One of the dumbest things of all time (all time, I tells you!) was the post-9/11 pronunciamento by Vanity Fair jefe Graydon Carter, “I think it’s the end of the age of irony.” Carter, a former co-creator of Spy (arguably the house organ of the era he pronounced dead), was of course mistaken. Irony—defined most banally as reflexive glibness—has certainly survived and probably flourished ever since (certainly, celebrity-obsessed Vanity Fair soldiers on as the gargoyle version of Spy).
And can anyone seriously argue that we haven’t entered an even weirder, darker era of at least one version of irony: a state in which we can no longer fully decide between competing interpretations of basic reality? Are we real or are we elaborate simulations (yes, I watch Westworld on HBO and still have no clear sense of last night’s episode)? It’s not as if there weren’t signs that we’re living in a Philip K. Dick novel before the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked. But when you look at something like the recent Saturday Night Live performance of “Hillary Clinton” singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” you’ve got to ask: Could it really be as godawful and serious as it appears to be? Or is it some sort of mega-deep ironic Andy Kaufman-style parody of an actress on a tuckered-out, hyper-politically correct “cutting-edge” show? For the sake of all that’s good and decent in the world, I know I want to believe the latter, even as I know I’m wrong.
Before I lose the inspiration of this post completely, let me direct readers to the latest flap emanating from a generally unheralded and unwatched awards program. Last night’s American Music Awards was the 44th in the show’s history (!) but if you’re like the overwhelming majority of Americans (the very people announced in the show’s title!), you had and have no idea that they were happening. Supermodel (aren’t they all?) Gigi Hadid was a presenter and did a short and uninspired impersonation of First Lady to-be Melania Trump, which immediately created a “Twitter storm” the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Rand Paul stood up to protest the Obama administration’s nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA and the president’s policy on drone attacks back in 2013.
The offending-to-some impersonation is clipped below. Check out the AMA tweets here.
My point is simply that if we haven’t entered a post-ironic age in America, we have most decidedly entered a post-humor era in which all utterances and attempts at comedy or even just plain speech are pretexts for being pissed off about the unfairness of it all. As Robby Soave noted earlier today, you can see that already with the whole Mike-Pence-at-Hamilton show flap and quite possibly the worst of many bad things to come over the next four years is the endless posturing on all sides of constant outrage and umbrage at every real and imagined slight, failed joke, and off-the-cuff remark.
We have just ended an election in which the two least-approved candidates of all time failed to win over the American people in a decisive manner. Record and near-record lows of us identify as Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. There will clowns to the left of us and jokers to the right who will insist on injecting politics into everything and there will be equal and opposite responses that will be long on theatrical outrage and short of substance. Lord knows that Donald Trump is beyond thin-skinned but all those crying-on-the-outside clowns aren’t helping things either.
It will be a damned dirty shame if we allow the next four years to be as tedious and humor-starved as they are already shaping up to be. I’m not against political humor and art—indeed, I believe all creative expression is inherently political—but there’s a huge difference between social commentary and art that’s serious the points it’s trying to make and injecting stupid, tired ideological calls-and-responses into every goddamn thing we do. “The politicization of everything” is already one reason why so many of us hate politics. I can remember interviewing Bill Maher for Reason way back in the late 1990s, when he was still doing Politically Incorrect. Brian Doherty and I asked what made a guest terrible. “Anybody who gets upset all the time and says, ‘That’s not funny. That’s serious’” (I’m paraphrasing). If that same sensibility plays out everywhere else over the next four years—and after years of trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, and the changing fortunes of liberals and conservatives—strap yourselves in for a very tedious time.