Glenn Beck is doing the job documented comedians refuse to do: making people laugh about liberalism.
Beck, the radio titan and Fox News commentator, kicked off his six-city “Common Sense” comedy tour June 1 at Denver’s Ellie Caulkins Opera House.
It’s an odd venue for the populist broadcaster — a man who talks up tater tots one minute, then belittles opera the next — but fitting for someone with his power base. Beck is the first one to laugh at his third chin and Bowflex-free physique, but the broadcaster is as polarizing as he is potent in today’s media world.
But — can he bring the funny?
Well yes, but for only half of his two-hour performance.
Beck didn’t work his way through comedy clubs en route to this tony stage. He is first a broadcaster. However, he does bring all the bells and whistles of a stand-up. He does voices, some quite well. He bounds across the stage with considerable polish, and expertly modulates his tone to bring home a punch line. At times, his rants about our absurd culture channel George Carlin, even though Beck’s politics couldn’t be more different. But he always returns to his “take the country back” mantra, a message he delivers with unusual conviction.
Beck began the sold-out show in a black t-shirt reading “1791” (he explains it during the show) and blue jeans. He proceeded to rail against universal health care, explaining how the private sector always outdoes the public. Just think of schools, pools, and toilets, he cracked.
He read from a recent article in Pravda, which picked apart Obama’s administration more critically than any American newspaper. He pilloried the nanny state, reciting some of the more amusing warning labels on current consumer products. It’s material begging to be targeted, but it took a radio talk show host like Beck to explore it — not the comedy establishment.
Some of the show’s best lines blurred the division between humor and politics: “The unions in California won’t let you fire the pedophile teacher. … That wasn’t a joke.”
A conservative might find little to laugh about today, but that doesn’t slow Beck down — part of his appeal lies in trying to hover above the partisan divide. It’s a bit of a ruse, since his politics are solidly right. But he’s quick to find fault with both sides, especially when it comes to modern day restrictions which are squeezing the liberty right out of us.
Beck saved some stinging comments for the Grand Old Party and its antiquated symbol: “An elephant is old, wrinkled, gray, slow and fat. That’s not a party. That’s Ed Asner. Nobody wants to follow Ed Asner.”
Sometimes his snark gets the better of him, as Beck jokes he’d rather vote for Mickey Mouse than today’s politicians because the Disney character “never betrayed me.” His political diatribes fall back too easily towards his “throw the bums out,” a method both impractical and glib even if he finds a great metaphor in a humble tater tot to tell it. It makes for a great applause line, but Beck is good enough not to need simple bromides.
He’s also too quick to wax dramatic on issues that don’t have nearly the weight he imagines. He insists that cutting public funding to NPR, which represents the tiniest fraction of the country’s largesse, will help save the country.
Beck commenced the second half of the show in Founding Father attire — eighteenth century clothes, powdered wig. The ensemble helped him tell some stories about the country’s earliest days, and while the segment ran long, he told each tale with his customary bluster. Here he abandoned the comedy template, retreating to his strong suit of fiery polemics told with more than a little emotion. The audience got treated to a history lesson like few others. Beck implored them to consult the actual speeches of the founding fathers, not the textbooks which often excise the best parts of their personal stories.
Beck is not a first-rate comic. But he is among the first to tackle Obama with abandon, which puts him light years ahead of the Lettermans of the world who can’t see fit to so much as tease. America was advanced by those who saw an economic opening and pursued it — so why can’t Beck joke about liberalism until his peers decide to play catch-up?