Republicans took back Congress by offering solid policy alternatives to the Obama administration’s catastrophic demagoguery. But to take back the culture, we conservatives ought to start telling more fart jokes. Ironically, I’m not kidding about that.
For a while now, I’ve been thinking and writing about dirty jokes from the ancient Greek stage and the modern movie theater. One thing I’ve noticed is that we haven’t come up with a lot of new material over the past 2500 years. Basically, awkward sex and uncontrollable bowel movements are what’s funny. Since literally the birth of Western civilization, audiences have lined up out the door to watch some poor goon crap his pants.
No surprises there.
The other thing I’ve noticed, though, is that jokes have power. I’m talking about real, persuasive cultural force — the kind of thing that can change people’s minds and even sway elections. It’s not the same power that logic has: comedy doesn’t make convincing arguments. It doesn’t have to. All a really good comedy has to do is make its characters likable. With enough charm and charisma, pretty much anything can look like a great idea.
Take Seth Rogen. He’s the go-to leading man for a lot of big comedies, so he usually plays washed-up potheads, dunderhead cops, and vapid celebrities. But he has got to be the most likable human being on the planet. Just look at those teddy bear curls and listen to that cartoonish chuckle: the guy’s America’s overweight, deadbeat sweetheart. So when Rogen knocks a girl up out of wedlock or sets his own cop car on fire, he makes a goofy joke and somehow it all kind of looks like a good time. Audiences make fun of Rogen, but they also want to jump on the couch and play video games with him and his loser buddies. At least I do, a little.
That kind of lowbrow charm can be exceptionally convincing — just ask the ancient Greeks. The Greeks loved their comedies, and they loved them dumb and dirty. But they also loved them with a little bit of socio-political bite. One of the masters of that art was Aristophanes, who could have ‘em rolling in the aisles with a fart gag one minute, then slip in a scorchingly topical zinger the next. His characters were witty, winning, raunchy doofuses. What Aristophanes said wasn’t usually true, but it sure sounded good, and boy, was it funny. It also may have changed the history of Greece.
In the 420s BC, Aristophanes put on a show about Socrates. As in, that Socrates — the mac-daddy of philosophy. Except in Aristophanes’ play, Socrates is a fraud. He takes in strapping young men and turns them into prissy, eggheaded weaklings, corrupting them with “hyper-sophisticated drivel” and teaching them to abuse their parents (359). Socrates’ celebrated school, “the Thinkery,” comes across as a cesspool of immorality and idolatry. To listen to Aristophanes, Socrates was the scam artist of the century.
As far as we can tell, not a word of that is true. But in 399 BC, Athens put Socrates on trial for every one of the charges Aristophanes insinuated: corrupting the youth, preaching immoral doctrine, undermining the gods. The prosecution got a guilty verdict and a death sentence even though, as Plato wrote, “they didn’t say a word of truth” (17a). Now, there are plenty of other reasons, political and historical, why Socrates was a marked man. But as Plato pointed out, the jury had Aristophanes’ picture in their heads, too: they were primed to believe that Socrates was an anti-Athenian hack. Whatever else he said or did, Socrates was the shyster they had laughed at in the theater — he was shifty and dangerous. Aristophanes said so.
That’s just one example. Aristophanes also roasted Alcibiades, one of Athens’ major generals, and he lobbied for certain brands of poetry over others. He played fast and loose with the facts, but he threw in enough puns and sex gags that it didn’t matter. Aristophanes could have sold almost any bill of goods he wanted to — his audience would have been laughing too hard to argue.
Not a lot has changed. Modern comedies are as dumb and raunchy as ever, and they have almost as much cultural influence as plays did in ancient Greece. But conservatives aren’t harnessing that influence as much as we could.
People have argued that Judd Apatow has a socially conservative bent. And it’s true, for example, that he slips a keep-the-baby narrative into Knocked Up. But Apatow also routinely moans about Citizens United on Twitter — he’s hardly a champion for the right-wing cause. Mostly, movie comedies rehearse the same worn-out lefty narratives that the rest of Hollywood loves: feminists triumphantly battle oppression (Anchorman 2), or southerners get sent up as ignorant Jesus freaks (Talladega Nights). People watch this stuff, and it has an effect. Just ask the average 20-year-old where he gets his news — chances are, it’s from The Daily Show. Jokes have power.
Right now, that power is in the hands of folks like Jon Stewart, Will Ferrell, and Russell Brand — charming, talented elites with no idea what they’re talking about. Republicans are hot off some incredible midterms. We’ve got people like Paul Ryan making clear-eyed, compelling arguments. But weirdly, facts aren’t enough to make a convincing national case. We need a little more of that fun-loving, free-wheeling irreverence that the Left is pretending to monopolize. We need more folks like Greg Gutfeld and Ann Coulter who can hit back with pithy one-liners from the other side. It just might make a difference in 2016.
Dumb jokes are a historical constant, and so is their persuasive power. So it matters how that power gets used. Now, you can’t win an election with a pun (thank goodness). But, as Aristophanes knew, stupid jokes can get a lot done. Plus, you know — they’re hilarious.