You know the old chestnut, “History repeats itself — first as tragedy, then as farce”? Well, comedy works the same way. And it turns out (sorry, DougJ) that Ross Douthat might actually consider himself to be a comedian, in the mold of Bill Murray.
Recent events have convinced me that Douthat, the NYT’s “new, young” opinionator, and James O’Keefe III, “conservative activist” and FBI person of interest, are spiritual twins. Twin sons of different mothers, perhaps, sharing the same patriarch, or Patriarchy. They are rising conservative stars, young men who strive to turn their separate highly privileged upbringings into quick fame and fortune, using only the gushing springs of wingnut media welfare and the time-honored (read: worn & outdated) tropes of frat-boy philosophy. They are the two sides of modern Libertarian-Conservative “funny”. They are Legacy Comics.
Generally, “legacy comics” is the term for those funny-page panel strips in your local newspaper that haven’t been funny within living memory, i.e., since the original creator went senile or died. Of course, nobody expects serial strips like Rex Morgan MD or Dick Tracy to be entertaining — they’re the graphic equivalent of David Broder, staggering onwards only because the newspapers’ aging editors can’t bear to admit that the average American gets their daily medical / forensic entertainment from television and their daily political / criminal entertainment from the Enquirer and Drudge. But some of the unfunniest stuff in the funny pages used to be entertaining, in a distant time and a vanished context. Most comic readers under 40 remember Jonny Hart as a bitter, christianist altekacker, but in the early 1960s stuff like “Clams got legs! – Now we’ll have to kill him” or “How sweet — he killed me a friend” were mordant and unexpected enough to be hilarious. Even the early Peanuts strips had a certain edge, back when the stereotypes now enshrined in Mad Men were not charming vintage sketches but scary soul-damaged individuals like The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. The problem is that creativity isn’t a bottomless well — not even the kind of creativity that gets expressed as three-panel jokes on a five-to-seven-days-a-week basis. Newspaper editors and readers hate changes, and want the comic artist to keep giving them the same-thing-only-different to go with their coffee; the comic artist burns out, dies, or gets too senile; so the “franchise” gets handed over to the artist’s otherwise-unemployable offspring, or to the “assistant” who’s been cleaning up the misspelled words & palsied drawing for the last quarter-century.
Actual live comedians have the same problem… just look at Chevy Chase. You can only do so many pratfalls before turning into Jerry Lewis. Comics burn out, sometimes literally (hello, Richard Pryor). The wise or lucky ones find a way to transition into a different branch of entertainment, like Cosby moving from stand-up to I Spy to sit-com. Those less lucky end up dead or vanished. And twenty years later, when media classes and YouTube have turned their patented bits and tics into Classics of the Form, some punk (whose parents once broke comedians’ hearts by sitting stone-faced at an undersold gig, determinedly not getting the point) looks around at a roomful of his frat brothers wetting themselves over their forty-fifth viewing of Animal House or SNL: The Classic Years and says to himself, “I could do this, if only I can figure out where the money is.”
Now, James O’Keefe, “guerrilla videographer”, has openly declared himself a political comedian, at least while the FBI is still investigating his “boyish hijinks”. Cruel liberals have compared him unfavorably to vintage right-wing funny guy G. Gordon Liddy, but O’Keefe’s obvious role model (and this would kill the poor man, if he weren’t already dead) is the late, great John Belushi. Unfortunately, O’Keefe’s understanding of Belushi’s cut-yourself-on-the-bleeding-edge physical comedy is as superficial and moronic as a Republican congressman’s understanding of legislative debate. O’Keefe looked at the Blues Brothers and said to himself: “Big sunglasses and trash talk — the coloreds love that stuff! Wrecking other people’s lives — that never gets old!”
But Ross Douthat is nowhere so obvious. He is, after all, a Harvard man, as he will not hesitate to remind you. Not for our Ross the cheap laffs of mere physical comedy. He has a subtler and longer-lived role model: Bill Murray, the Maynard G. Krebs of the mid-1970s. Murray has made a profitable career out of being The Guy Who’s A Little Too Hip for the Room. And he does that role very well, even if it’s not a setpiece to everyone’s taste. For Douthat, it’s all about the ironic distance… nobody with sufficient education to get into Harvard is going to decorate his room there with posters of Russell Crowe and Audrey Hepburn without tongue so firmly in cheek as to protrude from the vulgar bodily orifice. Even among the Modern American Conservatives, a tribe not known for its self-awareness, no young man claiming to be heterosexual is going to publish a memoir where finding out a potential sexual partner has taken intelligent precautions against pregnancy is a boner-killer. Nobody who doesn’t consider himself A Little Too Hip for the Room is going to start his career as a big-time NYT intellectual with a column titled “Dick Cheney for President“.
Yes, the inescapable conclusion is that Ross Douthat considers himself a comedian. But the question remains: Are we laughing with him, or just at him?