Those who are past puberty might remember Mort Sahl. Sahl became one of the 1960s’ first insult comedians, who would trash just about anyone and everything. He was considered one of a model for the incredible 1976 movie “Network,” which featured a deranged network anchorman, Howard Beale, inspiring millions of citizens to scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Millennials should download the film or at least do an online search. It was perceptive and farsighted, plus it was funny as hell.
That brings us to Donald Trump, a modern Howard Beale 39 years later, when people are even angrier than they were then, and justifiably so. This, people, will be a defense of “The Donald,” who is running a presidential campaign that is perfectly tuned to the times.
Yes, that’s right, a defense of the man, because he is trashing the very people who deserve to be and upsetting those of us flitting around politics who have permanently pursed lips, who are in desperate need of a humor transplant. All those who are doing their analyses and commentaries where they worry that he is debasing the political process fail to appreciate how much it’s debasing itself.
For starters, he’s appealed to De Base (I couldn’t resist) of the Republican Party when he started out by attacking immigrants: “They’re bringing crime. They’re bringing drugs. They’re rapists.” He was simply saying what was on the alleged minds of a sizable chunk of right-wingers. When the other candidates squirm, because they’re part of a GOP effort to pretend it’s not a haven for nativist bigots, it’s hilarious.
Moreover, when some in the party actually do take him on for what he says and does, he refuses to back down. The dissing contest is hilarious. When John McCain protests Trump is riling up the “crazies,” he fires back at McCain’s POW war-hero image with: “He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you.”
It’s important to note here that Donald Trump was not the first one to say that. Back in 2000 (even millennials can remember that) Salon Magazine included this quote: “I have tremendous respect for McCain, but I don’t buy the war-hero thing. Anybody can be captured. I thought the idea was to capture them. As far as I’m concerned, he sat out the war.” The comment came from Al Franken, who has subsequently become a United States senator. I single out his remark because we share a last name and are distant cousins.
I should point out that Al was a comedian then, and in fact has abandoned being funny since he took office — so much so that he’s oftentimes downright boring.
The mistake we make about Donald Trump is not realizing that he is doing standup. When Sen. Lindsey Graham goes on TV to call him a “jackass,” The Donald releases fellow-candidate Graham’s cellphone number. And Graham responded by creating a YouTube video where he repeatedly destroyed his cellphone. So, thanks to Donald Trump, the campaign has turned into slapstick. Not that it wasn’t already. But now we get to laugh with the performers, not at them. It’s too bad NBC severed its connection with Trump. Otherwise, the nominee could be announced on “Last Comic Standing.”
Of course, Donald Trump is a master of PR, which he’s demonstrated by riding his malice to the top of the polls. All we in media care about is the reaction to his latest shock shtick. That is a commentary on those of us who do commentary and on this bad joke called politics. In closing, inspired by Mort Sahl, let me ask: “Is there anybody I haven’t offended?” Hopefully not. Because, the buffoonery, when you consider the high stakes, is highly offensive.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.