“You know, back in my days, they’d use Bayer aspirin for contraceptives,” Rick Santorum supporter Foster Friess said on MSNBC. “The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.”
Friess went straight from the punchline into the punching line, where he’s been thoroughly pummelled.
So much is wrong with this joke. Lord knows that contraception is something we wouldn’t need if women would just keep their knees together! Durn women. The best part of keeping that aspirin between your knees is that it makes it impossible for women to walk places, vote, or associate! I’ve read funnier, less offensive things on the walls of truck-stop men’s rooms.
But somewhere between his second and third denials of supporter Foster Friess, Rick Santorum noted something interesting.
“Look, I mean, Foster is known in political circles as telling a lot of jokes, and some of them are not particularly funny, which this one was not,” he said.
The last time I noticed Friess doing his routine was at the Conservative Political Action Conference, when he was quipping about a moderate, a liberal, and a conservative walking into a bar — and the bartender says, “Hello, Mitt.”
Much as I abhor the message of the aspirin joke, I want to defend anyone whose life consists of making lots of jokes, some of which are not particularly funny.
The bad joke, as an art, may not be dead yet. But it’s running into danger. Its habitat is being threatened. Once the province of everyone from two-bit politicians and after-dinner speakers to Best Men at weddings, it’s now reserved for the Facebook status updates of people you met once on a camping trip and Twitter feeds with names like Men Can’t Say This.
But the tradition of bad jokes is as long as the history of civilization. They’ve been made by people of faith for millennia now.
Jesus made them often. “You used to be fishermen,” he told his disciples. “Now, you are fishers OF MEN!” Groan.
When Pope Gregory showed up in England (I think it was Gregory; all popes look alike to me), he asked what the people were called. “Angles, my Lord,” someone told him.
“Not Angles, but Angels!” he said, but in Latin. Even in Latin it was pretty bad, and their biggest joke otherwise was that someone had forgotten to put any U’s in the alphabet.
In politics, bad jokes were once a way of warming the room. They were how you broke the ice, established common ground. Even now, Mitt Romney wanders around joking about chairs being made from genuine naugahyde at the cost of many naugas’ lives and limbs, and — well, you had to be there, but apparently it works.
But as Foster Freiss showed, bad jokes are moving out of fashion.
Over the past decade we’ve undergone a shift. Everything you say, to anyone, under any circumstances, might be recorded. Private e-mails cause national scandals. Remarks to a few supporters in a smoky room get videotaped on a phone and posted to Facebook.
So forget bad jokes. The smoky rooms are fast fading too.
Let the light in!
The ability to make an off-color remark or quip and get away with it relied upon a precise calibration of the feeling in a particular room. But we don’t talk to the people in the room any more. We talk to everyone else — the people watching on cable and Twitter and following events from the comfort of their iPads at home.
You jabber into the black holes of camera lenses and tailor your off-the-cuff remarks to voters in diners into tweet-sized bunches. And you pray you don’t set a single word out of place, or everyone will descend on you in righteous anger and start striking you in the solar plexus.
A facility for bad jokes was once something of a political requirement. Now it’s a liability.
Jim Messina merely quoted a quip from my colleague Dana Milbank about chimichangas and everyone leaped on him and began striking him on the mazzard with demands for apologies.
Bad jokes rise or fall by the room in which they’re delivered. And these days there aren’t any rooms, only echo chambers. Maybe that’s for the best. It’s worth knowing, many would argue, what kind of jokes Rick Santorum’s biggest fan makes in the comfort and privacy of his MSNBC appearances. One man’s bridge too far is another man’s idea of a really funny contraceptive joke. And if we didn’t have something to get up in arms about, we might have to resort to making puns on Twitter.
Now he’s apologized. And Santorum has denied him three times. And everyone and anyone with knees or aspirin is weighing loudly in.
There’s nowhere the bad-joke-makers can turn, no place of refuge where their remarks will be hidden from the ones who wouldn’t get it. Maybe that’s for the best. The world might be a better place with few of these aspirin jokes.
But it’ll be a bit duller, too.