May 22, 2013
Mr. Fish in Conversation With Paul Krassner: The Politics of Being a Smartass
Posted on Oct 17, 2012
By Mr. Fish
Krassner: I remember when I was a counselor at a summer camp and how they would show Charlie Chaplin movies and some counselor would inevitably get up and say, “Now, the deep social message that Chaplin was trying to convey in the scene when he had to eat his shoelaces … ”—you know? We were all talking about why we laugh and the kids were saying, “I thought he had a funny walk.” So, again, there’s that innate sense of humor that we can all tap into and maybe that defangs the monster.
Fish: At least the monster that we project onto the world with our own pessimism. That was what John [Lennon] and Yoko [Ono] said when the press accused them of not taking the protests against the Vietnam War seriously enough. They said that they were willing to be the world’s clowns [during their Bed-In event], the idea being that humor is anti-violent. They made the point that you’re unlikely to attack somebody else, much less kill them, when you’re having a laugh.
Krassner: And yet satire is often called a weapon.
Fish: Which brings us back to the precariousness of jokes designed to do something more than just make people laugh. A satirist is either funny when you agree with him or downright mean when you don’t. In fact, there are a lot of people who won’t even call satire art precisely because it involves [political subject matter]. They’re the same people who insist that the surest way to fuck up a piece of art is to inject politics into it.
Krassner: There again, it’s all about the individual perception. Some people need politics injected for it to qualify as art.
Fish: I agree. There’s also a pretty good argument for how injecting art into politics can fuck up politics—at least how one relates to politics on a personal level. The example that I always give is how watching “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” can fool a person into thinking that he or she is being politically active when he or she isn’t. It’s because watching TV is a private act and engaging in political activity is a public [act] and when somebody is at home watching a television show, though he or she might be agreeing with jokes about, say, the criminality of the president or the injustice or a piece of domestic or foreign policy, he or she is not doing anything about it. In that way, laughter can deter political activity.
Krassner: I know what you mean, sure. On the other hand, [my wife] Nancy memorized Mort Sahl’s first album [“The Future Lies Ahead,” 1958] when it came out and when you memorize something like that you really pick up on a lot of nuance about how the country works. You absorb a lot of critical thinking; it’s a very subtle process. And that can be politicizing and make you politically minded at the very least and make you behave a certain way. I remember when I lived in San Francisco and attending the annual Comedy Day in the Park. This was in the ’80s in Golden Gate Park and there was a long string of comedians and the only thing I remember from the day was a guy standing up and saying, “Isn’t Reagan an asshole?!” And the audience [went] crazy with applause and yells and the guy [said], “Oh, so you like the political stuff.” So there are different standards of what being politically minded means. Sometimes you can be political without naming names. Guys like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken and Will Rogers were all political.
Fish: And so was Bruce, though not overtly so.
Krassner: Lenny Bruce died to make it safe for Jon Stewart to get laughs by saying words he knows will get bleeped out.
Fish: Further proof that Bruce didn’t die for our sins, but because of them. God, I miss that guy.
Krassner: Yeah, me too.
Fish: I guess what I worry about is the ability of a good political joke to defuse the rage that a person might have for a politician who deserves all the vitriol that we can throw at him. Sometimes I think it’s more important to embrace the discomfort that comes from being pissed off about something than to have your disdain obliterated by the relief you get from laughter.
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