Thursday, May 04, 2006

Richard Cohen vs. Mark Twain

Richard Cohen, in his op-ed in today's Washington Post, reassures his readers--all evidence to the contrary--that he is really quite "a funny guy." His proof, you ask? Well it turns out (and I kid you not) that his elementary school teacher once told him that he was funny. Go look: he trots out this merit badge right in the first paragraph of his column.

Cohen's comment simply reinforces the impression that many conservatives hug their laptops humorlessly in the safety of their bomb shelters and continuously relive their days on the playground. His nostalgia for when he was always selected last for the kickball team sums up his credentials for judging humor. (Poor Richard, his teachers sympathetically lamented, always picked on and never picked.)

Not surprisingly, the Post's schoolyard dweeb has decided that Colbert's routine wasn't funny:
Mockery that is insulting is not. The sort of stuff that would get you punched in a bar can be said on a dais with impunity. This is why Colbert was more than rude. He was a bully.
Let's ignore, shall we, Cohen's apparently inability to distinguish wit from hilarity, satire from slapstick, caricature from comedy. And let's also not question whether Colbert's act was one of bravery in front of the most powerful man in the world or (as Cohen implies) a totalitarian act directed at a seething poltroon. In the final assessment, Cohen's appreciation of humor is twin sister to his knowledge of literary history.

I refer Cohen and his fans to Mark Twain--and specifically, to his infamous speech at Whittier's 70th birthday party. Twain's "roast" of Whittier, Longfellow, Holmes and Emerson was impolitic, brash, rude, and all the things Cohen finds unfunny. In spite of reports in the Boston papers of "violent bursts of hilarity" from portions of the crowd, the speech certainly offended the hoity-toity dignitaries present for the dinner and especially the four writers who served as targets. Afterwards, Twain even sent apologies to all concerned. Albert Bigelow Paine, one of Twain's earliest biographers, asserted:
The speech was decidedly out of place in that company. The skit was harmless enough, but it was of the Comstock grain. It lacked refinement, and, what was still worse, it lacked humor, at least the humor of a kind suited to that long-ago company of listeners. [emphasis mine]
Yet the speech has withstood the test of time. It is widely reprinted and disseminated. It is regarded as a brilliant, if scabrous, burlesque mocking the quartet's personalities and their poetry. As Ron Powers concludes in his recent biography of Twain:
Whatever else one might make of Mark Twain's Whittier birthday speech, this much seems irrefutably true: he had inaugurated a venerable institution of American popular culture: the celebrity roast.
And, writing 30 years later, Twain concluded:
I have read it twice, and unless I am an idiot it hasn't a single defect in it, from the first word to the last. It is just as good as good can be. It is smart; it is saturated with humor. There isn't a suggestion of coarseness or vulgarity in it anywhere.
If Richard Cohen wants to play Albert Bigelow Paine to Colbert's Twain, then I am confident that we can expect to see collections of his columns sitting alongside Paine's biography in the dusty 10-cent bins at used-book shops. Indeed, I see Cohen has already won a Nobel Prize for his efforts.

And he is definitely not "a funny guy."