The Republican Main Street Partnership, led by former Ohio Congressman Steven LaTourette, plans to spend millions of dollars in the 2014 midterm elections supporting what it calls "the governing wing of the GOP." LaTourette's group aims to give political support and air cover to more moderate Republicans open to compromise in Congress, neutralizing the efforts of conservative stalwarts such as the Club for Growth and getting Ted Cruz-style hardliners out of Congress. The Main Street Partnership is a hybrid entity—part super-PAC, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money but must disclose its activities, and part nonprofit, which can accept anonymous donations but can't focus primarily on campaigns and elections.
LaTourette has said his group plans to get involved in eight to 10 Republican primaries, and the Main Street Partnership has raised nearly $2 million to date. Yet according to National Journal, a good chunk of that money comes from two unlikely sources: the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Laborers' International Union of North America.
That's right: Two prominent labor unions are underwriting a group stoking the civil war that threatens to tear apart the Republican Party. Documents reviewed by National Journal show that the two unions have together given $400,000 to the Main Street Partnership, accounting for 20 percent of the group's funds.
Here's more from National Journal:
Certainly, labor's not alone in funding Main Street. The group's money is "coming from business folks, from private donors," said Main Street spokesman Chris Barron. "It has a wide range of folks who are interested in supporting the governing wing of the Republican Party."
Barron rejected critiques of Main Street's funding and positioning. "If the money came from Mother Teresa, the Club for Growth would attack where it came from," Barron said.
Both the Operating Engineers and the Laborers' union have given millions of dollars to Democratic candidates and millions more to the party's quasi-official House and Senate super PACs over the last few years. Only one other PAC gave more to Democratic candidates than the Operating Engineers' in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But both unions have also consistently invested in the campaigns of friendly Republicans, including LaTourette's (when he was in Congress). Earlier this year, LIUNA endorsed New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie for reelection and its PAC gave $300,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which ran pro-Christie advertising in the Garden State.
The Operating Engineers' PAC has given 23 percent of its donations to federal candidates to Republicans this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and it supported a super PAC called "Lunch Pail Republicans" last year. At the AFL-CIO's national convention in September, the Operating Engineers and another group offered a successful resolution urging "that the AFL-CIO take practical steps...to cultivate and nurture relationships with members of all parties" and "encourage moderate candidates" in Republican-leaning congressional districts as part of a "pragmatic, bipartisan approach" to its political giving and advocacy.
"Especially with this crazy political atmosphere, this is a place where we need to be lending support to middle-of-the-road Democrats and Republicans both, and this is part of that effort," Jeffrey Soth, the Operating Engineers' political director, said.
Alan: Since Obama "saved the world's economy" only by providing "life support" for too big to fail banks, he may feel a certain indebtedness to these financial parasites. Perhaps he think it could not have done it without them, or that it is necessary to have a suckable teat always oozing milk for "the poor babies." In any event, it is indispensable that Obama insist that the capitalist pigs learn to stand -- and keep standing -- on their own four feet. American citizens are rightly rabid at the "socialization of risk" and the "privatization of profit." Furthermore, they are too smart to let it happen again --- at least not without incalculable political cost to anyone who helps resurrect The Scam. A gigantic ship is preparing to leave dock, and to their credit, Republicans are "on board." Obama owes it to the democratic base of the United States to declare his unflinching determination to "stick the pigs" if -- ever again -- they try to parlay piggishness into parasitism. This populist alliance is much too important to cede to the GOP.
Republicans joining populists in ending corporate welfare for banks
BY DANIELLE DOUGLAS
(AP Photo/Richard Drew)
No one likes the idea of filthy rich banks getting a leg up from the government, not even Republicans. And a small but growing contingent within the party is aligning with populists to strip big banks of the benefits they receive from the implicit guarantee that the government will always come to their rescue.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) took the latest shot this week by proposing a levy on megabanks in his long-awaited tax plan. Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is calling for any firm designated as "systemically important" under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law to pay a quarterly tax equal to 0.035 percent of their total consolidated assets in excess of $500 billion. The tax, which would take effect in January 2015, would generate an estimated $86.4 billion in 10 years.
The idea here is to force Wall Street giants, such as JPMorgan Chase, Citibank and Goldman Sachs, to "reimburse the American taxpayer for a portion of the subsidy" they receive, according to the summary of the bill.
“Dodd-Frank allows these big banks and financial institutions to pay lower borrowing costs, with the difference left to be made up by the American taxpayer,” the summary said.
This sounds a whole lot like the argument made by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and David Vitter (R-La.), who proposed legislation in April to force big banks to hold capital equal to 15 percent of their assets -- enough of a cushion to absorb losses without the help of the government.
"Eliminating the megabanks federal handouts is a simple matter of common sense," Vitter recently said. "Megabanks have been growing at a rapid pace since the financial meltdown, largely on the backs of U.S. taxpayers."
Neither Vitter nor Camp could be considered liberal sympathizers. Rather, their interests in ending big bank subsidies center on a key Republican tenet of protecting the free-market economy. Subsidies create market distortions that fly in the face of that tenet.
Still, a vast majority of Republicans are unlikely to jump on the too-big-to-fail bandwagon. The securities and investment industry pumps millions of dollars into the party's coffers, handing $3.5 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee this election cycle, according to Center for Responsive Politics.
With this being an election year, few members of Congress will be willing to put their neck out for a tax bill that has a slim chance of passing. But even if Camp's bill doesn't make it out of committee, it lends more credibility to the argument that no banks should benefit from the government's largesse.
Excerpts: "Bible Defence of Slavery," Josiah Priest, 1853
[S]ee Genesis ix, 24—27, as follows: "And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him: and he said, cursed be Canaan (Ham); a servant of SERVANTS shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan (Ham) shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan (Ham) shall be his servant."
...[Bishop] Newton maintains ... that the curse of Noah upon Ham, had a general and an interminable application to the whole [negro] race, in placing them under a peculiar liability of being enslaved by the races of the two other brothers.
The curse, therefore, against Ham and [the negro] race was not sent out on the account of that one sin only. But as the deed was heinous, and withal was in unison with his whole life, character and constitutional make, prior to that deed, the curse, which had slumbered long, was let loose upon him and his posterity, as a general thing, placing them under the ban of slavery, on account of his and their foreseen characters. [...]
The appointment of this race of men to servitude and slavery was a judicial act of God, or, in other words, was a divine judgment. [...]
... The great and everywhere pervading fact of their degraded condition, both now and in all time, more or less, is the very climax-witness that, in the above conclusion, we are not mistaken—namely, that the negro race, as a people, are judicially given over to a state or peculiar liability of being enslaved by the other races.
On October 31, 1965, Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong gave his first performance in New Orleans, his home town, in nine years. As a boy, he had busked on street corners. At twelve, he marched in parades for the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, where he was given his first cornet. But he had publicly boycotted the city since its banning of integrated bands, in 1956. It took the Civil Rights Act, of 1964, to undo the law. Returning should have been a victory lap. At sixty-four, his popular appeal had never been broader. His recording of “Hello, Dolly!,” from the musical then in its initial run on Broadway, bumped the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” from its No. 1 slot on the Billboard Top 100 chart, and the song carried him to the Grammys; it won the 1964 Best Vocal Performance award. By the time the movie version came out, in 1969, he was brought in to duet with Barbra Streisand.
Armstrong was then widely known as America’s gravel-voiced, lovable grandpa of jazz. Yet it was a low point for his critical estimation. “The square’s jazzman,” the journalist Andrew Kopkind called him, while covering Armstrong’s return to New Orleans for The New Republic. Kopkind added that “Among Negroes across the country he occupies a special position as success symbol, cultural hero, and racial cop-out.” Kopkind was not entirely wrong in this, and hardly alone in saying so. Armstrong was regularly called an Uncle Tom.
Detractors wanted Armstrong on the front lines, marching, but he refused. He had already been the target of a bombing, during an integrated performance at Knoxville’s Chilhowee Park auditorium, in February, 1957. In 1965, the year Armstrong returned to New Orleans, Malcolm X was killed on February 21st, and on March 7th, known as Bloody Sunday, Alabama state troopers armed with billy clubs, tear gas, and bull whips attacked nearly six hundred marchers protesting a police shooting of a voter-registration activist near Selma. Armstrong flatly stated in interviews that he refused to march, feeling that he would be a target. “My life is my music. They would beat me on the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn … they would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.”
When local kids asked Armstrong to join them in a homecoming parade, as he had done with the Colored Waif’s Home in his youth, he said no. He knew the 1964 Civil Rights Act was federal law, not local fiat. Armstrong had happily joined in the home’s parades in the past, but his refusal here can be read as a sign of the times. The Birmingham church bombings in 1963 had shown that even children were not off limits.
And yet little of what Armstrong said about the civil-rights struggle registered. The public image of him, that wide performance smile, the rumbling lilt of his “Hello, Dolly!,” obviated everything else. “As for Satchmo himself,” Kopkind wrote, “he seems untouched by all the doubts around him. He is a New Orleans trumpet player who loves to entertain. He is not very serious about art or politics, or even life.”
* * *
To be fair to Kopkind, and many others who wrote about Armstrong, they did not know much of what Armstrong thought, because, at the time, Armstrong’s more political views were rarely heard publicly. To the country at large, he insisted on remaining a breezy entertainer with all the gravitas of a Jimmy Durante or Dean Martin. Fortunately, that image is now being deeply reëxamined. This month, the publication of Thomas Brothers’s “Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism” and the Off Broadway opening of Terry Teachout’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf” (which follows his 2009 biography, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” which was reviewed in the magazine by John McWhorter) provide a rich, nuanced picture of what was behind Armstrong’s public face.
Armstrong’s thoughts were scattered about in uncollected letters, unpublished autobiographical manuscripts, and tape recordings. He brought a typewriter with him on the road, and an inquisitive fan who sent a letter stood a good chance of getting a reply from Satchmo himself. When reel-to-reel tape decks were introduced, he bought one so that he could listen to music, study his own performances, and record conversations with friends and family to get down his own version of events. Scholars and researchers have been studying his writing and recordings for a number of years. Teachout’s play, a one-man show starring John Douglas Thompson, is based on more than six hundred and fifty reels of tape stored at Queens College, all of which reveal an Armstrong who did indeed take art, politics, and life seriously.
His talk came from the streets, as did his understanding of race, celebrity, and politics. In 1951, when Josephine Baker returned to the United States from France, she complained publicly of racist treatment at New York’s Stork Club, and persuaded the Copa City night club, in Miami, to desegregate for her shows. Armstrong was not impressed. In 1952, according to a transcript in Ricky Riccardi’s “What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years” (2012), he said:
But she’s going to come over here and stir up the nation, get all them ofays—people that think a lot of us—against us, because you take a lot of narrow minded spades following up that jive she’s pulling—you understand?—then she go back with all that loot and everything and we’re over here dangling. I don’t dig her.
The key word is “we’re.” Armstrong grew up poor and powerless, and he never forgot it. Despite his fame, he understood the repercussions for a community after the celebrity savior jets home. “I don’t socialize with the top dogs of society after a dance or concert,” he said in a 1964 profile in Ebony. “These same society people may go around the corner and lynch a Negro.”
Armstrong chose his battles carefully. In September, 1957, seven months after the bombing attempt in Knoxville, he grew strident when President Eisenhower did not compel Arkansas to allow nine students to attend Little Rock Central High School. As Teachout recounts in “Pops,” here Armstrong had leverage, and spoke out. Armstrong was then an unofficial goodwill ambassador for the State Department. Armstrong stated publicly that Eisenhower was “two-faced” and had “no guts.” He told one reporter, “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” His comments made network newscasts and front pages, and the A.P. reported that State Department officials had conceded that “Soviet propagandists would undoubtedly seize on Mr. Armstrong’s words.”
Doing things Armstrong’s way, no one had to accept responsibility for his actions but Louis Armstrong. When Eisenhower did force the schools to integrate, Armstrong’s tone was friendlier. “Daddy,” he telegrammed the President, “You have a good heart.”
* * *
The work of Thomas Brothers, a professor of music at Duke University, radically undercuts the breezy image that Armstrong worked so hard to maintain. Brothers began editing Armstrong’s letters and writings in the early nineteen-nineties, now collected in “Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words.” He followed that with his own “Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans” (2006), and, this month, with “Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism,” which charts Armstrong’s peak creative period, from 1925 until 1932. It’s not so much biography that Brothers is after as a history of “black vernacular” music as seen through Armstrong’s life. In the book on New Orleans, he traces that music from plantation culture through Armstrong’s youth, and on to his move north, in 1922. “Master of Modernism” picks up as Armstrong’s mentor, Joe (King) Oliver, summons Armstrong to join his band in Chicago. Brothers discounts comforting histories of the early jazz world as an oasis where race was irrelevant, a multi-cultural melting pot that created a uniquely American sound. Armstrong’s music came from the black tradition, from his own neighborhood, which he modernized for Chicago’s upscale cafés, theatres, and fast-paced, flashy, urban clubs.
By 1925, after a three-year apprenticeship in Oliver’s band and, later, a stint in Fletcher Henderson’s group, Armstrong formed his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens combos. Here he perfected his mature horn style, a New Orleans sound broken down into what Brothers calls a “microscopic level of blues phrasing” sped up into a “dazzling melodic flow” of “weird, crazy, and eccentric figures.” Armstrong was part of the Great Migration, the movement of Southern African-Americans to Northern cities to escape Jim Crow terrorism. His local audiences were made up of many people in transition, just like him. “The connection to the Deep South could still be heard, but there was also a step up and forward into a more professional world,” Brothers writes. “He was a modern, sophisticated, northern, well-paid musician. Whether he knew it or not, the task that lay before him was to help his audience understand themselves more deeply by providing them with a musical identity that was black and modern. This is the context of his mature style.”
Brothers also convincingly dismisses the idea that Armstrong was a purely instinctive, improvisational artist, a lucky savant whom fortune favored with a cornet. In recently discovered copyrighted music for “Cornet Chop Suey,” which contains an early gem of a solo registered in 1924, but not recorded until 1926, Brothers shows that Armstrong was, in fact, an intellectual musician who composed his breakthrough solos. Of another solo, Brothers writes, “The chiseled perfection of ‘Big Butter and Egg Man’ came from working on it night after night, like a sculptor fussing over a chunk of marble. Armstrong changed the history of jazz solos by composing rather than improvising.”
The solos, with their incredibly fast breaks, their “freakish” (as traditionalists called them) squawks and “wah-wahs,” were considered pure noise, just novelty music, by many. Complaints from critics about Armstrong’s clowning dogged him all his life. But he made brilliant, satirical use of humor, which you can hear in his biggest hits of the twenties: “Heebie Jeebies,” “Big Butter and Egg Man,” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” In the first of that trio, Armstrong offers an early example of scat singing. He did not invent scat (as was mistakenly thought for decades), but here he popularized it by cheerfully mocking the song’s inane lyrics with his own nonsensical sound, one that flows along with the melody better than the original words.
His humor revealed an irreverent man with a distinctly black point of view. On “You’re Drivin’ Me Crazy,” from 1930, Armstrong stops the band momentarily to chide their sloppy performance. One musician answers, in a typical stuttering minstrel style, “Aw, Pops, w-we j-just m-muggin’ lightly.” Armstrong starts to answer in that stuttering style, too, then catches himself. “Aw, man, now you got me talkin’ all that chop suey.” Here Armstrong’s wisecrack undercuts a century of the minstrel humor expected of him by many white listeners, a simple joke making clear who Louis Armstrong really is.
By 1929, Armstrong was a cultural hero in Chicago. Yet his next innovation, his vocal style, raised questions about whether he was assimilating in order to attract white audiences (his “white turn,” as Brothers calls it) by recording pop hits that left his jazz fan base behind. In “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a widely recorded song of the day, which Armstrong sang in the Broadway musical “Connie’s Hot Chocolates,” he takes a modernist’s approach of distancing himself from the source material, not assimilating. As he put it, “On the first chorus I plays the melody, on the second chorus I plays the melody around the melody, and on the third chorus I routines.” Like “Heebie Jeebies,” Armstrong irreverently comments on the song as much as plays it. His voice remains unassimilated, as well. As Brothers puts it, he sang with “a voice as different from the normative style of Broadway show singing as black and white … mixing scat, blues, double-time, and witty paraphrase, keeping things humorous and accessible.” A voice that made Armstrong’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” a distinctly black mainstream hit, and one heard all the way through “Hello, Dolly!”
“That he was not interested in cultural assimilation is an indication of psychological security and confidence,” Brothers writes in “Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans.” “It may also be taken as a political stance. To insist on the value of vernacular culture and to reject assimilation was not an idle position to take. There were considerable ideological pressures working in the other direction.”
Yes, unfortunately, there were. One example, of too many, came when Armstrong was arrested by the Memphis Police Department in 1931. His crime? He sat next to his manager’s wife, a white woman, on a bus. Armstrong and his band were thrown in jail as policemen shouted that they needed cotton pickers in the area. Armstrong’s manager got him out in time to play his show the next evening. When he did play, Armstrong dedicated a song to the local constabulary, several of whom were in the room, then cued the band to play “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Old Rascal You.” The band stiffened, expecting another night in jail, or worse. Instead, he scatted so artfully that, afterward, the cops on duty actually thanked him. Armstrong most likely never quit smiling that night. His subversive joke was not understood by anyone except the African-Americans in his band.
Race pervaded every aspect of Armstrong’s career. After he began making movies, he was given an embarrassing jungle outfit to wear in “A Rhapsody in Black and Blue” (1932), a betrayal of everything in his music. Brothers likens the ideology of nineteen-thirties racism that Armstrong lived under to what other musical geniuses suffered overseas at the time:
In Russia, Dmitri Shostakovich came under attack for composing music that did not fit official Soviet expectations; his efforts to make up for such “errors” in artistic judgment lay at the root of a tortured life. Richard Strauss’s German-themed compositions were easily appropriated by the Nazis, boxing him into an image that he wanted nothing do with.
Armstrong, in his own way, made that same point. During the Little Rockschools standoff, he cancelled a planned tour of the Soviet Union for the State Department. As Teachout quotes him in “Pops,” “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country? What am I supposed to say?” Yes, Armstrong compromised. “If he was going to advance further on the ladder of his career—and he definitely was—he had to assure white audiences on a deep level that he had no designs on social progress,” Brothers writes.
But, in fact, he did, which we see now in his art and in his racial politics, from his interactions with the Memphis police in 1931 and Eisenhower in 1957 to his return in 1965 to New Orleans, without grandstanding or incident. As the pieces come together, a consistency of thought in Armstrong once obscured to us has finally become clear: “You name the country and we’ve just about been there,” he said of his travels with his wife Lucille. “We’ve been wined and dined by all kinds of royalty. We’ve had an audience with the Pope. We’ve even slept in Hitler’s bed. But regardless of all that kind of stuff, I’ve got sense enough to know that I’m still Louis Armstrong—colored.”
Ben Schwartz is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer and the editor of the anthology “The Best American Comics Criticism.” He is currently working on a history of American humor set between the world wars.
Wonkbook: Puneet Kollipara is your next Wonkbooker
BY EVAN SOLTAS
Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Evan Soltas. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here.
I've written approximately 360 Wonkbooks since I started in the summer of 2012, and this one is my last. Puneet Kollipara is the next Wonkbooker. He starts Monday.
I'm confident that Puneet will keep Wonkbook the best digest of the day's public policy news. He's a wonk, too -- he joins Wonkblog as a specialist in science and environmental policy, with previous experience writing for Chemical & Engineering News, Science News, and Inside EPA. You should follow him on Twitter, along with Wonkblog itself.
I'm heading off to join Ezra Klein as an economics writer on his new venture. I'm also continuing as an opinion contributor to Bloomberg View. And you can follow me on Twitter @esoltas.
I'm deeply grateful for the opportunity to work at The Washington Post and to all the people who helped me along the way. Particular thanks go to Michelle Williams and Amrita Jayakumar, Wonkbook's current and former producers; Karl Singer and Dylan Matthews, my predecessors; and Ezra Klein and David Cho, my supervisors.
They put enormous trust in me as a young writer, and I can only hope I've repaid them. Wonkbook has been one of the best experiences of my life, and one of those from which I've learned and grown the most.
And the greatest thanks, of course, go to Wonkbook's incredibly loyal and, well, wonky readership. It's been an honor
*** Alan: People who advocate fossil fuel development over solar development will be viewed by their descendants as get-rich-quick dimwits.
"The Interior Department opened the door on Thursday to the first searches in decades for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast, recommending that undersea seismic surveys proceed, though with a host of safeguards to shield marine life from much of their impact. The recommendation is likely to be adopted after a period of public comment and over objections by environmental activists who say it will be ruinous for the climate and sea life alike." Michael Wines in The New York Times.
Alan: To understand American healthcare -- whether private sector or public -- Americans need to undertake more thoughtful research than most citizens are willing to conduct.
Understood in context, Obamacare -- admittedly a flawed system -- is superior to the status quo ante.
"Insurance companies are serving as foot soldiers for ObamaCare with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign intended to push customers into the insurance exchanges. Though the companies are reluctant to publicize their role in the unpopular law, health insurers are expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in 2014 alone on television, radio and online ads aimed at boosting enrollment." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.
Why Republicans themselves shot it down. "The decision by members of the Republican establishment to join gay activists in opposing the bill reflected the alarm the Arizona battle stirred among party leaders, who worried about identifying their party with polarizing social issues at a time when Republicans see the prospect of big gains in Congressional elections on economic issues. No less important, the bill produced almost unanimous opposition among one critical Republican constituency -- business owners -- who feared it would entangle the state in lawsuits and prompt a damaging boycott."Adam Nagourney in The New York Times.
After veto in Arizona, conservatives vow to fight for religious liberties. "Conservative activists said Thursday that they will continue to press for additional legal protections for private businesses that deny service to gay men and lesbians, saying that a defeat in Arizona this week is only a minor setback and that religious-liberty legislation is the best way to stave off a rapid shift in favor of gay rights...Many conservatives said they will continue working to convince voters and judges that opponents of same-sex marriage and abortion are motivated by faith rather than bigotry." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.
Immediately after 9/11, comedy ground to a halt. The Daily Show went off the air for nine days. Saturday Night Live, whose 27th season started 18 days later, featured a somber cold-open with Lorne Michaels asking New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, "Can we be funny?"
The staffers of The Onion, the satirical paper that had just relocated to New York, weren’t sure how to answer to that question. Even three weeks after the attack, the comedian Gilbert Gottfried was publicly hissed at for joking that he was taking a flight that would make a stop at the Empire State Building.
The Onion staffers agonized, but they eventually settled on publishing an entire paper devoted to 9/11 on September 26. As described by psychologist Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner in their upcoming book, The Humor Code, the issue was smash hit. The Onionwriters aimed their bile at the hijackers, whom they depicted being tortured by “tusked, asp-tongued demons” in Hell. One headline read, “God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule.”
The paper was deluged with fan mail from readers who seemed to find catharsis in the terrorists' derisive rendering.
The Onion’s triumph reflects McGraw’s long-held theory that comedy is equal parts darkness and light. The best jokes, he believes, take something awful and make it silly. Go purely light-hearted and you risk being toothless. Too edgy, and like Gottfried, you’ll make people uncomfortable.
This “benign violation” theory of humor is central to The Humor Code, which Warner and McGraw, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, researched by digging into comedy trends around the world. The book comes out on April 1 (obviously).
McGraw’s thinking expands on the work of Stanford psychologist Thomas Veatch, which in turn builds on past explanations about why we laugh. Great thinkers have been trying for centuries to figure out the evolutionary purpose of comedy. The theories that have emerged are all very different, but one thing they share is a tendency to hint at the art form's shadowy side.
Hobbes and Plato took the playground perspective, suggesting that making fun helps us feel superior to others. Kant and later psychologists though it was abouta cognitive shift that moves a serious situation into playful territory. In 1905, Freud suggested that humor was the fun-loving id making itself known despite the protestations of the conformist superego.
A few years ago, psychologist Daniela S. Hugelshofer suggested that humor acts as a buffer against depression and hopelessness. And evolutionary psychologists have suggested that humor is a way to subtly outshine our competitors for mates. Nothing says “pick me” like having an entire office/bar/dorm double over at your imitation of Shosh from Girls.
These approaches have a lot in common, though: You can’t make a joke without inserting a wicked twist, and you can’t be a comedian without holding a small amount of power, for even a short period of time, over the audience.
And if that’s the case, is there something about the psychology of comedians that makes them better able to tap into these “violations”? Do they enjoy wielding that kind of power? Or do funny people just know something the rest of us don’t?
One of McGraw’s favorite quotes is from Mark Twain: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
It’s this juxtaposition of injury and cheer that McGraw has studied in depth, both in his book and at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Humor Research Lab(acronym: HURL).
“Humor is something people inherently enjoy,” he told me. “But there also needs to be something wrong, unsettling, and threatening in some way. We call those violations.”
Our caveman ancestors lived in a world rife with physical threats. There was relief in discovering that a rustling in the darkness was a mouse rather than a saber-toothed tiger.
“Before people could speak, laughter served as a signaling function,” McGraw explained. “As if to say, ‘this is a false alarm, this is a benign violation.’”
Tickling, the basic form of humor that even non-verbal primates use, is a perfect example: “There's a threat there, but it's safe,” McGraw said. “It's not too aggressive and it's done by someone you trust.”
Today, our threats are less likely to be four-legged, but humor still serves as a way to overcome them. Jokes ease tension; they help us deal with life’s injustices, both minor and large. But like the Onion staffers after 9/11, jokes have to air these wrongs before making them right.
When jokes are too gentle or anodyne, like this picture of a cat, we don’t laugh; there’s no violation. (“You can’t tickle yourself,” McGraw explains.) Meanwhile, something that’s too offensive, like, say, this, is purely a violation. (“Like if a creepy guy in a trench coat tried to tickle you,” he said. “That’s terrifying!”)
Some cultures avoid these types of blatant transgressions by restricting the topics that can be fodder for jokes. But Warner, McGraw’s co-author, noticed that while some cultures compartmentalize humor by subject matter, others do so by geography. When they were in Japan, for example, they noticed that the comedy in clubs was as raunchy as it gets, but certain settings were entirely off-limits to joking:
“In the office or at school, that's not okay,” Warner said. “It was not okay to laugh in the office of the humor researchers, even. But in bars and karaoke theaters, anything goes.”
In the HURL lab, McGraw has been trying determine what exactly flips a joke from offensive to funny. Or in research terms, what puts the “benign” in “benign violation?”
Through clinical studies, the lab has found that tragedies—think earthquakes, deaths, and the like—are funnier when they’re either physically or socially distant. “Mishaps” meanwhile, are funnier when we’re closer to them, which is why Anthony Weiner’s Twitter misadventures featured prominently on American late-night shows, but comparable foibles by, say, an Indonesian politician would not have. Likewise, participants found a picture of a man with a frozen beard (mishap) funnier than a man with his finger stuck through his own eye socket (tragedy.)
The lab has also identified that jokes can, indeed, be “too soon,” as my colleague Julie Beck described: One study by McGraw and researchers at Texas A&M University found tweets about Hurricane Sandy to be least funny 15 days after it struck, most funny 36 days after the fact, and once again not funny 99 days later.
The passage of about a month, they wrote, creates a “sweet spot” in which poking fun at sadness is neither too neutered nor too sharp: “A tragic event is difficult to joke about at first, but the passage of time initially increases humor as the event becomes less threatening. Eventually, however, distance decreases humor by making the event seem completely benign.”
It's even better if the comedy can put the audience physically on edge, which is why most comedy clubs cram people into a tiny room and force them to sit on hard stools, he said—it’s best if the audience doesn’t get too comfortable.
Last year, the comedian Stephen Fry publicly discussed his bipolar disorder and suicide attempt. In describing his quiz show, QI, Fry has said, “There are times when I’m doing QI and I’m going ‘ha ha, yeah, yeah,’ and inside I’m going ‘I want to fucking die. I ... want ... to ... fucking ... die’”
There’s always been an anecdotal link between comedy and inner turmoil, but the empirical evidence has started to back it up. In the 1920s, the psychologistLewis Terman found that children rated as having a good sense of humor by their parents and teachers died younger as adults. A longitudinal study of Finnish police officers found that the funniest among them were more likely to be obese and to smoke. And an analysis of New York Times obituaries found that performers died nearly eight years younger than members of the military did.
Is there something unusually taxing about the process of dreaming up violations and deploying them to crack people up?
Last month, a group of British scientists found that comedians are more likely than regular people to exhibit psychotic traits, or the characteristics associated with people who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the authors describe how they administered a questionnaire to 523 comedians, 364 actors, and 831 people with non-performance jobs. The survey asked about experiences with magical thinking, antisocial behavior, distractibility, and “introverted anhedonia,” or not deriving pleasure from others.
Comedians and actors alike scored higher than the non-performers across almost all of the traits. The only difference was that comedians were more likely to experience a reduced ability to feel social and physical pleasure, but the same wasn’t true of actors. Comedians, more so than the regular folk or even actors, were more likely to have a mild distaste for humanity.
“Comedians had an introverted set of traits, which is rather counterintuitive,” Oxford psychologist Gordon Claridge, one of the authors, told me. “Actors were outgoing in a consistent way.”
It’s important to note, Claridge said, that this doesn’t mean comedians are mentally ill. In fact, few of the subjects actually experienced psychotic symptoms; they just shared some traits with people who suffer from psychotic ailments.
These characteristics might help comedians “tap into some sort of out-of-the-box thinking,” he said. “Together, they underpin a creative cognitive style.”
McGraw is skeptical, though. He thinks the study supports a certain “crazy comedian” stereotype but isn’t definitive.
“People think comedians are kind of screwed-up people, but that they have developed a sense of humor to cope with it,” he said. “That's a compelling idea, but there's not great evidence for that.”
He points to the fact that the comedians scored roughly on par with the actors. Comedians, he says, are just actors starring in their own play.
“It's more about the kind of person who is drawn to a world of theater more than comedy specifically,” he argues. “Gilbert Gottfried doesn't talk like that all the time. Lewis Black doesn't walk around outraged at the bus stop.”
Besides, no one gets ahead in comedy by being “an asshole,” as McGraw puts it. Such a competitive field demands attentiveness to showtimes, hours spent perfecting jokes, and being cordial to club owners.
The HURL lab once studied 600 novices and experts in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improv comedy troupe, and found that the only difference was that the experts were more conscientious, McGraw said.
“The really screwed up people aren't comedians, they're criminals. They're in jails, and they're not funny. They're sad and angry," he said.
“No, there's something else that predicts success in comedy.”
Gil Greengross, a University of Mexico anthropologist, thinks the secret to being funny is being smart. In fact, he’s written that humor itself is an “intelligence indicator.”
For a 2011 study published in the journal Intelligence, Greengross gave 400 undergrads a series of verbal and abstract-reasoning intelligence tests, and then measured them against history’s greatest yardstick of hilarity: writing captions for New Yorker cartoons.
The captions were then rated by the judges, who were blind to any of the participants’ identifiable information.
As he expected, the students who scored higher on the intelligence measures also created the funniest captions. This makes sense. According to all of the theories of humor, wit involves putting discordant ideas together quickly, all while being perceptive enough to offend your audience a little, but not too much.
“You need to be clever to see the things that are wrong in the world and to make them okay,” McGraw said. “Smart people are better-read and they know more about the world. They can connect these dots.”
Greengross said that when he’s run the same tests with professional stand-up comedians, they produced much higher vocabulary scores than the studentsdid.
And of course, the professionals “were able to produce caption after caption that were really funny.”
But—prepare to cringe, fellow feminists—Greengross found that the malestudents wrote more and funnier captions than the female students did, even though the men had only slightly larger vocabularies on average.
Of course, it could be that writing New Yorker captions isn’t how women best express humor. Or it could be that women don’t feel as comfortable spouting a bunch of violations, however benign, in a clinical setting.
The evolutionary explanation, though, is that women use humor as a proxy to select the cleverest mates from a crowd. It’s apparently how we determine mental fitness without forcing men to tattoo their SAT scores on their foreheads.
One key part of the experiment, though, was that the men were actuallyattempting more jokes. They wrote more captions overall, so they had more total successes.
“Men are trying harder than women to make others laugh. They tend to produce or try to produce more humor in the presence of women,” Greengross said. “On the other hand, women tend to laugh more than men in general, and especially when men are present.”
But humor can function as a mate-luring strategy for women, too: The authors found that the female participants who had started having sex earlier or had a greater number of sexual partners were also the ones who produced the funnier captions.
And of all of the different purposes of comedy, this might be the most subversive of all. It could be that office-cooler witticisms, stand-up routines, and sitcoms are just part of one big pickup line you never saw coming.