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Ruining the Punchline

For many years, The New Republic was a distinctly un-funny magazine. Or rather, it was a guide to the world for the sort of thinking person that describes himself as a thinking person, a supremely serious and theologically liberal journal of opinion. In the rush to solve the technical problems of the era who had time for frivolous ornaments like laughs? Or as the great wit Phil Ochs famously skewered us in song,

I read New Republic and Nation I’ve learned to take every view You know, I’ve memorized Lerner and Golden I feel like I’m almost a Jew But when it comes to times like Korea There’s no one more red, white and blue So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

Then along came Michael Kinsley, with his unlikely ability to draw from both the footnotes of think tank white papers and Friars Club Roasts. One of his early innovations as editor was filching features from the London Spectator. Parodies began appearing, several of which are contained in this collection. (He once mocked the portentous Washington chat show: “Concern mounts in Washington about any number of things. Life on earth continues, but doubts arise about its purpose or justification.”) Headlines compulsively punned and joked. (“Sour Milken,” “Take My Kidney, Please,” “George on My Mind.”) He could be cutting and it was this meanness that undergirded his funniest aphorisms, lines so apposite that they were instantly absorbed into the media culture. (“Al Gore is an old person’s idea of a young person.”) And there was his immortal boring-headline contest and its never-to-be-topped winner, the “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” The whole demeanor of the magazine morphed into a delightfully wise guy stance: We stick it to the Powers That Be and the Conventional Wisdom. A brand of spitball humor followed—in turns dry and Dada—that flattered its readers.

This has resulted in a dissonance for those unfamiliar with the magazine. They still imagine it as hopelessly earnest and unrelentingly wonkish, an image that hasn’t fit for decades. (Even then, as you will see, we published Woody Allen! And when Woody Allen was still good.)

What is striking about this collection is the many varieties of humor it contains. Some magazines, like The New Yorker or Vanity Fair, have a house style for their jokes. Not us. Our humor comes in Borscht Belt varietals, in a more restrained Anglo sensibility, and in our very own imitation of Robert Benchley - style bemusement. Furthermore, we’ve never ghettoized humor on a particular page of the magazine that advertised itself as funny. It appears throughout the book, often quite unexpectedly and under unexpected bylines.

I’m not arguing that our jokes have always worked. We dubbed the Iran Contra Scandal of the eighties “Iranamok.” Perhaps we ran amok. But there’s honor in the race for the laugh line, even if it transgresses the bounds of political correctness or good comedy. As Kinsley wrote in a column attempting to pinpoint the moment that ethnic jokes fail, “After all, it’s not as if there a surfeit of jokes in the world. We don’t need more reasons not to laugh.”  

Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic.

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