Books for the News, Literature, Politics and Current Events

Why is John Kerry funny?

jacket imageSenator John Kerry is catching a lot of flak for the widely reported joke he told earlier this week at Senator John McCain’s expense. Reportedly, though, the joke generated “lots of laughter” in Kerry’s audience. Whether the crack makes you laugh or wince (or both), Ted Cohen’s Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters can explain how this joke—-and others like it—work. For Cohen, jokes are complicated transactions in which communities are forged, intimacy is offered, and otherwise offensive stereotypes and cliches lose their sting—at least sometimes. In other cases, the sting just becomes more potent. Indeed, the fuss over Kerry’s joke is just the latest in a series of incidents that exemplify American humor’s increasingly embattled nature.
Immersing us in the ranks of contemporary joke tellers—from Jon Stewart to Bill Clinton to Beavis and Butt-Head—who aim to do more than simply amuse, Paul Lewis’s Cracking Up explains how American humor functions in these contentious times. Stephen Kercher’s Revel with a Cause (excerpt), meanwhile, reminds us of the debt that comics like Stewart and Stephen Colbert owe to Mort Sahl, Stan Freberg, and Lenny Bruce—liberal satirists who, through their wry and scabrous comedic routines, waged war against the political ironies, contradictions, and hypocrisies of their times.
In short, today’s political jokes have a long backstory. And how many places other than here can you read about the rich intellectual tradition of what, at first glance, might have seemed like throw-away laugh lines?