On Funny or Die, Planned Parenthood, and Being the Right Kind of Fool

You all know Funny or Die, I’m guessing. They are presumably a comedy website. But recently, they joined the leftist fight to protect Planned Parenthood from its “vicious attackers” by posting an “exclusive” “comedy” video entitled “The Shocking Truth About Planned Parenthood.” Ironically, Funny or Die chose literal death over comedy, and the results only add to the horror rising in me as I watch the Planned Parenthood saga unfold.

To begin, and perhaps most disappointingly, the “comedy” video Funny or Die posted was not funny, though plenty of pro-choice sheeple said it was—for neutral, purely comedic reasons with no political agenda, I’m sure. I would think one of the first rules of comedy—whether or not you have some political axe to grind—is “Be funny.” Funny or Die momentarily lost sight of that fact in their attempt to support a political cause.

I would remind them that ideological independence is a necessity for effective comedy. There are obviously different kinds of humor, but—slapstick, puns, and one-liners aside—one of the things we most expect from comedians is a sort of objective insight into the human experience and the courage to prod at the ridiculous, no matter what robes of power or influence the ridiculous might be wearing.

This has been the reality with comedians largely from the beginning. The court jester quickly pivoted from his role as a prankster and purveyor of pratfalls to a social and political critic conditionally immune to royal retribution. The jester was usually an independent member of the lower classes who had been freed by the nature of his employment to speak his mind—as long as he was funny. If he was critical of those in power but not funny, he was usually whipped or put to death. Oddly enough, this is probably the source of the name “Funny or Die”—there was a time when that really was the daily reality for jester comedians. They could make fun of the King and his courtiers, sure. But only as long as they were funny. If they weren’t funny, they just might lose their heads.

So, as you can probably see, the subversive nature of comedy has not been a modern invention. The butt of the jester’s jokes was nearly always a member of the elite. Through comedy, the jester served to balance power and hold the establishment accountable.

You can see the critical role for jesters already firmly established by the time of Shakespeare. The adaptation of the jester into the recurring fool character was one of Shakespeare’s more genius literary devices, providing ample opportunity to lampoon nearly anything in society—in the voice and with the wit of the common people. One of the classic examples of the Shakespearean fool is in King Lear. Tellingly, he is the only character in the play that is largely free to criticize King Lear as the “wrong kind of fool.” Lear banished the loyal Kent for straightforwardly criticizing him and disowned the faithful Cordelia for failing to articulate her adoration. In other words, Kent was banished for talking, and Cordelia was disowned for not talking. But Lear suffered the quite loquacious Fool, even though the Fool’s criticisms were harsher and more pointed than any others.

In our day, that same knave, fool, jester, and joker have been collected into our comedians. Contemporary comedians lampoon the ridiculous, expose the unjust, and subvert the establishment mostly through brutal honesty freed from the constraints of propriety. When comedy is done properly, the laughter is the spoonful of sugar that helps us stomach the medicine of truth. Note that the two most popular contemporary sources for political criticism (Jon Stewart and John Oliver) are both comedians. For better or worse, most people look to comedians for insight and social commentary.

A comedian’s job is two-fold, then: to make us laugh, but also to teach us something about the nature of human experience. Most of the time, these two aims work together seamlessly, because the funniest bits of comedy are usually pearls grown around some bitter, embarrassing, or often overlooked grain of reality.

That being said, the worst kind of comedian is the whipped comedian—the comedian who has removed his jester’s garb and joined the bureaucratic host of political and social sycophants. This is the case no matter which side of the aisle the comedian wishes obediently to sit in. Comedy should be non-partisan, simply because satire and wit should be free to gall all sides of an argument. He is free to snicker loudly at the Emperor’s state of undress because he has no status to lose. As long as he’s funny.

But when the jester is just another member of the crowd cowed into reading the tepid cue cards provided for him by the establishment, he fails in both of his jobs. First, he is not useful as a social commentator. Second, he’s not funny anymore.

And that is the case with this unfortunate “Funny or Die” episode. It just fails to be funny. One of the telltale signs that it is more propaganda than protest (though it certainly doth protest too much), is that it has propositional premises and conclusions that can and should be debunked. Effective comedy never has debunkable premises. In fact, that’s one of the reasons real comedy is so effective at truth-telling. Because you can’t really question it. You laugh because you know that it’s true on the face of it. Comedy works best when it elicits an involuntary response to an immediate realization. When the knave snickers at the Emperor, you know without thinking about it that he is right to snicker. He’s not presenting a proposition. He’s merely observing an incontrovertible, albeit embarrassing, fact. Real facts have a way of making fools of us all. When a comedian riffs on some embarrassingly common aspect of human frailty, you laugh. Your laughter serves as a confession that you are also the butt of the joke, and that what he said was true.

This particular Funny or Die video is designed to look like it’s just observing the facts. But the facts it leaves out are the only facts that actually matter. No one really cares that the Emperor doesn’t have shoes on, for instance. This video basically reads like this:

The Center for Imperial Pro-Dress says that the Emperor is naked. Here’s the shocking truth. 97% of the time, the Emperor has clothes on. No government funds were used to fund the Emperor’s non-existent wardrobe. He paid it out of his own personal salary. The Emperor also wore his new wardrobe to sign a treaty with Guilder. A treaty that saved many lives. This is what the Emperor is really about. I know. It’s just shocking. Sarcasm.

There are so many things wrong with this approach, from a comedic and factual standpoint. It precisely fails to deal with the most pertinent parts of the recent accusations against Planned Parenthood. Namely: Are they or are they not auctioning off the harvested body parts of aborted babies to the highest bidder? Whether this is legal, or the main part of their activities, or for the purpose of furthering medical research, is largely—no, completely—irrelevant. I don’t care if Ted Bundy is a 97% nice guy—kind to his mother and dog, generally a model citizen, and liked by his peers—if 3% of his life includes serial killing, rape, and necrophilia. Sort of wipes out whatever else he might be doing in plain sight, don’t you think?

So Funny or Die precisely fails to do what comedy does best. Rather than pointing at the Emperor’s exposure and barring no barbs, they instead decided to hold up a carefully positioned fig leaf to protect the Emperor’s shame. In this comedic method, Funny or Die is on the wrong side of comedy, and on this issue, they are on the wrong side of history. The purpose of satire is to level the playing field. Not to further anesthetize the huddled masses who have just barely started to awake from their stupor. Planned Parenthood is certainly not the underdog here. They are the Emperor. Funny or Die needs to get back to their roots. And be the right kind of fool.