In the ’60s, “political” comics shared a wink and a nod with fans as to who was due a beat-down, a comeuppance, a reversal of fortune. The power was Johnson or Nixon, the big chemical companies that manufactured napalm, the military-industrial complex, the KKK and its think-alikes—even the networks themselves. When the Smothers Brothers (whose writers included Steve Martin and Rob Reiner) started doing sly political humor, stinging critiques of the Vietnam War, guns, and even censorship, CBS canceled the Emmy-winning variety show.
But now the one perceived as having the power—even as much as the one-percenters, the banks, the NSA—is the celebrity comic himself. He must audition for the right to deliver a pointed opinion as if it were just one more entitlement. Big names like Seinfeld, Rock, and Maher—rich, famous—have to prove they’re worthy of their privilege before their observations on the economy, civil rights, domestic spying, dating, marriage, you name it, are given a fair hearing.
The comic is barely performer anymore; he is more the audience. It’s his or her job to applaud the people in the seats for being exactly who they are, the evolutionary high-water mark of sensitivity to other people’s powerlessness, which is just a projection of their own inner insecurities and dissatisfactions. Like the poor kid whose immunity is shot and must live in a plastic bubble for fear of an errant sneeze, our college kids fear microaggressions and so construct bubbles of their own. Approach at your own peril.
In short, the students of 2015 are not the rightful heirs of hip ’60s audiences, willing to let the latter-day Bruces pull them—for good or for ill—they know not where, but of their grandparents’ sensibilities, only with the world as their living room. They expect to have their self-image reflected back to them, they tut-tut “abusive” language, they become outraged at wrong attitudes. Don’t you know what we suffered through in
the Depression, World War II, heteronormative patriarchy? Instead of calling the networks or writing a letter to the editor, this generation takes to social media to vent spleen as to what’s wrong with these kids today.
What’s lost in all this talk is what’s funny.
But in a way, the comedians that Sacramone names above, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Bill Maher, and others of their ilk, have only themselves to blame for not knowing that it is the nature of their ideology to devour the host organism. The original “Progressives” at the start of the 20th century devoured puritan America. When the New Deal-era left became the dominant culture in Washington, Hollywood and New York by the mid-1960s, they too were devoured by the radical upstart New Left.*
In the early 1990s, journalists and critics ranging from John Leo at US News & World Report all the way to Siskel & Ebert on their TV film review series warned of the looming dangers of political correctness, and were largely ignored, likely because of how crazy the stories then emerging from campuses across America sounded. I realize that the left tends to ignore its own history, but the more astute among them should have anticipated this moment, if only because similar headlines were emerging about 15 years ago out of England, a socialist hothouse due to its much smaller size. Perhaps, as with the the left and Islam, leftist comedians presumed that if they kept quiet, they’d be devoured last by their audiences. Well, “last” has now arrived at last.
* Other than Barry Goldwater’s Pyrrhic run for the White House, the entire history of America in the 1960s is blue on blue on blue, all the way to Nixon’s White House, which governed domestically as an extension of LBJ’s Great Society.
Update: Of course, part of what made the comedian’s job easier in the old days was that if society as a whole was relatively functional, all he needed to do was to hold its perceived excesses up for ridicule. In contrast, as Mark Steyn writes today, “I try to stay chipper about Rachel Dolezal and the rest of this stuff, but it’s not really funny, is it? More and more levers of civilization appear to be in the hands of the clinically insane.”