Bathos is not irony, though Franken and Stewart and Colbert seem unaware of this. Irony usually partakes of some element of the unintended consequence. How might I give an illustration of the laws of unintended consequences? Let us imagine that Senator Franken composed a chapter about government lying and cover-up, which involved the use of the irresistibly hilarious instance of Sandy Berger, President Clinton’s former national security adviser, being caught red-handed as he stuffed his pants with classified papers from the National Archives. In a capital city that witnesses quite frequent alternations of power between the two main parties, what will be the chances that fiasco and corruption occur at the expense of only one of them? Yet meticulous care is taken by the senator to make sure that no such “fair and balanced” laughter is ever evoked, which is quite a sacrifice for a comedian. Consistency of this kind allows no spontaneity, let alone irony. It might even go some way to explaining the howling success of the “Air America” network, the collapsing-scenery rival to the right-wing dictatorship exerted over the rest of the ether.
[Break]The first thing that came to mind is that humor suffers from analysis. What determines whether or not a comedian is good is not a matter of reason or argument, but of visceral reaction. It either makes a person laugh or doesn't. Further insight or understanding is simply unnecessary, at least for consumers (as opposed to practitioners) of comedy.
Stewart, too, has something of a fat-target problem, and seems partly unaware of this problem’s source in his own need to please an audience that has a limited range of reference. In Naked Pictures of Famous People, when he decides to lampoon Larry King—who in any context is a barn-door-size target—he still manages to make the attack too broad. There’s no slight nudge, but a huge dig in the ribs. It needs to be “Adolf Hitler: The Larry King Interview.” And Hitler has to be a guest who has been helped by therapy to become more of a people person. Here’s his opening reply to King’s welcome to the show.
HITLER: (biting into a bagel) First of all, Larry, I don’t know what I was so afraid of. These are delicious!!!
At whose expense, I wonder, are those three (count them!) exclamation marks? Who is afraid that who will miss what point?
Second, it was one of the most elitist things I have ever read. The breadth of a comedian's range of reference strikes me as a bizarre measure of comedic value. I'm not sure any comedian has made me laugh harder than Dave Chappelle, but I don't think he mentions much of anything that I wasn't familiar with by the age of 13. Whether or not a comedian can match Hitchens Baudelaire reference for Baudelaire reference has nothing to do with whether or not he's successful. This isn't like slamming an economics columnist for an unsophisticated grasp Hayek; such a criticism gets to the heart of the function of his job. Hitchens essentially criticizes mass-marketed comedians precisely for taking aim at that mass market. In other words, the more people who can find humor in a joke, the less funny Hitchens finds said joke.