September 2, 2003

by Joe Sobran

     I was delighted by the news that a court had 
contemptuously thrown out the Fox News lawsuit against 
the comedian Al Franken as "wholly without merit." Fox 
argued that Franken had violated its trademark phrase 
"fair and balanced" by titling his new book LIES AND THE 

     The subtitle is as silly as the lawsuit, but it's 
obviously meant as a joke. The book doesn't sound funny 
to me; it sounds puerile and rather vicious. But for Fox 
News to claim ownership of a phrase as common as "fair 
and balanced" is a bit like claiming a copyright on the 
Lord's Prayer.

     Franken attacks not only Fox but some people I like 
and respect. It hardly sounds as if he's elevating public 
discourse himself. But I wouldn't ask him to. His genius 
is for other things.

     When I first saw Franken on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, 
back in the 1970s, I disliked him. Clever, I thought, but 
more annoying than amusing. Then, years later, he gave a 
mock-medical explanation of prostate surgery. Very poor 
taste, to say the least. But as he proceeded with his 
clinical description of catheters and scraping, he began 
twitching uncontrollably, until he fell under his desk in 
vicarious agony. If I'd laughed any harder I'd have had 
to call an ambulance.

     Mock solemnity was Franken's forte. In that 
department he rivaled the great Bob Newhart. Playing a 
feckless war correspondent during the 1991 Gulf War, he 
appeared with a satellite dish on his head, absurdly lost 
in the desert while pretending to report with first-hand 
authority. He specialized in playing confused guys trying 
to sound smart.

     Best of all, perhaps, was his comic creation Stuart 
Smalley, the multineurotic self-help counselor, full of 
sage psychobabble like "Denial ain't just a river in 
Egypt." The hapless Stuart always tried to cheer himself 
up with the mantra "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, 
and doggone it, people *like* me." Actually, people 
loved this gentle loser, a triumph of sweet humor.

     Since Franken left to do his own show, SATURDAY 
NIGHT LIVE has gotten worse and worse. When he was a 
regular performer and writer, its humor was based on 
characters: the Church Lady, Hans and Franz, the Ladies' 
Man, and Stuart. You laughed at them, but you also pitied 
their self-delusions and felt their humanity.

     Lately the show has descended into mere smirking 
smut. It dares you not to laugh. So I don't. In fact, 
I've quit watching it -- something I once thought I'd 
never do.

     Now that both my parents have passed on, I can 
confess freely that I dearly love a good dirty joke, 
especially one that involves Irishmen or Scotsmen. But it 
has to be funny as well as dirty. I also love good clean 
jokes, especially if they involve Irishmen or Scotsmen. I 
can't explain my tastes, but the Irish and Scottish 
characters must have something to do with it.

     Al Franken is Jewish, but I've never seen him do a 
Jewish joke. There must be dirty Jewish jokes, but I 
can't remember any, unless you count jokes about 
circumcision, which are rarely funny. Jewish humor is 
daring, mordant, and hilarious, but, unless I've missed 
something, seldom off-color. Henny Youngman, Woody Allen, 
even Lenny Bruce rarely made a joke you couldn't repeat 
to your pastor.

     If it's not anti-Semitic to say so, I sometimes 
wonder if the Jews even realize how funny sex is. Maybe 
only Christians can fully appreciate it. Sir Thomas 
Browne ventured to say that copulating is "the foolishest 
thing that a wise man does in his whole life." It took 
guts to say that, yet -- again, as far as I know -- 
nobody has ever publicly agreed or disagreed with him. 
Which can mean only one thing.

     The (now) infamous Pope Pius XII taught that the 
sacrament of matrimony "ennobles" the act of sexual 
intercourse. The orthodox Pope implicitly recognized that 
there is something essentially ignoble (and potentially 
comical) about the sexual desire of fallen man. That 
august pontiff put his finger on the whole reason for the 
dirty jokes we love.

     But I digress. I really mean to say that Al Franken 
is one of the funniest men in America, and I wish he'd 
stick to comedy. When he talks politics, he descends to a 
bilious mockery that isn't funny, doesn't become him, and 
betrays everything Stuart Smalley stood for.


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