The End of the Golden Age of Absurdity

    In October 2004, when CNN’s “”Crossfire”” was in its last throes, Tucker Carlson asked “”The Daily Show”” host Jon Stewart which presidential candidate would give his comedy show more material: presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry or President George W. Bush. Stewart replied that his show gets most of its fodder from the absurdity of the political system.

    With the swearing-in last week of a Democratic majority in Congress, a Golden Age of political comedy has come to an end.

    Why? Like Stewart said, political comedy often comes from political absurdity. Absurdity, like most plants, tends to grow best with a good helping of manure. Before the election, Congress was practically wallowing in it. With unchecked control over the federal government, Republicans had free reign to bend and break the rules as they saw fit. This allowed absurdities to accumulate in steaming piles until, one by one, they each hit the fan.

    Only under this consolidated power could the level of absurdity reach such epic and hilarious proportions.

    Take former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), the leader of the caucus on exploited children who himself exploited children. That fact alone is very absurd and thus very funny. But the political fiasco that followed might never have happened, had there been an opposition party with power. Republican leadership, wary of a balance-upsetting scandal, would probably have dealt with Foley quickly and quietly, and the absurdity would have been minimized.

    Fortunately for political comics, that was not the case. Foley’s party had near absolute power. Concerns about him were dismissed as trivial, so nothing was done, and sketchy e-mails and instant message conversations were allowed to develop. Transcripts of Foley talking dirty to an underage male page? Political comedians couldn’t ask for more.

    Foley is perhaps the best example, but together, it was all the absurdity of the last six years that made it the Golden Age of political comedy:

    There was Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the chairman of the committee that regulates the Internet. In the midst of heated debate, this man who controls the Internet shared his understanding of the technology: “”… the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck. It’s a series of tubes.”” To repeat, the Internet is not a truck. The Internet is tubes. Stevens then continued to be in charge of the Internet.

    There was Jack Abramoff, the corrupt lobbyist who, in an example of something appearing exactly as it should, went to court dressed as one of the characters from “”Spy vs. Spy.””

    Last, but by no means least, there was Sen. George Allen (R-Virginia). In a campaign press conference, Allen fought off accusations that he was Jewish, then had an eye-opening conversation with his mother. Combined with his earlier use of the world’s most obscure racial epithet, Allen made it only too easy for political comics to dub him “”Macacawitz.””

    Now comes the bad news. For these stories in the Golden Age to develop, it took years for their protagonists to become cocksure and headstrong. Sadly, these conditions, and some of these people, are gone. A new party is in control, which means the steaming piles of absurdity have to start anew. Even if allowed to grow uninterrupted, they would take years to reach the magnitude of recent years.

    It gets worse. The presidency and Congress are no controlled by opposing parties. This does not necessarily prevent hilarious absurdity. In 1998, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich expressed America’s moral outrage over the Monica Lewinsky scandal when he wasn’t busy debriefing a staffer young enough to be his daughter. Exceptions aside, differing parties tend to be bad for absurdity. When each branch of government is poised to strike at the first sign of corruption, corruption is minimized and so is the resulting hilarity.

    On top of that, while both the president and the new speaker say they want to work together, their past encounters and dramatic differences suggest that won’t happen. This spells more trouble for political humor. When nothing can get done in government, nothing hilarious can get done in government.

    But there is hope. Over the next few months, the new Democratic majority is likely to unearth more hilarious skeletons from old Republican closets. Beyond that, commentators are already buzzing about the possible election of a Democratic president in 2008. Such a coalition of power is guaranteed to breed absurdity on a glorious scale, as it has during these wonderfully funny years.

    Unfortunately for Stewart and all the other political comics, the Golden Age is over. But a few years down the road, a new age will arise, for if anything is certain in politics, it is death, taxes and comedy.

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