Democrats are way more satisfied with their choices than they were in 2016 and slightly more even than 2008.

One choice no one wants is Bill de Blasio. He’s actually less popular in New York state than Donald Trump, and New Yorkers whose judgment I trust actively and loudly hate him. But when I ask why, I get odd answers, like he goes to a gym in Brooklyn. Vox did a good explainer about why he is so unpopular in his own town, including the interesting observation that he’s in fact super popular with black New Yorkers and super not so much with the white ones.

Whiteboard animations get paid attention to 15 percent more than simple talking head videos.

The entire Fresh Air archive is now online and searchable.

Dry January is a fairly recent invention, and a British one at that.

The U.S. is in a corporate earnings recession and a manufacturing recession.

Did you know the U.S. government turned a $15.4-billion profit on TARP?

News nerds: Young African Americans are twice as likely to use their news source to decide which policies to support as young white Americans. McClatchy is using Google money to serve news deserts. Also, moderating comments reduces one’s faith in the news, and “newspaper subscribers who receive a short-term price adjustment to quell the disappointment of a delivery failure are actually less likely to renew their subscription when the time comes.”

If you want me to read the Mueller Report, getting a Hollywood screenwriter and the artist behind Archer to present it is smart.

Firefighters are the most satisfied with their jobs. The least satisfied? Mail clerks.

Americans are more stressed, angry, and worried than at any time since they started measuring it. For comparison, Americans are more stressed than Rwandans and Venezuelans.

Preterm births by Latina women are up sharply in the United States since 2016.

Of the 25 most influential people on the Internet, I knew 13.

Pitchfork gave a really good review to David Berman’s comeback album with a new band called Purple Mountains, but careful readers of the newsletter knew about this weeks ago.

Finally, this recipe turned out really well. My best friend Bryan and I commenced to chopping last night and ended up with some damn good short rib tacos.

What I’m watching

J.R. checks in with instructions to watch HBO’s Succession and I Love You, Now Die, but I am not strong enough yet. Others, including A.T. and the Glen Weldon, for whom we very much stan, insist upon Shitt’s Creek's worthiness. I tried that show once and will dive back in. We shall see.

In the meantime, I saw the infamous dance scene in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia a bit ago and cannot get over it. The show is trash, and deliberately so. If you’ve seen one episode of the series about a group of horrible people who own a horrible bar in Philadelphia, you get the formula: bad peoples’ bad plans fail badly. (Here’s a compilation of bits on the show to give you a flavor if you’ve never tasted it.)

Mac, the shirtless dude below, comes out as gay in the last season and tells his imprisoned father, who rejects him. Mac hatches a huge plan to get his dad to accept him by staging a public confession to his father’s prison. This is where hijinks would normally ensue.

Instead, this does. At first you suspect it’s a joke, but they commit. Two minutes in and the stakes increase, the dance shifting from confession to an expression of grief. And thirty seconds later the female dancer rises from crushing defeat to become our proxy to tell Mac we love him and celebrate him. At at 3:38 if you’re not stunned by how real it just got then you might as well sell your television for all the good it’s doing you.

It’s as if the entire series was an excuse to set up these five minutes. This isn’t “a very special episode” in the cliched sense, but it is a very special episode, and I’m so glad I saw it.

What I’m listening to

So much good new music out this week.

IDER’s “Wu Baby” is great.

Charli XCX & Christine and the Queens are getting a lot of love on Pitchfork for “Gone,” but I’m not quite sold.

Blood Orange dropped a big album called Angel’s Pulse. The lead track is “Benzo,” which, cool, but I dig “I Wanna C U.”

Homepunk avatar Frank Turner is coming out with an album about women called “No Man’s Land.” A few songs are already out. My favorite is “Sister Rosetta,” about a guitar-playing nun from back in the day who is now in the rock ‘n roll hall of fame. Her most famous song was about the flood in “Didn’t It Rain.” Seriously, click on that last one. It’s so cool.

Take a breath. There’s more. I know, right?

You like Alabama Shakes? Brittany Howard, the lead singer, is putting out a solo album called Jaime. I like “History Repeats.”

Lola Marsh, who is completely knew to me, has a song out you can only find on video. Listening to “Echoes” makes you feel like you are in stylish spy movie with a dance scene.

That brings us to Angelica Garcia, an LA Latinx who wants to tell you something about her background: “It Don’t Hinder Me.” Y’all, it’s good, and then she drops that line about someone telling her if she stopped eating tortillas she might be able to lose weight, and then it just starts landing punches.

Finally—see, I told you there was a lot of good new music out—the last time The Flaming Lips put out a good album I had a different wife and only one son. After way too long — and many, many changes — the Lips are back with a “concept album accompanied by an immersive art exhibition and a children’s book, about a monarch with a giant head that contains galaxies and weather systems, narrated by former Clash guitarist Mick Jones.” I mean, obviously.

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