Burt Blumert and the Enjoyment of Laughter
by David Gordon
by David Gordon
Burt Blumert is a master of political satire, and in his preface to Bagels, Barry Bonds, and Rotten Politicians, he reveals the secret of his success. "The satirist," he says, "studies these ‘oft-dangerous politicians/bureaucrats, extends their cruel and calloused behavior to the absurd, and we laugh. If the satirist is too good at what he does, he may wind up with his head in a noose."
The phrase I have emphasized defines his humor. Burt takes something that annoys us and exaggerates it. By getting us to laugh, he makes us realize the essentials of a situation.
One of his articles applies even more to our current economic crisis than to the difficulties of 2002 that occasioned it. Burt imagines a secret memo from the White House to the Federal Reserve Board that perfectly captures the frenzied efforts of the Obama administration to talk us into recovery: "At the start of the business day in every financial institution, all present will recite a short pledge of loyalty to the government and the equity markets. . . Any customer who seeks to sell a stock must provide documentation that he faces some emergency. A panel consisting of a physician, a mortician, a man of the cloth, and a bookie will judge if the need is sufficient. [This list is worthy of Mencken.]. . . Throughout the business week, at every opportunity, corporate leaders will be humiliated and serious consideration is being given to executing one per week. Your nominations are welcome."
By the way, Burt is also superb at straight comedy, as well as satire. Once again, economic difficulties lead to some of his best efforts: "Did you hear about the former dotcom billionaire who begs in downtown Mountain View with a sign that reads, ‘I Work for Gigabytes'?. . . when I called the movie theatre to find out when the feature started, the voice asked, ‘What time would you like to get here, sir?'. . .things are so bad in California that my bank returned a check marked: Insufficient Funds, Us not you.'"
Protests against the Iraq war do not seem the most obvious material for humor, but Burt easily rises to the occasion. In doing so, he vividly calls to our attention efforts to suppress dissent: "The antiwar event [in San Francisco, 2003] was hardly mentioned in the media, but police admitted that the crowd was the largest in San Francisco in thirty years. . . As for the Guardsmen, I had the impression they were in town to earn their Crowd-Suppression Merit Badges. . . McDonald's was quick to put several new specials on the griddle: ‘The Dissent Burger' — Half-price in case you're arrested in the middle of eating it. ‘The Iraq Burger' — The usual pickle, onion, and special dressing on a poppy seed bun, all covered with a layer of sand."
Burt has little use for those prominent in politics, always excepting his hero Ron Paul. Rudy Giuliani especially arouses his ire, much to readers' delight: "Ever inch of the auditorium at the New School was occupied as Giuliani sat to face the panel [investigating 9/11]. . .Typically, everybody had to make an opening statement. Each exceeded the previous in extolling ‘America's Mayor.' Rudy has become so accustomed to the adulation that he has learned to bask in low key. Next, it was Rudy's turn. His recounting of that horrible day and his own survival is theatre at its best. Laurence Olivier could not do better."
In another passage that recalls Mencken, Burt writes: "Giuliani filled the role of functionary who rolled from one funeral to another, a sort of toastmaster general helping to bury New York's uniformed dignitaries. . . . Politically, Giuliani is like the horror film monster who refuses to stay dead."
Hillary Clinton is another politician not among Burt's favorites. "The drive to lower the voting age to fourteen is gaining momentum. New York Senator Hillary Clinton suggested that if they are old enough to say ‘no' to drugs, they are old enough to vote. If they don't say ‘no', they are probably using drugs, and drug users must not be excluded from the voter rolls. One Republican politician responded: ‘It won't be long before they'll be demanding prescription drug relief for teens, and we will all be paying for their anti-pimple medication.'"
Burt expertly skewers Alan Dershowitz's moral posturing: "Dershowitz was angered by Bush's recent Thanksgiving message to the American public. The fiery Dershowitz said, ‘Those Indians at the first Thanksgiving dinner were forced to sit at the children's table and reparations are in order.' He threatens to take the case all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court."
Our judicial system does not impress Burt: "Another first: The Sixth U.S. Federal District Court in Richmond, Virginia, will now be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, holidays included. A court spokesman said, ‘Justice cannot be blind only during business hours.'. . . One senior Gore barrister commented: ‘Midnight basketball has been a terrific success, so why not. . .' A nosy truck obliterated his last words, so fill in the blank yourself."
For Burt, only the government's ineptness saves us from the full effects of its bad ideas. He takes off from a Russian program that allowed an American businessman to buy a seat on a space rocket: "But it is well-known that with the right connections in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn you can purchase an entire Russian infantry division or arrange to have former Soviet MIG fighter pilots as waiters for your next party. (Whatever deal you make, you'll probably get cheated, or worse.). . . Here is a peek at a future GSA brochure advertising US government products and services at bargain prices:. . .The man in your life will be delighted to receive three live Minutemen missiles ready to launch. (He needn't worry about any ‘collateral damage' as he will be protected by the same exemption of responsibility enjoyed by the US military.) Price $5 million (some history of family violence is useful.) . . . For those who appreciate humor, you can read the hilarious accounts of US citizens unwittingly exposed to experimental drugs administered by various US government agencies. Price: $50."
When I edited Burt's book, my only problem was that I laughed so much over the articles that it slowed my work in assembling them. I'll close with my favorite joke in the book: "Psssst: I've got a terrific deal for you on a six-year old Indian elephant. It's a steal at $1,000." "You can't be serious. What would a city dweller possibly do with an elephant?" "Tell you what, I'll lower the price to $800 and include one year's supply of hay." "This is ridiculous. I live in a three-room apartment in Berkeley and they don't even allow a parakeet." "My final offer: $500 and I'll throw in a second elephant." "Two elephants for $500?. . . It's a deal but they both better be healthy and housebroken."
March 30, 2009
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