Unfair, Unbalanced, and Very, Very Funny
September 2, 2003
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 Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at
The subtitle is as silly as the
lawsuit, but its obviously meant as a joke. The book doesnt
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 Lords Prayer.
Franken attacks not only Fox but
some people I like and respect. It hardly sounds as if hes elevating
public discourse himself. But I wouldnt 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 Id laughed any harder Id
have had to call an ambulance.
Mock solemnity was
Frankens 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 aint just a river in
Egypt. The hapless Stuart always tried to cheer himself up with
the mantra Im good enough, Im smart enough, and
doggone it, people like me. Actually, people loved this
gentle loser, a triumph of sweet humor.
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 dont. In
fact, Ive quit watching it something I once thought
Id 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 cant explain my tastes, but the Irish and
Scottish characters must have something to do with it.
Al Franken is Jewish, but
Ive never seen him do a Jewish joke. There must be dirty Jewish
jokes, but I cant remember any, unless you count jokes about
circumcision, which are rarely funny. Jewish humor is daring, mordant,
and hilarious, but, unless Ive missed something, seldom off-color.
Henny Youngman, Woody Allen, even Lenny Bruce rarely made a joke you
couldnt repeat to your pastor.
If its 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
hed stick to comedy. When he talks politics, he descends to a
bilious mockery that isnt funny, doesnt become him, and
betrays everything Stuart Smalley stood for.