Comedians Rate Journalist Humor

Local newspaper puns and goofy regional morning shows are great. At the national level, it's more complicated

The Trump years were supposed to be a golden age for humor in journalism. There were tens of thousands of jokes about Trump. In fact, the grotesque cartoon of the blob in orange with a teeny Mario Kart knoblet — fat Trump in diapers, fat Trump as Jabba the Hut, fat Trump waving ICBMs at Kim Jong-Un and saying, “Mine’s Bigger” — became almost a mandatory element in op-ed pages of major dailies.

It was other genres that took a hit. By the weeks before the election, even the New York Times was running features about how Trump “ruined political comedy,” as funny-for-funny’s sake gave way to the humor of political intent. The Times noted that one of the few success stories during the last four years was Trevor Noah of the Daily Show, who got there via “observational humor coupled with declarations of broader progressive values.”

Humor decoupled from Trump or “broader progressive values” grew rarer over the last four years, to the point where the last attempts left involved gentle puns in ledes and headlines, and the occasional apolitical burn by a critic in an inside section.

TK sat down with Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman and longtime standup artist Tim Dillon, a regular on the Joe Rogan Show whose eponymous podcast is a hit. Some may recognize Dillon as the comedian who co-piloted a recent Rogan episode with Alex Jones. Asked if there were uncomfortable moments on the show, Dillon explained, “I don’t know that there are comfortable moments.” He laughed. “It’s hard to be funny, because you'll say something crazy and Alex will just be like, ‘That’s a good point.’”

We asked Dillon and Dworman to evaluate recent examples of journo-humor:

  1. “SHELLEBRITIES”

TK: There are basically two types of humor in news: the local papers and TV shows that go all-out on puns, and the national media figures, who tend to go for smart-funny.

Usually the joke in something like this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette piece would be in the lede, but here it’s a few paragraphs down:

TK: Yay or nay on “Shellebrities”?

Dillon: I imagine the person writing this is somewhat medicated, you know what I mean? It’s like dad humor… I think dad jokes are kind of funny. And dude, we do local morning shows, especially before you're well-known, or you're not selling any tickets. You got to do all of the local press. You do like “New Day Cleveland” and you do like “Good Morning Akron” or wherever, you know? And you sit down next to two people and you get five minutes. And you're usually on after like a guy who's like selling spices or a guy from the local zoo, and you got to be like, "I'm Tim Dillon and I'll be at the comedy club this weekend." And they're always trying to do like cutesy little dad jokes, but they're kind of charming… That's the word I would call this. You don't get mad at it. No one's ever mad at “shellebrities.” It's kind of charming.

Dworman:
I laughed.

Verdict: 👍

  1. “BEE OUTSIDE.”

TK: This is by a weatherman at a CBS affiliate in Texas named, we think, Aaron Baker:

TK: Is this a nice live TV save, or is this scripted and going too far?

Dworman:
I don't think I caught the joke. Did you catch it?

Dillon:
Yeah. He goes, “Hey, there's a bee on the camera. It's a good day to bee outside." A little word-play. I mean, listen, no harm, no foul there. I don't think Noam's going to pass the guy, but... I think weatherman humor is supposed to be like, especially hackey.

I like that dumb stuff. I liked doing morning radio. All these comedians are complaining about doing these morning TV shows… But to me, they were fun. They usually got you breakfast before or afterward, and you just sit there with these two people that were like, maniacally awake at like 5:30 in the morning. And they were fun. And they were goofy, and you were silly and goofy. It's like, "Hey, this is our job." I never mind that, I'll do it again… I think it's funny.

Dworman:
I think fair-minded people just naturally rate on a curve. I used to deal with a lot of very high-end musicians, but then if one of my waiters comes in and plays a song on a guitar, I'd be like, "Wow, that's pretty good.” And I might actually enjoy it. It's not good enough to be on the Grammys, but for who they are and for the low expectations, it's a sincere enjoyment... If a weatherman is kind of funny, I'm fine with that.

Dillon:
You know what this reminds me of? It's like waiter humor… It's like, "Hey, do a quick one and then get out of here and get the fucking tuna."

Verdict: 👍

  1. “FUNKY COLD MEDINA.”

TK: Here we have a pretty daring lede, from an obscure soccer site:

Dillon: Yeah, that one's a little buried. That one's a little harder. That one's a little tougher. That one doesn't really jump out at you as much as “shellebrities.”

Dworman:
Went right over my head.

Dillon:
Yeah. I kind of like, it lost me a little bit, too. It was kind of hard.

Dworman:
I'm not sure that would've worked 20 years ago, but it definitely doesn't work now.

Verdict: A for effort, but — 👎

  1. “BIDEN HIS TIME”

TK: They started doing "Biden his Time" headlines years ago. Last week we probably saw a couple of dozen of them in the biggest papers and sites in the country. Here’s Axios:

Here’s Forbes:

And here’s Politico:

TK: If everybody else is doing a headline, should you avoid it on general principle? Also, is there a statute of limitations on headline puns?

Dillon:
I think that there definitely should be… See, “Biden His Time” is such a good one, though. That's a hard one to leave. But yeah… I don't know the way journalists operate with that, right? Because comics, like if somebody else has a really, has a great bit on salad bars or whatever, I try to stay away from that because that's their thing, that they've done a really good bit on. Unless, you have a totally different or a totally new angle, no comic would ever go up and do a joke another comic did, or do a joke that's even close to another comic’s joke.

A modern comedian that's coming up now, the goal is to be as unique as possible…. Now, there are only so many things to talk about. There are seven comics right now that have bits about service animals on planes. Joe Rogan, Bill Burr, there's a ton of them and they're all funny bits… But I now go, well, okay, “Service animals are taken.” So I'm writing a lot right now about the coronavirus… I'm shitting on nurses. Now, I found that that's a unique place for me because not many people are shitting on nurses. I think they need to get taken down a notch, so I'm doing that… But I think “Biden his Time” is kind of up for grabs.

TK:
Like open-source material?


Dworman:
Yeah, it’s like Linux.

Verdict: 😕

  1. “TOOBIN HIS OWN HORN”


TK: With the Jeffrey Toobin story: does a news site have a responsibility to make a joke in the headline? If so, does it have to be a gross joke? A lot of people on social media were reaching for “Jerk Off The Air”-type headlines, in spoofs and on the actual sites:


Dillon: Interesting. “Graphic new details emerge in claims...” Does the headline have to be funny? “‘Jerk’ Off the Air,” I mean that’s fine. You know who did this better than anyone? The New York Post used to do this really well on the front page. The Post used to have these really, really funny headlines, like, "Headless Body in Topless Bar,” things like that.

TK: Theirs was “Toobin his own horn.”

Dillon: I will say that I think a funny headline is very important. That makes me want to read it.

TK: Conversely, a new trend in news media is to spike even obvious jokes if they’re funny, but lack a positive message. Here’s a headline from “The Week” ripping Toobin that clearly held back:

TK: Shouldn’t the headline here be, "Men, This Shouldn't Be Hard"?

Dworman:
That's much better… This Toobin thing, there's probably a demographic out there that wouldn't take kindly to making fun of this whole incident… The libertarian economist Tyler Cowen insists that only conservatives are funny anymore because it's just too hard to be funny on the other side.

Dillon:
Funny's got to be subversive, I think, when you talk about politics, right? Chapo Trap House is very funny. They're certainly not conservatives, but they're subversive. They're ripping things up. And then, on the other side of that, you have guys that are online that are more I guess you might call them alt-right, or whatever you'd call them. But like they do these memes and those memes are funny, too, because they’re being subversive.

It's the mainstream of comedy right now, the Kimmels, the Fallons, the Colberts, that are really not funny. Even SNL, they're not really funny anymore because there's nothing cool or edgy, or whatever word you want to use… I think what comedy historically has been is, the kids that go smoke in the bathroom are funny. Or, the kids in the back of the room are funny. The kids that have to be told to shut up by the teacher are funny.

Now, it's become the nerd, the teacher's pet [doing the comedy]. Those people are… they're trying to make the right points and have the right opinion. But the right opinion is never funny. When I'm making fun of nurses, it's funny because it's absurd and ridiculous. And there's a little truth to what I'm saying, because again, enough with the Facebook, ladies, we get it, it's a tough job. But when you're just like, "Hey, racism's bad." That's not a funny take. You're correct. But it's not funny.

Verdict: none

5: “FUNNY, Adj.”

TK: The New York Times has mostly banished humor from the op-ed section, but other parts of the paper make the occasional effort:

TK: Madeline Kripke was a lexicographer. When she died, the Times did a bit. They wrote, "Kripke, who kept one of the world's largest private collection of dictionaries, much of it crammed into her Greenwich Village apartment, could be defined this way: liberal [adj., as in giving unstintingly], compleat [adj., meaning having all the requisite skills] and sui generis [adj. in a class by itself].” It keeps going... This is their version of really letting it all hang out, humor-wise. Points for doing it in an obit?

Dillon:
I think she would like that. I think that's funny. I think people should be funny, but I'm Irish and we're very good with funerals and humor and dark humor. I think she would actually like that. I think that it’s good to be funny in an obituary, if you can.

Dworman:
I absolutely think it's good, generally. Eulogies, too. I mean — the best ones have affectionate humor. But I did find that one a little stilted. I don't know…

Dillon:
There was a famous obituary of a guy that died at like 106 years old. And then, the paper wrote something like, "Life cut tragically short," or something. Things like that, I think are fun.

TK:
Does it matter if the person would appreciate the joke or not?

Dillon:
No, they're dead.

Dworman:
I think it does. I think you would want it. You would always want the person, if they could be watching, to be happy with it. Right?

Dillon:
You'd want the person to be happy, a hundred percent. If they were tight-ass, you wouldn't do it.

Verdict: 👍