by Akim Reinhardt
Let me be clear from the start. This article is not about Ann Coulter's politics, which I find to be dogmatic, bigoted, and intellectually dishonest. I've already written about that elsewhere.
Rather, politics aside, the goal here is to consider her humor and try to understand why it fails. To figure out why, despite her best efforts, Ann Coulter is not funny.
This is worth considering because Coulter often attempts to dismiss criticism and defend many of her horrific comments by bending them on the anvil of comedy. When people complain about something outrageous that Coulter says or writes, she and her supporters often insist that she is merely joking.
For example, after hiring her to write about the 2004 Democratic national convention, USA Today declined to publish Coulter's first article for the paper on the grounds that her writing suffered from a “basic weaknesses in clarity and readability that we found unacceptable.” When she refused their editorial suggestions, the paper let her go. Coulter responded that “USA Today doesn't like my ‘tone,' humor, sarcasm, etc., which raises the intriguing question of why they hired me to write for them.”
This is just one among countless examples of Coulter using her supposed sense of humor to deflect criticism. In that vein, one of her canned responses is that some people don't get her jokes because “Liberals” have no sense of humor.
This is, of course, a very strange and paradoxical accusation. For at the same time Coulter and other Conservatives are chanting that Liberals have no sense of humor, they're also endlessly complaining about how Liberals dominate the entertainment industry. And of course they're right about that. The entertainment industry, including all those professionally funny people ranging from comedy writers to standup comics, are overwhelmingly liberal and always have been.
There are people in this country who are so funny they can do it for a living; they're so funny that the broad American public will pay money to watch their movies, TV shows, and standup. And the vast, vast majority of those people are either liberal, or at the very least not conservative.
So where are all those side-splittingly funny Conservatives who, for some reason, aren't getting paid to be funny? Well, there's at least one, or so I've been told over and over. And her name is Ann Coulter. There's just one problem with this.
Ann Coulter is not funny. And I say this only with the deepest respect for comedy.
In trying to assess why Coulter's not funny, let's set with some ground rules. For starters, I am not personally claiming to be funny, and I'm not trying to compete with Coulter over who's funnier; I'll save the knock-knock jokes for another time. More to the point, however, I do have a pretty good sense of humor. That is to say, I get the jokes. Pretty much all of them, including the ones that don't make me laugh. And I very much enjoy laughing at the funny ones.
So let's also get this out of the way: that includes the tasteless ones. Sexism, racism, homophobia or just about any other form of bigotry can be hellaciously funny if, and this is about the biggest “if” out there . . .
IF it's actually fucking funny.
Fag jokes, Jew jokes (I'm Jewish), black jokes, incest, murder, pedophilia (I was twice molested), racism, rape, you name it. All of it can be goddamn hilarious. If. If. If.
IF it's actually funny.
Those taboo subjects can skillfully be made humorous because “the unexpected” is a core component of comedy. Offending social convention and polite sensibilities, sometimes to the point of indecency, can certainly part of that. So from a comedic point of view, the problem with Ann Coulter's jokes isn't that they “cross a line.” But when you tell potentially offensive jokes, you'd better be funny enough to pull it off.
Ann Coulter's not that funny. I mean, she's kind of funny by the standards of a political pundit, but that's like saying she's kind of pretty by the standards of Joseph Goebbels.
Lighten up people, it's just a joke. Gosh, Nazis have no sense of humor. Another thing to remember is that comedy is personally subjective, and we have to remove that subjectivity from the equation as best we can. For example, lots of people love the Three Stooges. But I think they're boring and prefer, at least from that era, the Marx Brothers and Abbot and Costello. However, I wouldn't say the Three Stooges are definitively unfunny. They are funny in an objective sense. In other words, I get what they're doing and why it makes people laugh. They're just not subjectively funny to me, and I recognize that.
So the problem isn't that Anne Coulter's actually pretty funny, and I personally don't enjoy her sense of humor. Rather, Ann Coulter is simply not that funny, and she fails at being funny in objective ways we can identify.
Finally, as we examine Coulter's failed humor, we also need to eliminate topicality as a critique. Just about anything can be made funny, and the problem certainly isn't Coulter's focus on politics. After all, countless comedians have done very funny political humor over the decades, going back all the way back to Will Rogers. Jabbing politicians is a staple of American comedy. The real problem is, Coulter's just not very good at it. That's why if you put her next to a real comedian, she's quickly embarrassed. It's not a fair comparison of course, but it does expose her as being fundamentally unfunny; and if she's willing to put herself in that position, which it's not uncommon for her to do, it's hard to have any sympathy.
A more reasonable comparison than profesional comedians skewering politics would be to other political commentators who are genuinely funny. There are a few, such as Andy Borowitz and FoxNews' Andy Levy. But Coulter's not even funny like them, despite how much she tries.
The question then is, Why? Why is Coulter, despite all her insistence and protestations to the contrary, not funny?
Perhaps the biggest problem is that Coulter's sense humor, like much of her politics, is anachronistic. A lot of what she thinks is funny, and why, is just out of date.
Comedy is a part of culture, which is why humor jokes are often lost in translation. And since culture is always changing, comedy changes with it. Humor is of the here and now.
But too many of Coulter's jokes are mired in the past. Not their topicality of course. It's not that she's making jokes about what a thick-headed Liberal Woodrow Wilson is. Rather, her ideas about how to be funny are often out of date by a generation or two. Take this example from 2007:
I was going to have a few comments about John Edwards but you have to go into rehab if you use the word faggot.
Maybe you're offended by that joke, maybe you're not. But whether you are isn't the point. From a purely comedic point of view, the problem is not that she made a fag joke, much less a John Edwards joke. And it's not unfunny because she specifically said the word “faggot.” Comedically speaking, the problem is that it's been thirty years since anyone with a decent sense of humor would have laughed at the cultural logic of that joke.
From a technical standpoint, it's got the twist. The punch line is hidden well enough to work. But the premise is something out of the early 1980s. John Edwards is a fag because . . . he pays too much attention to his hair? I guess.
Seriously? It'd be funnier if he slipped on a banana peel. This joke is so dated in its cultural interpretation that it reminds me of another joke I heard thirty years ago when I was in junior high school.
A white guy and a Puerto Rican guy jump off the Empire State Building. Who lands first? The white guy, because the Puerto Rican guy stopped on the way down to do some graffiti.
Get it? Puerto Ricans can't pass up the chance to do graffiti, even as a horrible death is fast approaching. And men with expensive haircuts suck cock.
Too often, listening to Coulter be “funny” is like watching an old episode of Welcome Back Kotter. Man, that's not funny. Like, painfully bad. And not because of the topic; like politics, generational friction and stymied authority are timeless sources of comedy. Rather, Kotter sucks now because of the way the show joked about those topics. It's so 1976.
American culture has changed in substantial ways since the days when Welcome Back Kotter was the number one TV show in America. Everything from Music, fashion, food to gender and race relations are different, and comedy is part of that culture. That's why in 2013 few people still think Kotter is funny. So its stars have moved on. John Travolta belongs to a cult and Gabe Kaplan's a degenerate poker player, god bless him.
Yet here's Coulter making jokes about John Edwards' supposedly gay hair. It's on a par with Kaplan's Mr. Kotter saying “Up your nose with a rubber hose,” or the novelty of his student Juan Epstien, a character who's half-Jewish and half-Puerto Rican. Can you imagine that? It's so crazy!
So the first problem with Coulter's Funny Defense is that she's not funny in very fundamental and even technical ways. Her idea of comedy is dated and predictable. Her punch lines often hit their target from the wrong angle and in ways that no longer make comedic sense in modern America, while her typical setup is usually nothing more than an unironic political diatribe.
That's why she's often better with one-liners, like telling a four year old girl “Democrats want to take away your Christmas presents.” That's chuckle-worthy.
But for the most part, her jokes sound like they spilled out of a time capsule that was buried by an elementary school in the 1970s and recently dug up Don Rickles and Rush Limbaugh.
And I mean absolutely no disrespect to Don Rickles.
Of course, some people do think Ann Coulter's funny. Thousands of them. But I've never met a single one of them who doesn't also lionize her politics. And that's not a good sign.
There are plenty of Conservatives who think John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and other overtly liberal comedians are funny. But I've never met anyone who thinks Coulter is genuinely, consistently funny, who wasn't also in lockstep with her politics.
And that brings us to the second major problem with Ann Coulter's sense of humor.
Her comedic efforts are usually not grounded in comedy. They're grounded in ideology. And as with any artistic endeavor, that's potentially very problematic.
Great art is great because it is first and foremost brilliant artistry. Whatever message it conveys might be shallow or profound. But even if it's the latter, that merely adds to artistic greatness, it doesn't define it.
Comedy is the same way. Great humor is great, first and foremost, because it's funny. If it's also smart, insightful, or brilliant satire, all the better. But funny first, message second.
However, with Coulter it seems that every joke has to be in tune with her political dogma. And this is particularly ironic in light of her vociferous anti-communism. Because it turns out that Coulter's approach to comedy is reminiscent of the heavy-handed Soviet artistic movement of Socialist Realism.
The Bolsheviks declared that art for art's sake was decadent, and so the totalitarian Soviet regime mandated that all art reflect the glory of the Revolution. Ergo all those paintings of exalted leaders and happy, healthy, productive workers. Art had to double as political propaganda.
This of course was a great detriment to Russian arts, which became an easy target of mockery during the Cold War. That's why, for example, the CIA actually funded the exportation of American art and jazz around the world. It was a way to highlight how much cooler and better Americans were than those squares over in Russia.
That's right. America's staunchest cold warriors underwrote Louis Armstrong and Jackson Pollack.
But Coulter's not Satchmo or Pollack in this analogy. Rather, she's sketching a radiant portrait of Lenin. She's blowing a piccolo in the marching band while all those tanks and goose-stepping soldiers parade by a pavilion full of Soviet dignitaries. Coulter cracks wise like the right wing version of a Stalinist comic desperately trying to make her rigid political dogma seem funny, instead of saying funny things about politics. Kind of like Yakov Smirnoff if he'd never left the Soviet Union.
Once you understand Coulter's backwards approach to humor, you also begin to understand why her racier material, pun intended, typically fails so miserably as comedy. Instead of doing provocative comedy about politics, she's a political provocateur who's trying to be funny along the way, and frequently missing the mark with her dated and dogmatic approach.
Instead of saying and writing funny things that play with or mock bigotry, Coulter tries to frame her bigotry as humor. Instead of exposing hypocrisy, she just didactic and ideological. And instead of putting us off-balance with a good setup, she typically just plows ahead with dogma
She's putting the cart before the horse, or in this case, the racism before the punch line, and so we usually see her punch lines coming from a mile away. Take this example from a couple of weeks ago:
Maybe if they had to work, immigrants wouldn't have as much time to build bombs.
Putting aside the politics, the problem with this joke can be best summed up as, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it.” It's just a lazy-ass joke. It smells like something a third grader would tell, and you pretend to laugh so as not to hurt an eight year old's feelings. Then you think to yourself: Wow, third graders are still telling that joke.
And again, from a purely comedic point of view, the joke's awful bigotry isn't what's holding it back. I love me some fucked up, nasty ass comedy IF it's funny. Bring on the racial and sexual humor from Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, and Dave Chapelle to Joan Rivers, Doug Stanhope, Lisa Lampanelli, and Louis CK, to name just a few. They're all smart, funny people who can run a faggotniggerjewcunt blue streak with the best of them. Maybe it's brilliant social commentary. Maybe it's a form of gallows humor. Maybe there's not much of a message at all, and it's just a funny person being really goddamn funny.
But Ann Coulter's not that funny, and her comedic efforts usually involve shoe-horning the jokes into her rigid political dogma. So when she takes a stab at racial humor, it typically comes off as angry instead of funny, didactic instead of clever, and racist instead of smart. Despite her best efforts, she seems incapable of using humor to make us question and think about our own ideas on race and gender; instead, she just reminds us that hers are so goddamn awful. Which is why, for the most part, only people with similar political views find her funny.
So if Ann Coulter is not funny then what is she?
Mostly she's just a provocateur. That's why if you search the phrase “Ann Coulter funny quotes,” you won't actually come across much comedy. Instead, you're more apt to find a list of her political statements, which range from the banal to the outrageous, and which won't be confused with actual comedy any time soon.
Ann Coulter is the grasping class clown who doesn't know how to make most of the other kids laugh. So instead, she panders to her small crowd of loyal friends, getting the attention she craves by eating her boogers and laughing milk out of her nose.
But the truth is plain.
Ann Coulter is not funny.
Akim Reinhardt blogs regularly at ThePublicProfessor.com. He is sometimes kinda, sorta a little bit funny. But not much.