Why So Serious?

As any comedian—or anyone who’s ever been asked to give a wedding speech—knows, if you have to tell the audience you’re joking, you’re not funny. At all. But in the Post-Barry Blitt-New Yorker-Cover world (“7/21, Never Forget“), every joke suddenly requires a rim-shot and a “waka-waka” lest someone, somewhere get offended by something. If Blanche Knott were still alive, she’d probably kill herself by choking on a rubber chicken. (Get it?!)

The New Yorker‘s Hendrick Hertzberg seemed to anticipate this new post-funny era in his “Comment” in this week’s issue of the magazine:

Back in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, candidates for President of the United States didn’t have much truck with foreigners. They didn’t vote, they lived on the other side of the ocean, and they spoke funny, most of ’em. (If a Frenchman is a man, Jim points out to Huck Finn, “why doan’ he talk like a man?”) Even after America’s rise to global power, the only overseas travel seen as obligatory for a Presidential hopeful was to what pols called the Three-I League—Ireland, Italy, and Israel, venues that had more to do with the lingering tribal identities of big-city ethnics than with anything as highfalutin as foreign policy. (Let us note, in the currently fashionable spirit of joke-explaining, that the baseball allusion is to a long-defunct Class B circuit made up of teams from Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa.)

With that in mind, here are a few examples of people taking obvious jokes and pointing them out to humorless readers, rendering them unfunny:

  • Today on The New York Times‘ Caucus blog, Michael Powell writes:
    SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Barack Obama, genealogical gunslinger?
    The Democratic candidate today invoked a distant — possibly apocryphal — cousin, Wild Bill Hickok, and suggested that he and John McCain forget the dreary debate-about-where-they-will-debate and just strap on six-shooters and meet at 60 paces.
    (Note to the literal minded: The candidate was joking. We think.)
  • Last week, ABC News’ Teddy Davis and Gregory Wallace quoted Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty explaining that his wife doesn’t actually call him “Forty-Five” (you know, as in 45th president): “She never did. Now that was a joke… [RNC chairman] Ken Mehlman said that in an introduction as a joke. She never said that. It got translated by bloggers into something that had actually been said.”
  • On July 17th, The Times‘ TV Decoder blogger Brian Stelter used this headline for a story on the Emmy nominations: “Emmy Nominations: They Give Awards to Reality Shows? (Just Kidding, ‘The Amazing Race’ Is Outstanding).”

Explaining these jokes is awkward and unfortunate, but it’s probably helpful for your mama, who’s so slow it takes her two hours to watch 60 Minutes.

Why So Serious?