In Polarized Nation, Can Humor Cross Party Lines?

For the eight months I've been writing this column, I've dealt with a wide range of serious subjects — Iraq, the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, abortion policy, the future of the Democratic Party — among others.

This week, I want to take a look at how absurd life can sometimes be.

My wife and I recently attended a performance by the humorist group, The Capitol Steps, on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Mass. Remember that Cambridge is a very "blue" city in a very "blue" state.

For those of you not familiar with The Capitol Steps, they are a very talented group of former Congressional staff members who satirize politicians of both parties. They are a cross between "Saturday Night Live" and the "Daily Show" but with good singing voices.

During the early part of their performance, they did some devastating numbers on President George W. Bush. The performer who portrays Bush has all his mannerisms and quirks down pat and, in fact, is better than the actor who regularly plays him on Saturday Night Live.

The crowd, of course, loved the digs at Bush. They hooted and hollered.

But then about midway through the performance the cast started going after Democrats. They did a very funny skit about Howard Dean (portraying him as Don Quixote from Man of Lamancha — “The Impossible Dean”). Some in the audience laughed though the response was somewhat muted (my guess is that many of those in attendance had supported him for president).

The absurd moment came when one of the cast members did a devastating rendition of Massachusetts home state Sen. John Kerry. Some in the crowd actually applauded when the Kerry character took the stage. The actor playing Kerry was hilarious, but the crowd didn’t really laugh that much (I was rolling in the aisles). I guess humor doesn’t travel very well any more.

It makes me wonder whether we have become so polarized as a nation that audiences in "red" states might not be able to laugh at President Bush either. That would be too bad, because this show was all in good fun, with equal jabs at both parties.

However, Republicans take note — even this largely Democratic audience had no trouble laughing up a storm at the skit portraying Hillary Clinton.

And then, there was one additional absurd note recently.

I graduated from the University of Missouri (class of 1964), a fine state university with a nationally recognized School of Journalism. My freshman year, Missouri’s football team was briefly ranked No. 1 in the country and defeated Navy in the Orange Bowl.

However, the Missouri class of ’64 may forever live in infamy. It seems two of my classmates (neither of whom I knew while in school) have made names for themselves in a way the university would just as soon forget.

Missouri's class of ’64 included Enron CEO Ken Lay and former Congressman Randy (Duke) Cunningham. A legal cloud continues to hang over Lay for his role in the Enron debacle, which caused thousands of employees and stockholders to lose millions of dollars in pensions and investments.

Duke Cunningham recently pleaded guilty to federal felony charges of tax evasion and bribery and faces up to 10 years in jail.

Let’s hope someone from my class finds the cure for cancer or wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Otherwise, the University of Missouri may just strike us from its history the way superstitious builders eliminate the 13th floor from some structures.

Next time any of us read about a lottery winner whose life suddenly takes a tragic turn for the worse, let’s remember that there are absurd moments every day. Let’s hope that most of them simply involve an audience’s inability to laugh at its friends (and itself) and not something worse.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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