Commentary: Funny and not funny at reporter dinner
The president was funny at the recent White House Correspondents Dinner. Wanda Sykes, the host, was not.
I hate to say that, because I have enjoyed many good laughs watching Wanda Sykes, the actress. Maybe she just got her lines from the wrong person this time. Maybe someone with more of an ear for the world of politics and media should have reviewed the script. Then again, how difficult is it to figure out that calling someone out as the 20th hijacker and wishing him kidney failure and torture to boot, all because you disagree with him about politics, is neither acceptable nor funny?
In case you missed it, the someone was Rush Limbaugh. And she really did say just that. "I think maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker. But he was so strung out on OxyContin that he missed his flight. ... I hope his kidneys fail. How about that?" How about that, indeed?
Of course, acceptable does not equal funny. If anything, the opposite is true. You get laughs by taking "it" -- whether "it" is your annoyance at your mother-in-law or your dislike of Rush Limbaugh -- to the extreme. And many people in the audience of liberals (except the Fox table) did seem to laugh. Did they laugh because they are especially evil Rush-hating liberals who really do wish him ill, or because they're regular Rush-hating liberals who just wish him bad ratings?
President Obama's laugh lines have been much scrutinized thanks to the Drudge Report's prominent placement of them. If I had to write the bubble above his head, it would say, "I can't believe she said that," but who knows?
Asked to comment about the president's reaction to Sykes, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs essentially said that while he had not talked to the president, 9/11 should be the subject of serious reflection and not comedy.
I'm happy to leave comics to find humor where they want. I'm happy to leave politicians and media types free to laugh at what they want in their off hours. The problem with events like this dinner is that they are extravaganzas put on for the attention. They look nothing like private, off-limits events. The politicians work the press, the press work the politicians, everybody works everybody else, and the celebrities get attention. In those circumstances, it hardly seems unfair to pay attention. And when you pay attention to Sykes, the problem isn't that she was making fun of 9/11 (that was Ann Coulter). The problem is that she and the audience who yukked with her were engaging in the kind of vicious personal assault on someone you disagree with that most of them would condemn as the worst tactic of the right wing, going back to the days of Lee Atwater. And if it was wrong then, why is it OK now?
I'm not worried about Limbaugh: He has enough stations to defend himself. My guess is that he almost enjoys the attention. I'm worried about what's come to be acceptable political discourse in the most elite circles of media and politics. I'm worried about what people watching at home think when they see a dinner like that. And I'm worried about how many of my friends are going to feel when it all comes around, as it surely will.
An eye for an eye will leave all of us blinded.
Susan Estrich may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.