Humor helps tame political beast

Posted: Sunday, December 17, 2000

You've either got to laugh or cry. Laughing's better.

That's one solution to the strong feelings stemming from the presidential election that almost wouldn't end.

Whether you're a Bush backer, go ga-ga for Gore, boost Buchanan or raid for Nader, you've probably got lingering hostilities. "They stole the election from my guy." "Your guy tried to rob us blind in the courts." "That fringe candidate gave it away to the one he hated the most." And so on.

The best way to dissipate all of this is with a good joke. The proof is the huge heap of humor generated during the ballot battle.

"I think humor was the only way to get some perspective on this," said Petersburg's Gerry Merrigan, a sometimes-humor writer who happened to be in Florida for a few of the weeks between election and concession. "The rest of the world thought we were the laughing stock, so we might as well laugh, too."

Most people had a favorite election joke or two that kept them going through the count and court battles.

One of Merrigan's was the "Saturday Night Live" skit casting Bush and Gore as "The Odd Couple."

Juneau humorist Jeff Brown liked some of the poetry and children's book takeoffs. "Dr. Seuss was a big one and there even was a pretty good graphic of 'The Gore-inch Who Stole Christmas,'" he said.

One of the best, at least to me, was "The Notice of Revocation of Independence," a faux proclamation circulated on the Internet.

It notified Americans that our inability to chose a leader would lead to a British takeover.

"Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths and other territories. Except Utah, which she does not fancy," it stated.

Brown agrees with Merrigan's take on the role of political humor.

"Consider humor as a tool of social change," said Brown, a major player in the local joke newspaper called The Juneau What and the political satire performance group The Twentieth Century Bluescast. "Just think of how easy it is to talk to one another rather than yell at one another."

That's always been part of my philosophy. While I don't do it much in print, I've written and performed political satire songs and skits for most of the 21 years I've lived here, plus some of my time in warmer climes with less material. And I've always found the best laughs come from common frustrations. A good pun or punchline or play on words will amuse the most when it strikes a common nerve.

For example: I, and every other political satirist I knew, had a lot of fun with Wally Hickel. The Republican-turned-Alaskan-Independence-Party governor liked big plans, like a water line to California and a road to Cordova.

Some of it was personal and a bit mean-spirited. I crossed the line a few times myself. But the best, which got the most laughs, took a broader view, making fun of things most people found a bit odd.

"If it's funny to the general audience, it probably has not entered that level of nastiness," said Merrigan.

Brown's "Wally World" song ("We've got oil, we've got gas, we've got a pipeline up the pass, right here in Wally World ...") was a great example. I got to sing harmony when it was filmed for a "60 Minutes" piece on Hickel and it was pure fun. I'm unsure if the governor ever heard it, but his press office did, and they didn't seem to mind. "At least he's got a world," was the response.

"If I make fun of somebody, I want to make them laugh as much as anybody else if not harder," Brown said.

Making yourself part of the joke also helps relieve the tension. It was probably easier for me to write a parody poking fun at the Empire's Word of Mouth column, which I did last spring, than some other folks. And Merrigan, who runs the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, has played a fisherman in several Bluescast skits.

"If you make it somewhat self-deprecatory, if you poke fun at yourself, that is the human thing to do," he said.

However it's done, political humor can open doors. People who can laugh together can talk together.

Now, I can't say a good line on Leno or Letterman will bring the nation together because people still have major differences over the election and have good reasons for it.

But humor can't hurt, said Merrigan.

"Sometimes it's the one way to get people to examine something without getting into a fight."

Ed Schoenfeld is city editor of the Juneau Empire, founder of the Empty Oil Barrel Band and an occasional member of the Twentieth Century Bluescast. He can be reached at eschoenfeld@juneau

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