Sed Contra: Late-Night Humor That Hurts

Deal W. Hudson
April 1, 2000

With the departure of Johnny Carson, I lost my late-night viewing habit. Like his predecessor, Jack Parr, Carson could entertain a broad audience while maintaining a reasonable standard of taste and decorum. When we laughed at Carson’s jokes, we laughed not just at others but at ourselves, as well as Carson, whose greatest asset was a charming self-deprecation. Now, watching the late shows, we laugh at others, spurred on by the lewd and sometimes cruel jibes of Leno, Letterman, et al.

Yet, during the Carson era, there was a foreshadowing of the days to come. When Joan Rivers was a guest host, every guest had to face a grilling about their sex life. One memorable night, a guest arrived with the moral presence to turn the tables on Rivers. That guest was children’s television host Fred Rogers, who reduced Rivers to sobbing by singing a song composed just for her. The audience was stunned as well—the same audience that has mixed derisive laughter with applause—as “Mr. Rogers” took his seat. For once, the leveling power of TV was defeated.

These moments have become even rarer. The terrain of late-night TV is now so cynical that hardly anyone can avoid being refracted into a caricature of himself or herself. Sleaze shimmers, while ordinary goodness looks dull-witted. One remembers fondly the sensitivity with which Carson treated children on his show and how eagerly they responded. Now the presence of adolescents on Leno or Letterman by necessity brings their shows to a standstill, while the poor children are spared the barrage of cynicism and sensuality.

In retrospect, it was brilliant of Bill Clinton to don sunglasses and blow his saxophone on MTV. Even though it was no good for the presidency, it was expedient to be “cool” for voters who care less about issues and more about personality.

Subsequent candidates have evidently felt the necessity of duplicating Clinton’s success with their own appearances on late night. These attempts are foolhardy. Politicians are subjected to a daily meat grinder called a monologue: Why would anyone go into a medium where he has been ridiculed for months and expect to come away a winner? None of the candidates has the aura of Fred Rogers.

Surely it is wise to prick the balloon of political puffery. That’s what comedy does: It reveals the foibles of the human condition. But when comedy goes on the attack, nothing is affirmed except the arrogance of the comic. There is a long tradition of political humor in this country, going back to Will Rogers and beyond. The old film footage shows Rogers twirling a rope and poking fun at the pretensions of D.C. but without the cynical meanness of Jay Leno and Bill Maher.

Nietzsche often wrote about the laughter that kills, saying it was far more effective, for example, to refute Kant’s philosophy than an argument. Night after night millions of viewers is conditioned to guffaw at the misdeeds and goofs of our political leaders. Respect for political leadership is effectively dead.

No doubt Clinton, who so brilliantly succeeded in controlling the medium during his campaigns, opened wide the door of late-night disdain with his White House shenanigans. But we have reached a point where no one will be sworn in as the president who has not been laughed at ad nauseam on late night. What will be the cost to his leadership? What will be the cost in the quest to recover a moral compass in this country?

I’m tired of the cynicism. I’m tired of the ceaseless sexual innuendo. I’m tired of hearing every leader picked apart. I’m sure it all contributes greatly to the legions of the politically disaffected, those who don’t vote and those who cast their votes away.

When we were boys, we learned that part of civility was pulling our punches. We learned instinctively how hard a blow could land, whether it was in a game, an argument, or playful kidding around. It also made it possible to play without hurting others. Parr and Carson obeyed those rules; their humor was restorative rather than destructive. Perhaps they understood that once laughter starts killing, it stops at nothing.

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