BECAUSE I DO political humor myself for a living -- and because I am concerned about rudeness in our civic life I made a point of taping the "shock jock" Don Imus in his recent talk to the TV and radio correspondents in D.C. And though I was certainly struck by his coarseness and rudeness, as a humorist I found myself struck by something else too.
I was struck by how remarkably unfunny Mr. Imus had been -- by how strikingly witless a performance I had watched and by how odd it was that so witless a performer had been invited to appear at all.
Mr. Imus was speaking, after all, at the end of a primary season which was easily the funniest in recent history a season in which we witnessed the full comic flowering of the post-Pat Robertson, post-Perot era in which almost anyone can now run for the White House.
We had seen Steve Forbes, a wealthy publisher, tell the public we should all pay less taxes, and if we would just all pay less, it would add up to more.
We had seen Alan Keyes, a former ambassador, arrested after a four-day hunger strike, because he was shut out of a televised GOP debate in Georgia.
We had seen Morry Taylor, a tire executive, stage a series of $5,000 sweepstakes, just to get people to come hear him speak.
We'd seen a general, Colin Powell, spend months trying to figure what party he's in -- a process described by the press as "decisive new leadership."
We'd seen Pat Buchanan campaigning in chaps at the O.K. Corral; Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, walking across states in a red flannel shirt; Phil Gramm, a Texas senator, boast about the three grades in school that he'd failed; and Bob Dole, the GOP front-runner, fail to tell us what he'd do in the White House because, it turned out, he just "wasn't a talker."
Many women have gone steady with guys just like the last one. It was a year that cried out for some humor.
In the midst of this treasure trove of comic material, the shock jock Don Imus showed up in D.C. And the remarks he made to the national press were a portrait of a degraded popular culture.
He told 1981-vintage jokes about Sally Struthers being fat, told jokes about the age and appearance of 75-year-old David Brinkley, told Mafia jokes about people whose names end in vowels, told jokes about Connie Chung that were set in Saigon.
From Dan Rather, he somehow got to the subject of tampons; he constructed jokes about Sen. John Kerry's wife getting mugged; he thought of male rape in "Deliverance" when Phil Gramm was the subject; and, because Bernard Shaw of CNN is black, he came up with a joke that had Bernie finding post office work.
Rude? What else? Brain dead? Tha-a-a-t's Donnie! But most of all, he was remarkably and stupefyingly unfunny. So what was this dope doing there?
What he was doing, of course, was Howard Stern-era comedy, in which witless figures like Mr. Stern and Mr. Imus substitute insult and rudeness for the jokes they can't write. But what he was doing in the once-special setting of this annual dinner is a matter that deserves further thought.
By what flight of reason would the national broadcasters invite so witless a man to address its big dinner? By what stretch would Kenan Block of the PBS "NewsHour," of all shows, invite this humorless dope to the ball?
And the answer is the story of the degradation of our culture, a process in which the national press has played all too willing a role. For if they were surprised by the conduct of their shocking guest speaker, they themselves had played an active part in creating his rude, dumbbell culture.
William Bennett had publicly suggested, in 1994, that his colleagues stop going on the Imus show, where the nation's journalists and broadcasters help break up the tedium of the race-sex-and-insult-based musings. But the guests had kept coming (Mr. Imus does have an audience), right up through C-Span's simulcast from New Hampshire, in which Cokie Roberts and Tim Russert affably took to the air following an overtly racist Imus "routine."
Ms. Roberts in particular was loudly "shocked, shocked, shocked" in the papers the morning after the Imus debacle, and she was not alone among her peers. And I could not help thinking how richly ironic it was: that people who were such experts at dissecting the character of Bill Clinton had been taken by a dumbbell like Don Imus.
A civilized people will seek the pleasures of wit, and will be repulsed by the dangers of rudeness and insult. The correspondents missed out on the chance for an evening of fun (remember that?) when they invited a guy who just can't tell the difference.
Bob Somerby is a Baltimore writer and stand-up comedian.
Pub Date: 3/31/96