The agate-eyed old man on the left is Mr. Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s whose own writings have — as lovingly recounted in his author bio — earned comparisons to wordy mega-weights Mark Twain and Montaigne.
And yet his latest literary throw-down, the brutally titled America Needs Better Comedians, is a pedantic wind-fest that replaces actual knowledge of modern comedy/popular culture with a blizzard of French philosophers, a brief lesson in Elizabethan anatomical theory and a loving recollection of a prep school headmaster (“…a pious and confiding man, as grave as he was good.”) encountered in Connecticut in 1948.
When Groucho Marx’s name enters the text Lapham turns extra-turgid, reducing the anarchic performer’s comic subversions into that much more ivory-cloaked yammering:
With Groucho Marx I share the opinion that comedians “are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world,” but the assaying of that commodity — of what does it consist in its coats of many colors, among them cocksure pink, shithouse brown, and dead-end black — is a question that I gladly leave to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, Twain’s contemporary who in 1900 took note of its primary components: “The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human… Laughter has no greater foe than emotion… Its appeal is to the intelligence, pure and simple… Our laughter is always the laughter of a group.”
Well, then. But let’s get to the heart of the attack presented in the headline (America needs better…): Why is Lapham dismissing all of the era’s comic voices? What is the overarching failure of the current, and at times culture-influencing likes of J Stewart, S Colbert, L. CK, “South Park” and on and on?
Lapham has no idea. At least, he never mentions them. Whether this is a function of his contempt or simple ignorance is unclear. Or so it seems until he finally does devote part of a sentence to a quick blow-by of the pitiful state of the genre, denouncing the “freeze-dried sound bites” dispensed at its most crucially important venues. Which, to Lapham, include: “Gridiron dinners, Academy Award ceremonies, and ‘Saturday Night Live.’
Gridiron dinners? Network awards shows? Weekend Update? These are the 21st century’s most vital outlets for modern humor? And no mention of “The Daily Show” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Louie” or the great sea of Internet podcasts, blogs, Bad Lip Reading/Funny or Die videos?
Um, no. Not even close. Not even a mile from being close. No matter, Lapham snatches up George Bernard Shaw for the capper: “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world.”
True dat. But as Shaw knew, and Lapham apparently doesn’t, a little knowledge of your actual subject is pretty important too.