Politics and Current Events, Reviews, Sociology

Review: Lewis, Cracking Up

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With the rising impact of mainstream media on public culture and the recent popularity of the irony-laden brand of political satire found on shows like Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, humor arguably plays a much more serious role in American politics than ever before. As Jessica Clark has noted in her August 4, 2006, review for the Chicago monthly In These Times, Paul Lewis’s book Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict delivers an in-depth exploration of this contentious world of controversial, manipulative, and disturbing laughter. Clark writes:

Paul Lewis examines how conservative media figures like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have effectively dismissed and diminished progressive ideas and politicians making them the “butt” of taunts. Such derisive humor works in tandem with serious policy initiatives to sandbag losers in what Lewis earnestly terms “butt wars.”…Now the tables are turning. Bush was spared much mockery in the wake of 9/11, but with his popularirty tanking, the “butt-in-chief” is again fair game.

In a culture that both enjoys and quarrels about jokes, humor expresses our most nurturing and hurtful impulses, informs and misinforms us, and exposes as well as covers up the shortcomings of our leaders. Wondering what’s so funny about a culture determined to laugh at problems it prefers not to face, Lewis reveals connections between such seemingly unrelated jokers as Norman Cousins, Rush Limbaugh, Garry Trudeau, Ronald Reagan, Beavis and Butt-Head, and Bill Clinton. The result is a surprising, alarming, and at times hilarious argument that will appeal to anyone interested in the ways humor is changing our cultural and political landscapes.