EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the March 27, 2006, issue of National Review.
Years ago, a friend of mine published a book of theatrical anecdotes. You know the sort of thing: Back in the Sixties, Maggie Smith was playing Desdemona to Laurence Olivier’s Othello. Larry, as we anecdotalists always call him (I was once on a BBC show where, as the host was winding up the interview with an elderly actress, she protested, “But I haven’t told my Larry!”) — anyway, Larry objected to Dame Maggie’s diction and told her she needed to work on it. The next night, as he was coming out of his dressing room to make his entrance as the Moor, she intoned at him, “How now, brown cow?”
A little of that goes a long way with me. But a week or two after my chum published his anthology a parodically left-wing feminist theater critic wrote an angry piece denouncing the very concept of the “theatrical anecdote” as a sad form of self-loathing by which great artists belittle their own profession. In subordinating the process of artistic creation to the tyranny of the glib and superficially amusing punchline, actors were conspiring to deny the very real pain and courage of what they do. The showbiz anecdote was, in that sense, one of the principal weapons used to diminish the meaning and power of art. Women in particular should have nothing to do with it because the very constraints of the form co-opted them into the bluff hearty maleness of shared jokes.
Well, I was howling with laughter by this stage. It was a lot funnier than any of the theatrical anecdotes. And I thought even at that tender age I’ll be lucky ever to come across anything this hilarious again. But this month the Boston Globe came close. On the eve of the Oscars they published an essay by Michael Kalin headlined “Why Jon Stewart Isn’t Funny.”
I assumed this was going to be one of those ill-advised pieces in which a well-meaning conservative points out that 97 percent of Stewart’s jokes are pro-liberal. But I’d underestimated the Globe. Mr. Kalin was arguing that it was the side-splitting knee-slapping hilariousness of Stewart’s liberal gags that was the problem . . .