Millennium 2000: Humor RoundtableAired January 1, 2000 - 10:10 p.m. ET
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JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Recently, we convened a series of millennium roundtables, where we asked some, what we hoped, were smart, interesting people to talk about compelling subjects. By far the trickiest, by far the riskiest was humor. Will we be lucid, informative, screamingly funny? Would we fall into the twin traps of soporific tendentiousness on the one hand, patent offensiveness on the other? We'll discuss. You decide.
ANNOUNCER: Jeff Greenfield's millennium roundtable, with "Time" magazine's Walter Isaacson.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where are all the people that call in sick on Friday but go pick up their check?
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ANNOUNCER: Humor, sometimes it's just funny.
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And Korean people still remember that. So we hate them.
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ANNOUNCER: Sometimes it's at the expense of others.
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My green card number is 911-411-711.
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ANNOUNCER: Do the punchlines change with the datelines? How will humor change with the times?
GREENFIELD: Welcome to our millennium roundtable discussion. The topic: What we'll be laughing at in the new century.
We are coming to you from Museum New York. That's a Newseum here in midtown Manhattan devoted to the news media.
And joining me for each of these roundtable discussions, Walter Isaacson, managing editor of "Time" magazine, not normally thought of as a humor magazine, but we'll give it our best shot won't we?
WALTER ISAACSON, MANAGING EDITOR, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Thank you, Jeff.
To help us find humor in the new century, we've assembled three gentlemen who did a pretty good job of finding it in the last one: Al Franken, who was part of the original writing staff of "Saturday Night Live," where he won five Emmys. He's one of the nation's top political satirists and the author of the bestselling "Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations." Bob Mankoff, who has been creating cartoons for "The New Yorker" since 1977. Recently, he was appointed cartoon editor of the magazine. And Christopher Hitchens, whose articles for "Vanity Fair" and "The Nation" proved that humor can be a lethal weapon.
Gentlemen, welcome to our millennial roundtable.
GREENFIELD: I'm aware that doing a panel discussion on humor runs through as either people getting out there rejected one-liners or setting into absolute seriousness to the point of hypocracy.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, "VANITY FAIR": A humor discussion is no laughing matter.
GREENFIELD: There you go.
So I'm going to try by -- try to walk between those two dangers.
ROBERT MANKOFF, CARTOON EDITOR, "THE NEW YORKER": I doubt whether you're going to succeed.
GREENFIELD: Which is fine with me.
However, moving right along, one of the things that does seem to have happened over the last couple of generations of humor is that all of the boundaries seem to be off. When I was a kid, political humor on TV was Bob Hope joking about Eisenhower's golf game. It's a tad different now, with Jay Leno making jokes about oral sex and the like.
Is there any sense that there's been a -- that we've reached a limit? Or is it just gong to go further and further, do you think?
HITCHENS: I was going to say, what about Lenny Bruce? What about Mort Saul? The things that weren't on the television.
GREENFIELD: Well, Lenny Bruce was arrested for doing an act in a nightclub which Jay Leno could now do on broadcast television. That's part of what I mean by the brakes being on.
MANKOFF: On the other hand, "The New Yorker" couldn't have a cartoon in which there are cannibals roasting missionaries in a pot. There are other areas in which it has been moved. We ran a cartoon recently which showed a gallows and the steps going up one side, and the other side has a ramp for the handicapped. So we did run that. It was a big debate, well, should we run that?
So there's other groups that have other sensitivities. I think people like to almost need an area of taboos. I think the only taboos really aren't taboos; they're things that sort of act as pseudo- taboos, and they can get laughs now, especially the sex stuff.
HITCHENS: Remember though, that Lenny Bruce would go around the room saying, "Have we got any gimps here? Have we got any Spics here? Have we got any cripples here? Have we got any Guineas here?" Right up to the "n" word, which even I find I can't do now, because I have got politically correct. (UNINTELLIGIBLE). You really get in everyone's face, and then is there anyone I haven't offended? Now Jay Leno could not do that.
HITCHENS: Jay Leno goes for jokes that people understand. That's the problem with humor now. It has been the problem lately. People laugh to show they get the joke. You're doing it now.
HITCHENS: People love to show they're all a big, happy part of it; they can all share in the joke -- that's not funny.
ISAACSON: If we can get Al in this, as terms of what the latest scandals have done over the past couple of years to change what we can do in humor and what we can't do.
AL FRANKEN, COMEDIAN/AUTHOR: Well, you can discuss -- Jay has successfully discussed oral sex in his monologue nine, 10 times a night. And so that barrier has come down. And you know, I think that probably in the next millennium, they're be -- to get to our subject -- if for example, let's say we discovered an alien race say in the 24th century, there'd probably be a lot of jokes about having sex with them.
MANKOFF: You know, the original moron jokes were a type of sort of displaced racist joke that then -- it was a way of saying -- of having, you know, sort of this impact so that type of joke on the general -- you know, on the moron, and the types of people who are available for that can sort of shift. In "The New Yorker," it's rich people, it's the bosses, you know.
GREENFIELD: Are we more politically correct, or are we letting more barriers break down?
HITCHENS: I really do deeply believe that for a joke to be really good, it has to be at somebody's expense, and it used to be the Poles would get it, and so solidarity, and the Poles would stand it. Now after that, Polish jokes mutated into being I would say West Virginia or Arkansas jokes.
FRANKEN: I don't think that jokes have to be at someone's expense, although I can't think of one.
MANKOFF: No, I think they should be at our expense.
GREENFIELD: Wait a minute, excuse me. As the non-humorist for sure on this panel -- Duck goes into a bar, orders a drink. You want to pay for that in cash? No, says the duck, put it on my bill. Mildly funny joke. At whose expense is that?
MANKOFF: There's a whole area of jokes, sort of metajokes. The desert island joke of morphed into that. Eventually it wasn't -- you know, when I looked at -- did a history of desert island cartoons in "The New Yorker," the original desert islands are big, people actually have to live on them. There's fish on them. There's a boat in the background. They originally come from the Robert Louis Stevenson "The Tragedy at Sea." Eventually, it becomes a joke. But finally, I would do a joke, let's say in the '80s, which would have a guy on an island, and he's say, "No man is an island, but I come pretty damn close." He was the whole island.
Well, that was just jokes about those jokes, and I think the duck going the bar.
GREENFIELD: OK, but it is true that there are all kinds of jokes that as this century leaves, these jokes aren't around anymore, the kind of vaudeville stuff, where you would do two drunken Irishmen, which was very big 100 years ago in New York until the Irish got together and literally booed that act off the stage and then threw food at them and stuff. You don't do -- I guess the black jokes that were on at the expense of blacks and Indians, almost now it's black performers doing to almost as a wink at the audience.
But could you do, for instance, handicapped jokes?
MANKOFF: Well, John Callahan, who's a cartoonist, who you know, is handicapped and grows with his mouth, does them.
FRANKEN: Well you know, I saw a black comedian on "The Craig Kilborn Show" who was talking about the use of -- of black people using the word "nigger," and he was saying he was in church, and he asked this guy not to use the word "nigger" in church, and he said: Reverend, please don't use that word.
FRANKEN: And so it's a...
HITCHENS: You'll remember Dick Gregory called his memoirs "Nigger," because he said and he wrote worked in the dedication to his mother, said, because every time you hear the word, you'll think people are mentioning my book.
HITCHENS: And he'd go, remember, the guy said: Yes, I know the South. You know, I spent 10 years there one night. That kind of joke would never go out of style because there's a certain resignation to it, I think, like you know, you can tell which American minority came up with the line, "If it wasn't for bad luck, I would have no luck at all."
MANKOFF: I think you're right. I think the essential point is that humor is actually, even though it doesn't appear to be, almost always safe. The impulse of someone who wants to make someone laugh is to please.
I think the ultimate thing of the safest humor of all -- and I'm always amazed by it -- it's the talkshow humor, like of a guy like Letterman. And it was invented by Carson, in which you distanced yourself so much from the joke that you tell it, and if it fails, the writer wrote it; and if it succeeds -- and everyone goes along with this very, very strange premise that I'm invulnerable and the jokes are invulnerable in their own way. I'm just -- it's a type of irony that...
GREENFIELD: Which, if I may, is another thing, that spread, it seems to me, through, at least through American television in the last years, which is humor that is so distant, so self-referential, that it's almost as if -- what we used to think of as humor, the comedy sketch, the Sid Caesar kind of thing, except on sitcoms, is almost an endangered species.
MANKOFF: It's protection, again, you know, against failure. And I think that this type of device, my theory is it's done -- it's sort of what smart people substitute for actual talent in making jokes.
MANKOFF: They can make jokes, but they can look jokey, they can look ironic, they can look superior. But what they can't actually do is be funny.
FRANKEN: Here's the difference between Letterman, and you're on every night, and you do monologue every night, you know, and being Lenny Bruce and going into a club or being Chris Rock and going in to a club, which is, if you have your act, you stand by your act; but if you're a nightly host of a comedy show, you can't really stand -- you can't really get behind every one of those jokes.
MANKOFF: Shouldn't you light into him about this...
HITCHENS: I was just going to say that, you said something like defensible protector, I was going to say the defensive humor is the thing is beginning to get me down in the mouth a lot, people telling a joke against themselves before anyone else can. And to loop back to Walter's point about the political joke, you know, it was very clever of Reagan to tell all of those amnesia jokes because it stopped people worrying about it, his forgetfulness jokes, his antiquity jokes. And now the Clintonoids all tell jokes about the president, but they are always jokes that make him seem sexy rather than twisted, or bent or dirty. But it is to defuse.
ISAACSON: But also there is self-deprecating humor, I mean, McCain does it very well these days, especially on the temper thing, and without even trying to be really funny, but to poke at himself. You worked with Clinton some, or you did some sketches in front of him, especially for those correspondents' dinners, where...
GREENFIELD: Clinton's got him in his pocket is what you are trying to say.
HITCHENS: Yes, he has been a fool for Clinton.
FRANKEN: I have actually been a shill for the Clinton administration. It has its perks, for example, I was invited to all the inaugural balls in '97. I went to the one for the DNC high rollers, interesting event. For $50,000, you got to dance a slow waltz with Tipper. For $25,000 you got to do a tango with the first lady. And for just $25 you got a lap dance from Janet Reno.
GREENFIELD: Something tells you have used that...
FRANKEN: I actually told it right before. You get $50,000, you get to do a slow waltz with the first lady.
MANKOFF: I think the funny thing that the politicians use is the self-administered press conference. Have I, perhaps, made some mistakes in the past? Yes I have. Do I think -- and they do the whole sort of thing.
HITCHENS: It is called getting it out there.
MANKOFF: Right where they answer their own question.
HITCHENS: I came across the perfect word for it the other day, it was said -- I won't say which politician -- but one of his -- he said: Well, say what you like about the guy? And I had sad plenty. You got to admit that at least he is very self-defecating. And I said...
HITCHENS: And I said, I am genuinely relieved to hear it.
MANKOFF: You got to be really rich not to be -- to get someone else to do that. GREENFIELD: This kind of humor, though, this has been something the politicians have done forever, and I think it is something now that the big shots like to do, as a method of protection. That is, before you get to make a joke about me, if i am a corporate chief or something, you always get up and tell a joke like, you know, I was driving along and my wife saw an old boyfriend who was pumping gas, and I said: Gee, you know, if you had married him, you would have been married gas station attendant. No, if I had married him, he would be the CEO. People love to do that because, in a way, it is like throwing a snowball at their top hat.
HITCHENS: Like Ross Perot singing "Crazy."
HITCHENS: Except that that blew up. Because you know how people can be, they took it literally, they didn't see the joke.
ISAACSON: Well, also, Al Gore's stiff jokes over and over again sure didn't help him.
HITCHENS: That was terrible. He can't get out of it now. He has made himself into a wooden.
By the way, I have got one for you. The president and the vice president are going out hunting. It is hunting season. So they get loaded up, they go out in the woods. They find a little pond. In the pond is a wonderful iron-clad maiden having a swim.
And the president says: Well, we are looking.
And she says: Well, I am game.
So Gore shoots her.
ISAACSON: I am sorry. I did not mean to laugh.
HITCHENS: You weren't meant to laugh.
FRANKEN: I do get calls from different politicians to, you know, please help with this evening, supposed to roast someone or -- and inevitably end up talking to one of their aides who says: We think self-deprecating jokes would be good. And I said: Well, yes, I know. No, really, he would like to make fun of himself, and we think that works well.
MANKOFF: One of the things about humor is I think, it is what I call ersatz humor, not your stuff of course, but the politicians' stuff, where it sort of -- it is actually not meant to be very funny, you see it in advertising, I mean that is the whole point. I know sometimes where you will get a call as a cartoonists, they want a joke, and say, but not too funny. Because being really funny is, like you said, is being subversive is sort of undermining, pulling the rug.
FRANKEN: For example, McCain in the debate was asked about his temper, and did a thing: Well, that question makes me angry. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know a comment like that really makes me mad.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FRANKEN: He got the smile so out there quickly where it only would actually have been funny, maybe, if he said that really makes me angry.
GREENFIELD: And hit somebody.
FRANKEN: Yes, and been angry for maybe, but he had to let people it was a joke way, way, way too early.
MANKOFF: But how genuinely unfunny these people are, in that they never actually tell a joke. They are never humorous in a spontaneous way because it is all pretty much planned.
FRANKEN: The situation makes them afraid to be...
GREENFIELD: Let me try to wrench gears here, and to move away little bit from politics, but it does pick up on a theme that is being unified in our discussion. Could you imagine humor that is authentically subversive in this day and age? I mean, if all the breaks are off, but it is done in kind of a half-hearted way or with a wink at the audience saying "not really." What would be an example of...
MANKOFF: It exists all the time of the Internet and Wall Street and the most savage stuff that gets passed around, you know, the genuine stuff. And I think, you know, in terms of what is going to happen in the future, there is a tremendous, people who are supposedly licensed humorists like to think that somehow they are class completely different from the other people who make jokes. Well, they make them for money and they get paid and they are better. But if you send out an e-mail to 50,000 people, you get a lot of great stuff back. You get some really dirty stuff, some sensationally funny stuff, some actual subversive stuff. And I do think, with this type of communication you are going to have that.
GREENFIELD: At the risk of threatening our entire corporate structure, what is an example of genuinely subversive stuff.
FRANKEN: You know the riots in Seattle.
FRANKEN: Those are a kind of subversive...
GREENFIELD: Like a comedy sketch?
FRANKEN: Oh, you mean humor?
GREENFIELD: Yes. ISAACSON: The riots, though, were done as pure subversive humor in a way.
HITCHENS: There are things that if you say people will think you really shouldn't have said, where you may have crossed the unsayability boundary, like one or two things I have got off in the past to selective audiences about the death of Princess Diana, for example.
GREENFIELD: Because Lenny Bruce, I once saw him right after the Kennedy assassination on television talking about humor, and his argument was tragedy plus time was comedy that you could joke about Lincoln's assassination, but not Kennedy's. Now, today, there are plenty of jokes that reference Kennedy's assassination, including a classic "Seinfeld" episode. So you could probably tell that joke now, we will find out...
MANKOFF: I did a series of cartoons when Dole was campaigning which got rejected by the "New Yorker," where everywhere that Dole was because he couldn't use him and he always used to have a thing, for whatever event, if it was tennis, he would have a tennis racket; if it was golf -- instead of a pen, whatever it would be, and I was making fun of it, I was absolutely making fun of it, and my -- you know, my viewpoint in doing this is that I would rather err on the side of people actually not liking it and being a little bit disturbed with you because there is so much out there, which is actually really not that impressive.
FRANKEN: Really subversive jokes are Ted Turner jokes.
GREENFIELD: What would be an example of that?
FRANKEN: Just something about Ted and Jane, for example.
FRANKEN: I don't have one, I was just saying because we are on CNN.
GREENFIELD: I didn't think you did.
MANKOFF: But it subversive how organizations like this or even "Time" or Reuters organizations, or even "The New Yorker" use humor within a context, much less a politician does, to say: Well, you see, we seem like this big organization...
GREENFIELD: We're a regular guy.
MANKOFF: ... but we are regular.
GREENFIELD: So let me ask this, what have we lost if it really is not considered OK to make jokes about the Holocaust, about horrible tragedy, is there something...
MANKOFF: What we have lost is freedom, and it is like freedom of speech in general, whenever you have these areas that you are saying are off-limits that it is a slippery slope, and there become other areas that are off-limits.
FRANKEN: There is such a thing as taste.
FRANKEN: There are people watching this showing going like this is the CNN/"Time" magazine discussion of humor. It is all about what the edge is...
MANKOFF: There is such a thing called tape too.
FRANKEN: And actually this is international, right?
FRANKEN: So, I mean, really what we should be doing is physical humor.
HITCHENS: I brought my own personal pipe here.
HITCHENS: These things are self-satirizing. Remember my John Lehrer-Kissinger thing. When did you last hear anyone use the word physically-challenged, except as a sarcasm? All attempts to do it fail of their own weight. They are hopeless, because they themselves become the object of the term.
GREENFIELD: We are going to take a break now, and we will find out if they let us come back and continue this discussion about humor. But first this word about Newseum New York.
ANNOUNCER: We will be right back with Jeff Greenfield's millennium roundtables.
GREENFIELD: Well, they've let us come back, so we are here at our millennium roundtable discussion of what, if anything, we'll be laughing at in the 21st century -- Walter.
ISAACSON: You know, Bob was saying something about the Internet and jokes whipping around the Internet, and it sort of clashed a little bit with what you all were saying a bit about freedom being limited, that we don't have quite as much freedom. It seems on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog, to quote one of your famous cartoons. You can get away with anything. And this will make humor more anarchistic, perhaps, and more subversive.
MANKOFF: Well, I'm sort of hoping for a terrorist humor, anarchy cult, actually, that does terrorist acts but in a funny way. We have a site on the Internet, "The New Yorker," a cartoon bank site in which one of the things that I do every once in a while is we have a caption contest, say, well, what do you think is funny?
And, you know, while these people are not, quote-unquote, "licensed humorists," when you put out to 50,000 people, what are funny? It's true, 98 percent of the stuff is bad. But two percent of it is great.
ISAACSON: But are we feeling that this will break down the barrier so people don't...
MANKOFF: I'm not sure what Moore's law is, but I'm sure it's going to transform everything. And one of the things is that computing power, and everyone having a server and essentially being able to publish, and even publish your own page, publish your own humor, I think these are going to be where they're not going to have a huge audience. It's going to be sort of like heat-seeking missiles, and you're going to find your own audience.
HITCHENS: Sounds more like Gresham's law to me, I must say. Everyone's going to be a comedian, and I don't think that will be funny at all.
MANKOFF: Well, not everyone...
HITCHENS: You get just lots of...
MANKOFF: ... just the funny people.
HITCHENS: You'll get lots of cracker barrel jokes and, you know, Christmas cracker jokes...
MANKOFF: I think you're right. We should leave it to the professionals.
HITCHENS: I think so, too.
GREENFIELD: But the other side of the Internet is it may have an impact on an area that I think humor's always been difficult to translate into. That is, I don't know if other cultures laugh art each other's jokes. I mean, I assume there are certain cultural assumptions other than in physical humor that don't translate.
MANKOFF: Other than France and Jerry Lewis, you're right.
GREENFIELD: Well, there you are.
ISAACSON: But we don't laugh at Jerry Lewis.
MANKOFF: No, not any more.
HITCHENS: There's a millennium point one could make, I suppose...
GREENFIELD: Well, be my guest.
HITCHENS: ... which is there is something universal about Jewish humor now. There's a certain -- and I think this may be connected to irony. I don't know -- but there's a certain shrug that starts with Mimonedes, with Job. You know, Mimonedes says, well, the Messiah may come, but we think he may tarry, you know? In the sort of acceptance of that, you have Woody Allen inscribed.
GREENFIELD: But does that play, do you think, all around the world?
HITCHENS: I think that works pretty much everywhere. There's that kind of resignation and fatalism with a little twist to it.
ISAACSON: In return the Japanese send us Pokemon on the Internet.
HITCHENS: You know what Job finally cries out and says to the heavens? Why are you doing this to me? Why am I having such a tough time? Why are you torturing me like this? And there's a pause. And God says, I don't know. There's something about you that just really pisses me off. And that would be funny anywhere.
MANKOFF: There's an age-old (UNINTELLIGIBLE) skit that he does, where the wife's husband is dying, and there's this lamentation to it. And she's praying, and she says -- and you think she's going to say, take me -- she says, take the doctor.
ISAACSON: That was very mild.
GREENFIELD: You know some Jewish people. Is this now the universal "lingua Judaica" or whatever?
GREENFIELD: Let me pout it this way, you get a lot of gigs in other cultures?
FRANKEN: The Dutch love me. No -- yes, I mean, Jews -- I think Lenny Bruce said about the Jew trying to charm the Egyptians out of making him work on the pyramids, there's a charming Jew, which I guess I am.
ISAACSON: Why are there no -- I mean, why are there no humor magazines now, print humor magazines that are that good? And...
FRANKEN: "The Onion."
MANKOFF: You see them start to...
FRANKEN: "The Onion" is hilarious.
ISAACSON: "The Onion" is a one-trick pony that...
FRANKEN: Yes, it's -- but a really funny one-trick pony.
GREENFIELD: For those who do not know, "The Onion" is a weekly publication out of Madison, Wisconsin, which...
GREENFIELD: Yes. It has recently put out a book called "Our Dumb Century," which is the last hundred years, and it's...
ISAACSON: Which is funny.
GREENFIELD: ... pretty funny.
ISAACSON: Really funny.
GREENFIELD: So there is that.
ISAACSON: And what they do is they parody headlines...
FRANKEN: And it's not -- it doesn't have the breadth that "Time" does.
FRANKEN: It's very funny.
HITCHENS: I do think there's such a thing as British humor, because Americans always keep telling me that there is. They say, we like your British -- they will say, we like your British humor -- spelled Y-U-M-A -- just like they like the British accent. In fact, I've heard people say to me, of course in this country we don't have irony. I say, no, apparently not.
MANKOFF: "Monty Python" was sensational without...
HITCHENS: "Monty Python" was terrific.
MANKOFF: ... irony, really, which was that type of humor that was, you know, anarchic. And I think one of the things -- you have that, and you'll have a magazine like the "National Lampoon," but there's something about, you know, real humor that gets incandescent and burns out. I think...
ISAACSON: What is the -- who is the funniest humorist of the century then?
MANKOFF: I think Babe Ruth.
ISAACSON: "Monty Python" was good.
FRANKEN: Ambrose Bierce -- I don't know.
GREENFIELD: He's the editor of "Time." They've got to be reasonable.
FRANKEN: I know. What are they going to do?
HITCHENS: The best humorist writer is P.G. Woodhouse. He's followed by Evelyn Waugh. And they would... MANKOFF: I didn't know...
HITCHENS: Woodhouse supports my point that humor must be at some one's expense. It's true some bad people have some bad things happen to them in Woodhouse, but generally it's quite gentle. But it's unforgettable and funny, and it will always be read.
GREENFIELD: If you want to come back to that theme, at who's expense was Chaplin's humor?
HITCHENS: That's more...
ISAACSON: That was at his own.
GREENFIELD: Well, OK, but I mean, it basically...
MANKOFF: No, that was at the system. That was subversive humor. But also he -- he had his own way.
HITCHENS: Well, you know, "The Great Dictator" is at the expense of fascism.
GREENFIELD: Yes, but "City Lights," "The Gold Rush," I mean, that's just basic humor, an individual in a very difficult situation, struggling through, trying to feed himself. I don't know that that's an indictment of...
HITCHENS: Well, I also -- I'll never forget my mother telling me how she couldn't leave the cinema because she couldn't stop crying. I mean, when the lights went up she still couldn't stop. There's a lot of tragedy in Chaplin and pathos.
HITCHENS: Ant it really got to her.
GREENFIELD: I'm only getting to the point that I might, if you had this insane list, might vote for Chaplin, because he was also one of the first guys who was funny pretty much all around the world. And he did reach all kinds of different cultures.
HITCHENS: Least funny people: the Marx Brothers. They weren't funny at all.
ISAACSON: They are overrated.
HITCHENS: The Three Stooges, not a glint of humor.
FRANKEN: Oh, no.
GREENFIELD: Wait a minute.
ISAACSON: This guy -- let's get this guy.
FRANKEN: Clearly the funniest men who ever lived.
HITCHENS: Comedy for people with no sense of humor.
GREENFIELD: The Marx Brothers? Are you insulting...
MANKOFF: He's an anti-Semite. That's what I'm going to say right here.
HITCHENS: There are lots of people...
GREENFIELD: Because those were all Jews.
HITCHENS: That's a fact.
MANKOFF: You know, there's an empirical side to humor, which is what people actually laughed at.
GREENFIELD: And based on that?
MANKOFF: You know, so you can't just decide. You can't say, not funny. Nobody laughed, that was it.
GREENFIELD: He can say it. He's still wrong.
HITCHENS: No, it wasn't funny because people -- look, there are lots and lots of people in the world with no sense of humor, and there have to be comedians for them, too. And the Marx Brothers are for people with no sense of humor.
GREENFIELD: So in an effort to save Christopher -- in an effort to save Christopher from his ludicrous Marx Brothers opinion, let me ask a question about sense of humor, which is that you can tell somebody they're mean, evil, not particularly good at what they do and they can take it. You tell somebody, you have no sense of humor, it's fighting words. Why do people think it's such an important part of them to have a sense of humor?
HITCHENS: You'd have a better chance of saying to someone that they were a bad driver or even bad in the sack, I think than to say that.
MANKOFF: Or both together -- or, as it happens...
FRANKEN: Or the reverse. For example, you have a great sense of humor, but you're not good at what you do.
GREENFIELD: That's fine.
FRANKEN: But you don't care that I say that, do you?
GREENFIELD: No, because, you know, that's a perfect example. A perfect example.
HITCHENS: You live up to this more when you say that conjunction (ph), as well.
GREENFIELD: But Peter...
HITCHENS: But you look at Al Gore, we were mentioning before, he's been told he needs one. He's decided in public to acquire one. The sight of him getting a sense of humor is agony for all concerned, and presumably agony for him.
FRANKEN: He actually has a very good...
HITCHENS: But if that's how much it matters to -- he'll wager his whole career on it.
MANKOFF: Do you think he's funnier than the Marx brothers?
HITCHENS: I think that...
MANKOFF: I just want to know where everyone is on the list.
ISAACSON: Chris said, Al Gore as funny as the Marx brothers.
HITCHENS: He's the missing -- to me he's the missing Marx brother.
MANKOFF: And where's Chris Rock right now?
ISAACSON: Right there with Marty Feldman.
MANKOFF: But you know the thing is, because he's the funniest guy -- and I feel bad saying this, but if he dies, in a way, it's good, because we all move up one. Maybe I won't.
GREENFIELD: I'm still mulling over...
HITCHENS: I'll be sure to tell him you said so.
GREENFIELD: I'm still mulling over this question, and I'll (INAUDIBLE) through thick and thin, why do people feel...
HITCHENS: Because it's the only thing that -- because it's the -- it's one of the things that definitely separates us from the other mammals.
ISAACSON: ... self-awareness and a sense of humor.
HITCHENS: Yes, and it's also a sign of intelligence. There's no question about that. MANKOFF: Well, it's also...
HITCHENS: The children (INAUDIBLE) it was a wonderful thing.
MANKOFF: Even (INAUDIBLE) that don't have a sense of humor are laughing, supposedly, right? And now you're telling them, you're wrong. And these most basic way, you're laughing at the wrong things, just like we got upset with Christopher when he said, wouldn't -- you know, we said we liked the Marx brothers, and he's saying to us, no, you're wrong.
HITCHENS: No other animals laugh, and no other animals know they're going to die, which is, I think, deeply connected. We laugh so we may not weep, as well, so people who are bad at laughing are probably bad at weeping and philosophy, too.
GREENFIELD: I think what he's saying is, that if we didn't -- if we're told we do not have a sense humor, we're going to -- what? going to confuse ourselves with a...
MANKOFF: We'll kill ourselves.
GREENFIELD: It just doesn't...
HITCHENS: With a...
GREENFIELD: There's got to be more than that.
HITCHENS: More like a porpoise.
FRANKEN: Right. We'll end up in one of those nets.
HITCHENS: More like a porpoise.
FRANKEN: It's just -- I don't know why. I don't know why. It's -- we don't know, but it's -- people -- it's so values here.
FRANKEN: Now, it might be in our culture. It may not be the same again in the Netherlands.
GREENFIELD: But there's an...
HITCHENS: I thought you were big in Holland.
FRANKEN: I am. My sister and my wife.
HITCHENS: Or do you want to be big in the low countries?
GREENFIELD: Walt, is our expert on the international world, since he's traveled a lot. Are there cultures where nobody cares if you have a sense of humor?
ISAACSON: If you try to tell jokes to a group of Japanese businessmen, it is really a problem.
FRANKEN: They get insulted if you say they have a sense of humor.
MANKOFF: But that's because they...
FRANKEN: And then...
GREENFIELD: So what the Japanese executive who rises to the top probably, we can speculate on great ignorance, and he doesn't have to have a sense of humor.
HITCHENS: I resent this.
ISAACSON: Look at (INAUDIBLE)
MANKOFF: Well, it's very restricted in an environment which doesn't value spontaneity. I think it is our culture which values doing this. And one of my, sort of, feelings about where we'll go in the millennium, is that more and more tasks will actually be able to be done by computers, being a lawyer, even diagnosing things. But I really don't think they're going to make very good joke...
GREENFIELD: But not a sense of humor.
FRANKEN: I think one thing we've concluded tonight is the Japanese aren't funny.
ISAACSON: Pokemon's funny. But that's not...
FRANKEN: So -- this goes to Japan, doesn't it?
HITCHENS: I think -- I ought to say that, on behalf of my many Japanese business executive friends, and some of the best friends...
FRANKEN: My patrons.
HITCHENS: ... that I resent -- I resent the slur that you've cast on them.
GREENFIELD: Maybe, you see, as the American culture becomes more even more down on it, as the net spreads this worldwide, other cultures will find it important to have a sense of humor even if they never used to.
ISAACSON: It's like learning how to play golf.
GREENFIELD: What do you think?
MANKOFF: That's right.
FRANKEN: I like that.
GREENFIELD: Don't you think?
MANKOFF: Our gross national product will be entirely humor.
ISAACSON: Well there we do -- I mean, to ask a serious question, do humor movies export the way action movies do?
MANKOFF: Well, humor exports to countries which have an affinity -- you know, we fell -- or you -- I can say how a cartoon's reprinted and where they reprint it. They're reprinted in England and France, in Germany...
ISAACSON: How do Addam's Family movies and your movies do overseas?
FRANKEN: Addam's don't as well overseas as they do here. Mine don't go overseas.
GREENFIELD: I think you've hit a somewhat sensitive...
FRANKEN: Yes, I think you've just accused me of not having a good sense of humor.
GREENFIELD: No, he's accused you of making movies that...
HITCHENS: He's accused you of being like one of those wines that don't travel.
MANKOFF: You know, we say, well, does humor travel? And, you know, the expression like -- you know that time is another country. You can actually just go back -- you know, I can do it by looking at the magazines in the '30s and say, well, what -- I had to do it when we did this compilation -- this new "New Yorker" cartoon book -- which ones are still funny. And I, sort of, tried to select based on -- and most of it, even though you can, sort of, process it as a joke, you understand the form of it, isn't funny to you anymore.
GREENFIELD: So the change in the culture has just made it...
MANKOFF: And not because it's taboo, just because the referents. I mean, it's very much...
ISAACSON: What stays funny, then, to the next century? What format?
FRANKEN: Well, half of "New Yorker's" cartoons are topical -- essentially topical. Not topical like political topical... MANKOFF: Now, I'd say about a quarter, so I didn't select any of those. I mean, you'll have a joke that ostensibly is topical -- two guys at a bar saying, you know, Look, Nixon's no dope; if people wanted honesty he'd give them honesty. You know, which is a general joke, actually.
FRANKEN: I'm talking about topical about manners.
MANKOFF: Oh, I see what you're saying,
FRANKEN: You know what I mean?
MANKOFF: Yes, that's right. And 90 percent of the jokes that we -- you're going to say, well, how -- we assume that some people will laugh at some of the things we've said today, but how many years hence? But I would say, at the type of, you know -- it's used as a Shakespeare thing, you know, where how long someone will last in the grave -- if humor lasts 10 years or so, it's done a remarkable job.
FRANKEN: Well, Marx brothers stands up.
MANKOFF: Oh, absolutely.
MANKOFF: As does some of Al Gore's stuff.
HITCHENS: Monty Python will endure. Oscar Wilde will, certainly.
MANKOFF: Well, I can think of a Peter Arnett joke that -- from 1936, everyone's going to think is funny. It shows a plane crashing in the background, the guy's parachuting out of it. The guy walking away, clearly who's engineered the plane saying, "Well, back to the drawing board."
I mean, it's a great joke, and it -- what's great about it as a cartoon, as I see it, is that the picture isn't funny, the line isn't funny, both, you know, together are.
So, I mean, I think that...
HITCHENS: He was very good at universal humor. There's a wonderful one of a terrible looking lecherous old guy in a dinner jacket, and this amazingly buxom girl, who has clearly just been given a present, and she's saying to him, "Oh Mr. Prendergast, I don't know how I can ever thank you." But the expression that he's got on Prendergast's face -- I mean, you don't -- it's funny if you can't see the artwork; if you can see it, it's brilliant. Because...
ISAACSON: Same with Thurber. If you have to talk about great, you know, comic writers, especially from the "New Yorker" era -- I mean, the "New Yorker" -- Thurber and "OK, have it your way; you heard a seal bark" type lines. MANKOFF: That's actually a particular type of taste. I mean, did a cartoon in the early '90s which has guy at a phone, he's looking at a Rolodex, and he's saying, "No, Thursday's out. How about never? Is that good for you?"
HITCHENS: It's never good for you.
MANKOFF: And that line gets repeated. Now I'm wondering how much that's, sort of, time-based on our, you know, sort of culture.
FRANKEN: That was on "Suddenly Susan" a couple of months ago.
GREENFIELD: (INAUDIBLE), driving with his kids, "Are we lost, Daddy? Shut up," I explained. I don't care what year that's in, I don't care what -- that ought to work, and it's as concise as you can get.
HITCHENS; A little guy's driving along the road in a little car, and it just says in the -- at the bottom is says, "John Entwhistle" -- or whatever his name is -- "the unleaded leaded years."
ISAACSON: Let me ask a question that picks up on what Jeff said, which is we're all talking, you know, sight gags, funny lines, things that are easy to get. Do we start -- are we really starting to lose literary humor, really well wrought Wodehouse, Waugh, that sort of thing? Where it's...
FRANKEN: Well, my book, "Rush Limbaugh's a Big, Fat Idiot," that saved it.
ISAACSON: Well, it may be the last of the genre.
MANKOFF: That saved it.
FRANKEN: Yes. Did extremely well, probably better than anything -- more successful almost than anything I've done, and it was a book.
GREENFIELD; Sort of. Great diary.
FRANKEN: Thank you.
HITCHENS: Guy goes -- walks into the shrink's office, shrink hasn't seen him before, and he just stands there. And the shrink says, "Well, what seems to be the trouble?" And the guy says, "I'm a dog. That's who I am. I'm nothing but a dog. A lousy dog is all I am." The shrink says, "You want to get on the couch?" The guys says, "I'm not allowed on the couch."
HITCHENS: I think that's quite funny.
MANKOFF: Incidentally, if you want to,..
HITCHENS: I think that goes with...
MANKOFF: .... make more money, make it "Rush Limbaugh's a Big, Fat Idiot.com."
HITCHENS: That goes with the thing he was describing before, the couch is like the Desirata; it's one of the stock two or three things. Hearing the -- seeing the new couch one was a new experience for me,
GREENFIELD: Try, if you would like to, to pick up on Walter's pathetic effort at, you know, substance.
MANKOFF: I thought it was noble.
GREENFIELD: Literary humor, is it -- I mean, is it endangered?
MANKOFF: Well, one of the things I think is that we're -- we have a much shorter attention span. I know in the "Shouts and Murmurs" in the "New Yorker" my feeling -- some of them I like, and some of them, even at a page, you sort of get the premise, and now you have to walk to the end of the column.
GREENFIELD: But what book -- what was the last book that made -- not counting yours, or for that matter my novel...
GREENFIELD: ... that anybody laughed? Last book you read that was an attempt at book-length -- can you think of one?
MANKOFF: I reread Stern.
HITCHENS: "The Veil of Laughter" by Peter Devries made me laugh.
GREENFIELD: Now that's -- he's not - hasn't been around for a while.
HITCHENS: Devries -- I was rereading him.
ISAACSON: Yes, while everybody's thinking...
HITCHENS: Devries is very good.
ISAACSON: ... I'll make a point that, when I graduated from college and went on to Lampoon, and I think, you know, you knew some of the people there, it was the last general -- last, sort of, age cohort to go into writing: into magazines, into forming the "National Lampoon," which is what everybody did. And right at about 1976, 1977 people like Jim Downey (ph) and all, sort of, going to TV, "Saturday Night Live," and then movies.
FRANKEN: Yes, but it's also literary. ISAACSON: Yes, but we're talking about literary humor and book- length humor. I think people got out of writing books back then and TV sucked them in and movies sucked them in.
MANKOFF: Walter is dead, get over it.
ISAACSON: All right.
GREENFIELD: At the risk of, you know, eliciting comments of sarcastic nature, I think Chris Buckley writes funny books. I think "The White House Mess," and "Little Green Men," and "Thank You For Not Smoking," those are funny books. So it's not impossible, but...
MANKOFF: Well, one of the things is, as we age -- you know, humor is a little bit like the songs that you made out to and stuff -- in terms of your affection for things, whether it's the Marx Brothers or anything else. And that you'll find as you get older...
HITCHENS: For example.
MANKOFF: ... you'll laugh at less and less, you know, entirely, and that you'll see your daughter and she'll be 8, she'll be laughing at anything at all. You tend to get a little dyspeptic as you get old, saying, nothing is funny anymore.
GREENFIELD: So at the -- as we approach the end of this really stimulating discussion...
HITCHENS: It's very nice of you to say so.
MANKOFF: We barely scratched the surface.
GREENFIELD: I know. Thank you to keep the answer to yourself. But one thing about humor, then, I'm -- I'll -- it has to be in some sense, doesn't it, from a position of outside of the system? I mean, you can't do -- can you do ruling class humor? Can you do humor from the position of privilege?
HITCHENS: Yes, you can. Yes, you can start, you can go out in front of the audience and say, if you're doing stand-up, say, well, you know, it's pathetic to see how many people, you know, have nothing better to do on an evening like this, and go on to say that your house costs more to heat than most of them earn, and so they love it.
MANKOFF: But all the early punch jokes were done at the expense of the Irish by clearly another class.
HITCHENS: Yes, it was not so nice, though.
GREENFIELD: Can you do it now? MANKOFF: Well, no, and I tell you what.
GREENFIELD: Do you think that has changed? Can you do it now?
HITCHENS: To be Irish was a joke in itself then -- no.
MANKOFF: I can't do it.
HITCHENS: The guy comes up to a woman in the street and says -- she's standing there in her tiara and furs, and he says, "I haven't eaten for three days." And she says, "Well, you're a very stupid man, you must try. If necessary, you must force yourself." That's ruling class humor.
GREENFIELD: But I -- that's exactly the sort of joke that people used to think of in the "New Yorker" cartoons as doing. Remember the "Lampoon" doing a parody of the "New Yorker," where the joke was a bum on the street coming up to women, and the joke line was, for God's sakes, I haven't had anything to eat in three days, I'm starving. And that was it.
MANKOFF: But, you know, the interesting thing about all those...
GREENFIELD: That was the joke.
HITCHENS: I would prefer it with my punchline.
MANKOFF: ... they come out of the Depression, when upper-class people are sort of -- that's the premise anyway -- these bums are very smart, they're articulate, they have all sorts of ambitions. So in a way, it was a little bit about what had happened to these people, that's when they first occur. I made that up.
ISAACSON: When it goes into television, what are the restraints now, especially, you know, sitcoms?
FRANKEN: Sitcoms you can, you know, on network you can do certain things and on cable you can do different things. And, for example, my show "Lateline," was canceled on NBC. We're on Showtime now. We just reshot some scenes where I did it without a shirt.
ISAACSON: So this is what cable has brought to America today?
MANKOFF: Is this the shirt you did it without?
HITCHENS: Was it funny?
FRANKEN: My doing it without a shirt? No. See what had happened was we tried to get the women on the show to do it without their shirt and they wouldn't do it.
GREENFIELD: So at least he...
FRANKEN: So we were there... GREENFIELD: Physical deformity is OK then...
GREENFIELD: ... on cable.
ISAACSON: Physically challenged.
GREENFIELD: OK. Absolutely. But the television world seems to me, of sitcoms, they've taken one layer of restraint off, so you can certainly do all kinds of jokes about -- you can do jokes about penis size, you can do jokes about premature ejaculation -- I'm talking about broadcast television. But what you can't seem to do, or what they can't seem to do with very few exceptions is to do jokes that penetrate one layer down into something, for instance, smart and funny.
HITCHENS: Penetrate beyond penis size?
GREENFIELD: If you'd like.
MANKOFF: Most people aren't smart and funny, that's why.
HITCHENS: Were those jokes any good? Do you remember any?
GREENFIELD: No. I mean, what's the point? I think they were substitutes -- to my way of thinking, they were substitutes for funny the way in a action movie you blow something up because you don't have anything to say. I mean, you've done an unsuccessful sitcom, what do you think?
FRANKEN: Well, unsuccessful only in the sense that...
MANKOFF: That it wasn't successful.
FRANKEN: ... not too many people watched it.
HITCHENS: And ill-received.
FRANKEN: Yes. Well, listen, you can do -- I had arguments all the time with the standards people, who I like very much at NBC, because we would do a joke that was about religion, or about abortion, or something, and any sex joke is fine. And it sort of -- it's just kind of too bad. And -- but, you know, sponsors and -- that's what -- standards now is about sales.
GREENFIELD: And speaking of which, we're out of time.
MANKOFF: Great segue.
GREENFIELD: Yes. I thought -- you know, years of training...
MANKOFF: You're a pro. You are a pro. GREENFIELD: ... in the industry have given me a chance to do that. So, I think I'd like to thank almost everybody for joining us, my co-host Walter Isaacson, Al Franken, Bob Mankoff, Christopher Hitchens. Special salute to the Marx Brothers will continue, but for now, back to the CNN Center, more of CNN's coverage of millennium 2000.
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