Daily Archives: December 16, 2006

Hitchens Unhinged

Everybody’s trying humor these days. It’s a blight upon the landscape.” – Michael Feldman

He wasn’t talking about Christopher Hitchens but he might as well have been. “Blight” is certainly the word for Hitchens’ labored, ponderous whack at it in Vanity Fair. Ye Gods. Everything about it is wrong. (And they paid him actual money to write this drivel. I can’t believe it.) Hitchens manages to write about women and money manifestly without understanding either. He thinks he’s writing humorously, even comically, but it’s obvious from the first paragraph that he’s wading in a swamp under the impression that it’s the ocean. “Lame” would be a step up.

Be your gender what it may, you will certainly have heard the following from a female friend who is enumerating the charms of a new (male) squeeze: “He’s really quite cute, and he’s kind to my friends, and he knows all kinds of stuff, and he’s so funny … ” (If you yourself are a guy, and you know the man in question, you will often have said to yourself, “Funny? He wouldn’t know a joke if it came served on a bed of lettuce with sauce béarnaise.”) However, there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: “She’s a real honey, has a life of her own … [interlude for attributes that are none of your business] … and, man, does she ever make ’em laugh.”

Now, why is this? Why is it the case?, I mean. Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.

No, Chris, I’m not pretending. I really don’t know what you’re talking about and neither do you. (Note the typical conservative game called “Everybody knows I’m right so if you disagree it’s can’t be because I’m wrong, it must be because you’re afraid to admit I’m right.” O’Reilly’s got this one down pat.)

He’s floundering from the very first phrase. “Be your gender what it may”? To use his word, “Cute, ay?” This is how the humor-challenged approach comic writing. They get cute.

“served on a bed of lettuce with sauce béarnaise” is a legitimate if timid attempt at an actual joke but it flops mercilessly because the reference is wrong. The First Rule of Comedy is to make references your audience understands. He gets that right – I would expect a Vanity Fair audience to know what sauce bearnaise was – but then he mangles it in not one but two ways.

First, he can’t resist showing off his French. Unfortunately, here in America we call it bearnaise sauce, not sauce bearnaise. Everything in a comic piece has to have a purpose, a target. That’s what makes it funny. The only reason for a switch like that would be if he was making fun of the kind of pretentious windbag who would insist on calling it by its French name. That is obviously not his intent, so the phrase doesn’t belong there. He’s putting an extra obstacle up that we have to jump around, and he’s doing it for no reason.

Second, the reference itself is wrong. Bearnaise sauce is used over entrees, not salads, and his audience knows that. It’s the sort of nonsensical reversion (riffing on a cliche – “bed of lettuce” – by using a different close, one as far away from the original as possible) that stops a reader in his tracks. She’s confused. Instead of laughing at the clueless guy who doesn’t understand a joke when he hears it, we’re saying to ourselves, “What’s he talking about? You don’t use bearnaise on lettuce. It’s hot.”

That’s bad enough but when we hit the second graf it’s like slamming up against a wall doing 90. Where did he get this ludicrous idea and are we supposed to take it seriously or what?

Somebody once said that the best humor is based on truth (Lenny leaps to mind). If so, then Hitchens is here proving the corollary: the worst humor is based on untruth. Having set himself up a nice little strawman, Hitchens goes on (for 3 interminable internet pages) to beat it to death as if it were real. In the process, he proves that he not only doesn’t understand humor or women, he doesn’t even understand the study on which he’s basing this juvenile exercise.

The result is an article loaded with smarmy insinuations, false premises, twisted platitudes, and half-assed attempts at humor that’s an insult to both women and comedy. In a response, Lance Manion sums up Hitchens’ silly argument (though it never really rises to that level) pretty well.

Women aren’t funny, they don’t know how to be funny, they don’t need to be funny because being funny is just a way to get attention from the opposite sex and women don’t need to work at that because they have breasts and nice rear ends and smell good, they don’t know what’s funny and don’t even like what’s funny, because funny, the real funny, is cruel and meant to be used the way men use everything, as a weapon, and women, “bless their hearts,” like things tender and nice and sweet and friendly and to them a good joke should be the verbal equivalent of a Care Bear.

But somehow, despite all these handicaps, women are good at judging which men are funny and they give themselves and their breasts and nice rear ends to the guys who are best at making other guys laugh.

Which is why you always see the class clown dancing with the head cheerleader at homecoming and the captain of the football team standing alone and sulking by the punch bowl.

Now you don’t have to read the article.

Lucky you.