By Eugene Robinson
With their “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” this weekend, political satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are late to the party. This weird campaign has been Comedy Central all along.
The main source of hilarity has been the tea party movement and its candidates, quite a few of whom give every indication of being several sandwiches short of a picnic. Whether they win or lose—and yes, there remains the possibility that some might actually be elected—they leave us with mondo-bizarro moments that may require years of psychoanalysis for our collective political psyche to purge.
Chief among them is an all-time classic of weirdness, right up there with those campy 1950s sci-fi/horror flicks like “Plan 9 From Outer Space” or “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.” You’ve probably guessed that I refer to Christine O’Donnell’s incomparable “I’m Not a Witch” television ad.
Much has been written about the “witch” ad, but I’m not sure anyone has done a proper deconstruction. If you regard it as a short film of the kind that might be entered at Sundance or Cannes, it may be a work of genius. The jarring contrast between what is said and what is seen can only be deliberate: O’Donnell delivers one message—not-a-witch—while the image presented on screen powerfully signals the opposite. She sits alone, against a black background that suggests infinite darkness; her makeup and lighting have been contrived to lend her face a ghostly pallor. Clearly, the viewer is being manipulated to think, “If you’re not from some Other Realm, lady, you could have fooled me.”
And then, after denying witchcraft, the zinger: “I’m you.” With that, she switches places with the viewer. I’m pretty sure this is homage to some old “Twilight Zone” episode, but I haven’t quite figured out which one.
I could go on about O’Donnell’s string of brilliant comic performances—during her debate with Senate opponent Chris Coons, for example, the way she convincingly insisted that she had no idea the First Amendment called for the separation of church and state. But the tea party is an ensemble sitcom, like “Seinfeld.” One mustn’t forget the rest of the cast.
Like Sharron Angle, who has a decent chance of defeating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Angle’s approach to comedy is blunt and to the point—or, rather, beside the point, since so much of what she says is divorced from objective reality.
She claimed that Dearborn, Mich., and Frankford, Texas, are instituting Islamic shariah law, and she demanded to know “how that happened in the United States.” Well, it didn’t happen. There’s nothing but good old-fashioned American law in Dearborn, which Angle seems to have singled out because of its large Arab-American population. And Frankford no longer exists, having been annexed by Dallas in 1975.
Appearing before a group of Hispanic students to explain her harsh stance on immigration, Angle offered, “I don’t know that all of you are Latino. Some of you look a little more Asian to me.” I’d classify Angle’s humor as surrealist, and I’m guessing that she must be a disciple of Ionesco.
Then there’s the Angry Man comedic style of Carl Paladino, candidate for governor of New York. When a persistent reporter tried to ask him a question, Paladino threatened the man, “I’ll take you out!” He has gone out of his way to insult gay people, residents of Manhattan, illegal immigrants and many others, but he seems to hold a special grudge against present and former holders of the office he seeks. He called Gov. David Paterson “pathetic” and a “wimp,” and called former Gov. George Pataki a “degenerate idiot.”
Paladino’s policy proposals are angry, too, in an over-the-top way. He suggests that the unemployed who live on welfare could be housed in underused state prisons. “Instead of handing out the welfare checks, we’ll teach people how to earn their check. We’ll teach them personal hygiene ... the personal things they don’t get when they come from dysfunctional homes.”
I’m thinking Don Rickles on a bad night.
And who can forget Rand Paul, with his Monty Pythonesque “Aqua Buddha” escapade? And Joe Miller’s in-your-face solution to border security: “If East Germany could do it, we could do it.”
Good luck trying to top all of that, Stewart and Colbert. You should have come sooner. The joke’s already on us.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group