The top rung of the humour ladder (National Post, Sept. 25, 2003)

Woody Allen once said, "I don't think being funny is anyone's first choice." He was wrong.

I got hooked on the "ecstasy" of comedy at seven, when my father woke me at 2 a.m. to entertain party guests with my imitation of Jerry Lewis, a family favourite. The well-oiled guests were easy prey, true, but my performance was also pretty slick. While crossing one's eyes, pronating one's feet and plangently bleating "Oh Deeeaaan, doan hit me Dean!" is the absolute bottom rung on the humour ladder, laughter is laughter, and I became addicted for life. The ability to make people laugh struck me then and strikes me still as one of the great felicities of being human.

In young adulthood, I parted company forever with farce and strenuous Borscht Belt humour. I embraced wit and satire -- actively through years of joyous performance in UC Follies at the University of Toronto. But I was also a devoted fan of the emergent brilliant duo Elaine May and Mike Nichols, and even more ardently of the coruscatingly witty Beyond the Fringe Brits.

Political/cultural satire is clearly the top rung of the humour ladder. In the '50s, Lenny Bruce's filthy rants only disgusted people, but politicians actually feared (and persecuted) politically mordant Mort Sahl.

Al Franken, one of the few really funny contemporary Democratic loyalists, has just published Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Fox News was so rattled it actually threatened to sue him for his appropriation of its motto. Now that's comedic power. On the right, Dennis Miller deflates liberals with equal zest and intelligence.

Wonkish liberals make better targets than deliverers of satire. By contrast the cheeky neo-conservative Weekly Standard prides itself on delivering laughs along with ideology; it routinely flays public pretension and hypocrisy with savage glee.

Great political satirists such as Jonathan Swift, Molière, Orwell and Tom Wolfe, use(d) their talent to illuminate unjust social conditions, and to punish their political enablers by shaming them into reform. The truly vicious cannot be redeemed: No intelligent writer bothers to satirize the Stalins or Saddams, as they have nothing to conceal; they are beyond correction and shame. Satirists aim rather to "preserve well-inclin'd men in the course of virtue."

Satire always has a moral purpose, and its setting is always the public realm. The best satire springs from those who are most rooted in their values without fanaticism, and most of these are de facto bourgeois conservatives. The common targets are hypocrisy and vanity because both of these character flaws lead to a heightened sense of self-importance. Disproportion is the crime, and satire is the cure. Its goal is to educate society to an appreciation of correct proportions.

Politicians have the most to fear from satirists, because public deflation of their swollen egos can crash-land them from their lofty heights in a heartbeat. Insults can be parried in kind, but one is helpless against the micro-terrorism of ridicule. In this respect, political cartoonists are the grand masters. Cartoonists gorged on the elusive, hypocritical, power-mad Clintons; they sweat over the straightforward, unnuanced and proportionate Bush. Chrétien's arrogance and duplicity are easy pickings; Stephen Harper's dispassion and modesty make thin comedic gruel.

Canadians excel at satire. Nobody hates pretension, affectation, hypocrisy, and egotism more than Canadians. SCTV was leagues ahead of American imitators, and the best "American" satirists are disproportionately Canadian. Cats may look at kings. Canadians may look at presidents. Canadian comics spend their youth as laboratory scientists honing their skill in ego vivisection.

An effective satirist should appear detached, but must be driven by anger. You strike most cleanly when you're boiling mad inside, but cool outside. Me, for example, I get boiling mad over Quebec separatism. I finally had my brief moment of revenge on mega-pomposiosos Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard a few years ago, and it was sweet.

The occasion was a high-profile charity event. My sister was the honouree and I was introducing her. The dinner chairman, former prime minister John Turner, told me moments beforehand that I had exactly seven minutes to speak. Inspired, I announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Turner has told me that I may speak for seven minutes. But I am from Quebec. Canada does not tell Quebec how long Quebec will speak. Quebec will decide unilaterally how long Quebec will speak." (Here I peeked over at Mr. Turner -- his face was a study in incipient panic). "And," I concluded, "Quebec has decided that Quebec will speak ... for precisely seven minutes."

I got a huge laugh. What a rush. It made my decade.

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