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 Unfair, Unbalanced, and Very, Very Funny 

September 2, 2003

I was delighted by the news that a court had contemptuously thrown out the Fox News lawsuit against the comedian Al Franken as “wholly without merit.” Fox argued that Franken had violated its trademark phrase fair and balanced by titling his new book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

The subtitle is as silly as the lawsuit, but it’s obviously meant as a joke. The book doesn’t sound funny to me; it sounds puerile and rather vicious. But for Fox News to claim ownership of a phrase as common as fair and balanced is a bit like claiming a copyright on the Lord’s Prayer.

Franken attacks not only Fox but some people I like and respect. It hardly sounds as if he’s elevating public discourse himself. But I wouldn’t ask him to. His genius is for other things.

When I first saw Franken on Saturday Night Live, back in the 1970s, I disliked him. Clever, I thought, but more annoying than amusing. Then, years later, he gave a mock-medical explanation of prostate surgery. Very poor taste, to say the least. But as he proceeded with his clinical description of catheters and scraping, he began twitching uncontrollably, until he fell under his desk in vicarious agony. If I’d laughed any harder I’d have had to call an ambulance.

Mock solemnity was Franken’s forte. In that department he rivaled the great Bob Newhart. Playing a feckless war correspondent during the 1991 Gulf War, he appeared with a satellite dish on his head, absurdly lost in the desert while pretending to report with first-hand authority. He specialized in playing confused guys trying to sound smart.

Best of all, perhaps, was his comic creation Stuart Smalley, the multineurotic self-help counselor, full of sage psychobabble like “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” The hapless Stuart always tried to cheer himself up with the mantra “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Actually, people loved this gentle loser, a triumph of sweet humor.

[Breaker quote: The 
genius of Al Franken]Since Franken left to do his own show, Saturday Night Live has gotten worse and worse. When he was a regular performer and writer, its humor was based on characters: the Church Lady, Hans and Franz, the Ladies’ Man, and Stuart. You laughed at them, but you also pitied their self-delusions and felt their humanity.

Lately the show has descended into mere smirking smut. It dares you not to laugh. So I don’t. In fact, I’ve quit watching it — something I once thought I’d never do.

Now that both my parents have passed on, I can confess freely that I dearly love a good dirty joke, especially one that involves Irishmen or Scotsmen. But it has to be funny as well as dirty. I also love good clean jokes, especially if they involve Irishmen or Scotsmen. I can’t explain my tastes, but the Irish and Scottish characters must have something to do with it.

Al Franken is Jewish, but I’ve never seen him do a Jewish joke. There must be dirty Jewish jokes, but I can’t remember any, unless you count jokes about circumcision, which are rarely funny. Jewish humor is daring, mordant, and hilarious, but, unless I’ve missed something, seldom off-color. Henny Youngman, Woody Allen, even Lenny Bruce rarely made a joke you couldn’t repeat to your pastor.

If it’s not anti-Semitic to say so, I sometimes wonder if the Jews even realize how funny sex is. Maybe only Christians can fully appreciate it. Sir Thomas Browne ventured to say that copulating is “the foolishest thing that a wise man does in his whole life.” It took guts to say that, yet — again, as far as I know — nobody has ever publicly agreed or disagreed with him. Which can mean only one thing.

The (now) infamous Pope Pius XII taught that the sacrament of matrimony “ennobles” the act of sexual intercourse. The orthodox Pope implicitly recognized that there is something essentially ignoble (and potentially comical) about the sexual desire of fallen man. That august pontiff put his finger on the whole reason for the dirty jokes we love.

But I digress. I really mean to say that Al Franken is one of the funniest men in America, and I wish he’d stick to comedy. When he talks politics, he descends to a bilious mockery that isn’t funny, doesn’t become him, and betrays everything Stuart Smalley stood for.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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