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Heeeere’s Glenn! When the Lunatic Fringe Tries Comedy

5 minute read
Joel Stein

There’s a particular thrill in seeing an amateur attempt your job. Especially when that job is comedy and the amateur is a Fox News personality. So when I heard Glenn Beck was doing a weeklong, six-city Common Sense Comedy Tour, my funniness ranking went up without my having to do anything. Beck, after all, is known for ranting, and sometimes crying, to a massive audience about how our country is approaching the End of Days. This is less the stuff of comedy than the stuff the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives likes to keep tabs on.

A part of me felt bad for Beck. Another part wanted to kiss up to a guy with a huge following. And a bigger part of me wanted to see this disaster close-up. So I offered to write some jokes for the show, and Beck accepted.

It turns out that coming up with jokes for members of a reactionary, religious, libertarian audience is not easy. They aren’t likely to follow references to movies, hip-hop, websites, or drugs not advertised on television. I wound up sending him several political bits, including one about the silliness of not wanting terrorist prisoners on American soil. “There are already too many things we don’t want on our soil: carmakers, soccer, nuclear power, Roman Polanski, ants, Mexicans and French soil.” I also gave him a spelling-bee riff. “I assume that in India, nothing is misspelled. And have you noticed that none of these seemingly genius kids go on to do anything? When will parents figure out that turning your kid into a Microsoft Word function is not great training for the modern world? Learning to scream and cry into a camera is the ticket.”

Beck wrote back that he couldn’t use a lot of my material. “If I were to use all of this, I’d be facing this headline the next day, ‘Glenn Beck: There are too many things we don’t want on our soil … [such as] Mexicans.’ As far as the spelling-bee bit–I’d still be risking the inevitable ‘Glenn Beck says Indian children grow up to be failures … and he says it extra-racistly’ headline.”

Without the freedom to make fun of other ethnicities, I figured, Beck would bomb worse than an Arab in a crowded marketplace. To make sure, I went to one of the 440 movie theaters charging $20 to see a simulcast of Beck’s sold-out show from Kansas City, Mo. He opened by looking at the camera and saying, “I particularly want to say hi to the guy from TIME magazine in Burbank, likely all by himself.” Which I was. In that there were only 45 people in the audience, and according to actuarial tables, I was likely to be the only one breathing by the end of the show.

Beck’s material wasn’t original–modern art is stupid, consumer-product warning labels are inane–but he is a great performer, flying around the stage and making fun of his profuse sweating and apocalyptic fears. He did an impression of Tim Geithner as an elf from Lord of the Rings and a solid inflation joke about Geithner’s being turned away from Antiques Roadshow after bringing a barrel of U.S. dollars. This was much better than my runaway-inflation joke about paying $20 to watch a Glenn Beck concert in a movie theater.

A few of my jokes made the cut: One about his daughter sharpening her Tinkertoys because the estate tax might go to zero for just one year, in 2010, got a decent laugh. My conservative Christian material about how the New Testament would read if it were written by Congress also did well, although it was about as gutsy as going to the Apollo and doing uptight-white-people jokes. In fact, less gutsy, since uptight white people don’t yank you off the stage with a cane.

It turns out that before he got sober, found God and started reading books without pictures in them, Beck had a long career being funny. He hosted a morning radio show called Captain Beck and the A-Team and asked listeners to mail raw eggs to the station. I deeply suspect that William Jennings Bryan opened speeches by making balloon animals.

But I’m really glad Beck is doing this tour. While I may not agree with him that Theodore Roosevelt destroyed our nation, I’m glad that someone with a sense of humor is leading the lunatic fringe. Joseph McCarthy didn’t make fun of his weight, and Father Coughlin never wondered what the deal was with anything. Making fun of yourself implies that you know your message is imperfect. So I hope Beck, who does have the tunnel logic of an extremist, keeps going on these tours. Especially since writing material for him is so easy.

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