Dave Serves Up Ad Hominem Nouveau

Pardon my French—and Latin—but I’ve noticed that David Letterman and his writers have introduced a new variation on the kind of joke traditionally told by mainstream, “equal opportunity offender” late-night comics. These are jokes that focus on the personalities of candidates—or really, on one or two caricatured traits—and have, at best, only tangential relevance to the ideologies and policies the candidates represent. The Latin phrase ad hominem (literally, “at the man”), as some of you may have learned in Freshman Comp, is a logical fallacy in which one attempts to win an argument by attacking the person making it. For late-night comedians, the ad hominem strategy allows them to make fun of politicians without really talking about politics. No one can accuse you of “bias” (accepted idiot-speak for “caring enough about an issue to have an opinion”) if instead of dealing with what a politician says about, say, the mortgage crisis, you just make fun of his haircut.

Thus, the hotly-contested and highly consequential 2000 presidential race was, as far as Dave, Jay, Conan, and SNL were concerned, merely a choice between a dumb guy who couldn’t pronounce big words, and a guy who bragged about inventing everything from the Internet to the phrase “Don’t go there, Girlfriend” in a robotic monotone. In 2004 it was the dope vs. the flip-flopper with the rich wife, and in 1996, the womanizing Bubba vs. the old guy who referred to himself in the third person. There were some funny lines along the way, to be sure, but no real satire, because none of this was really political—it was just personal.

And that is the case with this new subset of Letterman jokes, too. But they are, at least, a different—and, if only because of their novelty—more interesting form of ad hominem jokes. Yet they proceed from the unfairest basis of all: physical appearance:

I kind of like that Sarah Palin. You know, she reminds me, she looks like the flight attendant who won’t give you a second can of Pepsi…. She looks like the weekend anchor on Channel 9. She looks like the hygienist who makes you feel guilty about not flossing. She looks like the relieved mom in a Tide commercial.

You know who I like is that John McCain. … He looks like the guy at the hardware store who makes the keys. …He looks like the guy who points out the spots they missed at the car wash. … John McCain looks like the guy who thinks the nurses are stealing his stuff. “Dad, why would they take your socks? It doesn’t make sense.” …He looks like the guy at the movies whose wife has to repeat everything. …He kind of looks like the neighbor who says, “Oh, that dead tree is on your property,” one of those guys. He’s the guy who is always early for the early bird special, that’s what he looks like. …He looks like the uncle who pretends to remove his thumb.

(Compiled with the help of Daniel Kurtzman’s invaluable political humor site at About.com)

What’s interesting to me about these is the extent to which the audience can read their own meanings into them. They’re no more “political” than traditional dumb guy/old guy/boring guy jokes. And of course, it is grossly unfair to judge a person’s substance and character based on how he or she looks. But some of these lines nonetheless seem more devastatingly defining than the traditional ad hominem jokes. Those of you who remember the 1988 campaign may recall hearing that George Bush, Sr. “reminds every woman of her first husband.” It was a grossly unfair remark, and one would be hard pressed to defend it on any logical basis; yet it seemed to say something pertinent about Bush’s record on women’s issues, and the “gender gap” he faced with female voters.

There is an “eye of the beholder” factor with these “looks like” jokes that has the potential to give them more of a punch than they really deserve. For me, the flight attendant/dental hygienist lines about Palin and the “dead tree” line about McCain capture things I feel about the candidates, but which I have trouble putting my finger on. Yet I recognize that there’s really nothing there that amounts to a substantive criticism of the policies, or even character of either member of the Republican ticket.

And that’s another thing about Dave’s new formula: he can’t turn it on Barack Obama. Anything you say Obama “looks like,” no matter how carefully you choose it, is going to somehow impinge on his race. I mean, does he “look like” an NBA player? The pianist in a Wynton Marsalis quintet? The straight-laced partner and best friend of a white detective who plays by his own rules? Our culture, even at this late date, is far from color-blind in the types of roles we’re likely to picture as equally viable for whites and African Americans.

It’s actually quite instructive to think about this. Consider the flack Obama got for himself suggesting that his opponents were going to try to make (white) voters nervous by pointing out that he didn’t “look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.” He was right, of course—anybody who doesn’t believe the race card has been played in this election, in just this subtle way, is either ignorant of the history of race-baiting in American politics, willfully blind, or just isn’t paying attention.

Letterman’s “looks like” jokes are just a slight variation on late-night’s well-worn method of pseudo-satirical, not-really-political political joking. But perhaps they leave the audience with a little more to think about.


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One Response to “Dave Serves Up Ad Hominem Nouveau

  1. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Russ, I never fail to be impressed by your incisive wit and articulate writing. You’re a brilliant guy and I hope you build a large following!

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