Send in the clowns

Expanded from the 2-13-2005 Daily Sparks Tribune
2-18-2005 Comstock Chronicle

     "Don't take life too seriously. Nobody's getting out alive." – Red Skelton

The late great comic, who often played the Sparks Nugget, said that not long before he died.

We ignore the jesters at our peril. In times of great danger and struggle, we look to high-hearted artists for wisdom. Czechoslovakia called upon playwright Vaclav Havel to lead the country away from Soviet influence. The velvet revolution was born in a theater green room.

Winston Churchill was many things, but underscoring it all was a great sense of humor which he used like a scalpel.

He found Lady Astor to be the perfect straight man. "Mr. Churchill," she once said, "I don't know which I dislike more, your mustache or your politics."

"If I have my way, madame, you shall come into close contact with neither," Churchill responded without batting an eye.

On another occasion, Lady Astor told Churchill that if he were her husband, she would prepare him a cup of poison.

"If I were your husband, I would drink it."

It's against the rules of the British House of Commons to use the word "liar" in debate, so Churchill would accuse opponents of "terminological inexactitude."

A member of Commons once likened the opposition to an iceberg, "10 percent above water, 90 percent underwater and 100 percent lost at sea."

Today, we like to elect undertakers to office. Serious people for serious times. Harrumph.

Not only can well-timed humor play better than a thousand sober sound bytes, it can leave critics cut and bleeding. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., doesn't need colleagues like Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and others begging Dubya to call off the attack dogs as they did last week. Reid simply needs to hire some good joke writers.

No matter how the righteous of right attack Hollywood, politics is show biz. When asked who the Democrats should nominate for president in 2008, Michael Moore replied "Tom Hanks." And he wasn't joking. Counter Arnold the Musculator with the All-American Everyman.

To paraphrase the late coach Vince Lombardi, in today's toxic politics, media image isn't everything, it's the only thing. As I noted on Feb. 8, 2004, if Al Gore had the demeanor of an undertaker, John Kerry's the embalmer at Big Al's Funeral Home.

Now that Gore and Kerry have been politically entombed, the GOP is focusing dark fire on Nevada's senior senator.

"Harry Reid looks and talks like a small-town undertaker whom you want to trust but wonder about, especially when he says the deceased would love the brass handles." So stated acid-tongued Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who wrote "read my lips, no new taxes" for Bush, Sr.

Sen. Reid needs to wake up and smell the formaldehyde. The public reacts positively to an appropriate wisecrack. Nevada State Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, has done some gruesome things in his public career, but has rarely been held accountable. Part of the reason lies in Raggio's talent for the quick quip.

Reid's mentor, the late Gov. Mike O'Callaghan, was likewise a master. Early in his first term, O'Callaghan went duck hunting. A northern Nevada television station aired a story on it.

Not long thereafter, the big ex-Marine was confronted at a public meeting by a woman who called O'Callaghan to task for providing a poor example to Nevada children by going out with a gun to kill little animals.

"Lady, the way I've been shooting lately, those ducks were in absolutely no danger," Mike replied. Lots of laughs. End of issue.

Last week when the GOP hurled insults at Reid, calling him not only an obstructionist but an old one at that, Reid (who's 65) could have taken a cue from the late Reno City Councilman Jud Allen.

About a week before his election, Allen debated his younger opponent who had been harping about Reno needing new ideas and fresh faces. When Allen was asked why he would make a better councilman, Allen replied "because I'm older and wiser."

Say what you will about newly-minted Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, he cannot be accused of lacking a sense of humor.

Johnny Carson probably did the most to knock Jerry Brown out of the California governor's chair with a constant barrage of quips about Brown's frequent out-of-state travel, sometimes with singer Linda Ronstadt.

Younger voters now get most of their current events information from late-night comics, especially "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central. MSNBC's "The Countdown" with former sportscaster Keith Olbermann is both hilarious and informative.

The late Abbie Hoffman was at his most effective as an anti-war critic when he lampooned the pro-war establishment.

Country musician Kinky Friedman is running as an independent for governor of Texas with the slogan "How Hard Can It Be?" Former Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan, D, has never forgiven me for starting the None of the Above for Governor Political Action Committee (NAGPAC) in 1982. Can't take a joke, that guy.

The Nevada Legislature is currently doing cartwheels and backflips over property taxes. Nobody has a satisfactory answer, but a tongue-in-cheek one would alleviate some stress. How about eliminating private property like our friendly Wal-Mart suppliers who rule Communist China? No taxes are due if the state owns everything.

Back when an ill-timed remark could cost your head, the only people allowed to criticize the king were court jesters.

At a time when the American people are being played for fools, it's time for us fools to use our greatest weapon.

Be well. Raise hell.

An edited, slightly-Vegasized version of the above from Las Vegas CityLife, 2-17-2005 | C.O.P. | Sen. Joe Neal
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Copyright © 1982-2005 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 36-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of He sits on the City of Reno's Citizens Cable Compliance Committee.

Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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