What makes people laugh? Or, as David Mamet’s hapless President Smith asks in November, “Well, who’s to say what’s perjury?”
In a moment of mock seriousness during Mr. Mamet’s broad—very broad—political farce, the president’s speechwriter, who’s an activist lesbian known as Bernstein, muses sentimentally on this great nation of ours and on the mysterious nature of comedy itself:
“It seems we are ‘a nation divided,’” she points out nonsensically to the president. “But: We aren’t ‘a nation divided,’ Sir. We’re a democracy—we hold different opinions. But we laugh at the same jokes.”
And there Bernstein would be wrong. We don’t even laugh at the same jokes within Mr. Mamet’s new comedy. Whereas I found November very funny indeed, it leaves others cold or disapproving, as though the dramatist of such masterly metaphors of the corruption within American life as Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), or of the White House satire Wag the Dog (1997), with its prescient political bite, had let us down with his lack of moral seriousness.
The New York Times—remember them?—sourly compared the jokes in November to Jay Leno’s. How bad can they get? I regret to say that I can put hand on heart and swear that Mr. Leno has never made me laugh even once about anything. Not even a titter. Mr. Leno leaves me—as the great British comedian Frankie Howerd used to say—“titterless.”
I’M A PRETTY simple fellow when it comes to what makes me laugh. Pratfalls make me laugh a lot. People who fall down manholes, also. Jokes per se embarrass me. I always worry I won’t get the joke or that it will fall so horribly flat and everyone will be embarrassed. Eddie Izzard, the transvestite comedian who doesn’t tell jokes but relates insane, surreal stories, is some kind of comic genius. David Ives used to make me laugh; Mel Brooks ought to; and Tom Stoppard is awfully witty. The British farce 39 Steps falls short of a guffaw. Mark Twain stwains to be a farceur in Is He Dead? I adore Preston Sturges’ Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, the anarchy of the Marx brothers and any beautiful girl who will sing for me on request.
Still, I was surprised that David Mamet—a man scarcely renowned for comedy—had me laughing so much from the opening moments of November, starring Nathan Lane (who usually makes me laugh):
“Why? Why? We won the first time, Archie,” Mr. Lane’s panicking president says to his lawyer about his zero chances of reelection. “Four scant years. Why have they turned against me now?”
“Because you’ve fucked up everything you’ve touched,” Archie (well played by the droll Dylan Baker) coolly replies.
“We’re a forgiving people,” the prez argues desperately.
“Time to cash out, Chucky. Sell a couple pardons, call it a day. … You’ve fucked the country into a cocked hat.”
“Yes,” replies the president, “but at least I’ve done something. …”
MR. MAMET HASN’T based his foul-mouthed, racist, farcically corrupt idiot of a president on anyone in particular, though you might recognize the type. Nor are any party allegiances—Democrat or Republican—made clear. At 60, Mr. Mamet is throwing a great big custard pie at the morally bankrupt U.S. politics we’ve come to know (and live with)—and let the pie splatter where it may.
The scattershot, non-p.c. targets within the escalating lunacy of November’s Oval Office include bombing Iran by mistake; lesbian couples buying cute Chinese children for adoption; unwanted presidential libraries for losers; building a 4,000-bed American Indian casino on half of Nantucket; how the wife of the chief of the Micmac Nation came to be eaten by a walrus; and a presidential shakedown of the turkey industry that threatens to abolish turkey on Thanksgiving in favor of tuna fish.