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Not a "Mad" Man

(July 15, 2003)

It had been a dark and stormy night.

She sat next to me, in front of the blazing fire, a thoughtful glass of 40-year-old brandy in her hand. She looked wistfully into the flames, swirling the brandy absentmindedly, caught up in some strange world of her own.

There was a time when she had been the most widely read female columnist in the country, a maudlin and sentimental manipulator of opinion. In the glory days, her job was simply defined — to turn in a weekly 1,500 words, talking of whatever struck her fancy.

In the olden days of journalism, she would have been called a sob-sister, a writer whose principal editorial requirement was to use her wit (which was considerable), to inject a modicum of politically correct bathos into the otherwise dreary existence of her readers.

Tonight, however, she was contemplative. We had been sitting in front of the fire for hours, two writers passing a long evening, chatting and philosophizing when we should have been working on such deadlines as it was our good fortune to have.

For the most part, I had sat silent, sipping the expensive brandy (her contribution), watching the fire, and listening to her pass judgment on the people, places and things she had known during her long, checkered career.

As the first rays of the morning sun poked tentatively into the room, she looked up, gave me a pensive, almost puzzled look, and sighed loudly.

And I realized what was about to happen. In that magic hour between night and day, a time when even the most hard-boiled of female writers were wont to be sentimental, Ellen Goodperson was becoming maudlin and I, the innocent bystander, was about to hear another tale of her sordid past.

She paused meaningfully, stared into space for a moment, and took a long, slow sip of her brandy. "I might have," she sighed again, "won the Nobel Prize for Literature, had it not been for Jealousy in High Places. Have I ever told you the Story of How It Came to Pass that the Full Force and Power of the White House was Turned Against Me?"

"No," I replied, "and you won't be able to now. Do you have any idea what time it is? You have kept me up all night with your stories." I glanced at my watch. "I can give you five minutes," I said, "and no more."

She sighed again, making three in all.

"To do this Story Justice," she said, "I shall have to take At Least Fifteen Minutes."

"Well, then," I said, "there just won't be any justice tonight." I stood up to leave.

"No, Wait!" she pulled at my arm. "Just Take a Look at This." She reached into the bowels of her large handbag and pulled out an aged, yellowing piece of paper.

"This is it," she said. "This is The Story that got the White House so Angry at Me."

"You don't mean—"

"Yes, The Story I Wrote About Mad Kane."

"You mean Madeleine Kane, the famous humorist?"

"Yes," she said, "but this was written back in October of 2001, before Mad was So Famous. At the time, she was Known Mostly for Her Web site, and one of her Favorite Pastimes was to Poke Fun at President Bush."

"I remember," I said. In those days, I had spent a lot of time enjoying Mad's humorous articles.

"So this is the column that caused you so much trouble?"

"This is it." She handed me the piece of paper. "Be careful," she said, "this is a valuable piece of Americana. It should really be in the Smithsonian."

And I began to read...

by Ellen Goodperson, October 11, 2001

BOSTON — Many people say that Madeleine (Mad) Kane is the foremost satirist in America today. And if you spend any time at all gossiping with friends, hanging out at the mall, or even just talking with people at the post office, you know what I mean. No one in America needs to be told who Mad Kane is.

Well, that may be true for you and me and the guy who fixes the water heater, but you'd never know it by listening to the President of the United States.

When George W. was asked last week about the doyenne of American humor, he replied 'Madeleine Who? Isn't she the one in the kid's book who lived with nuns and had to get her appendix removed?'

All of which would be funny if it weren't for the fact that the President is charged with the responsibility of appointing 25 people to the American Council for Humor and Satire and has yet to put forward a single name. In fact, the ACHS has only three current members, all of which are holdovers from the Clinton Administration.

Unfortunately, for all of us, the American Council for Humor and Satire is, legally, not able to meet unless they have a quorum of at least 13 people. Which means that, unless George W. does something, America is going to be short of humor and satire at a time when it desperately needs both.

Flash forward to late-night TV. Is it just my imagination, or are the late-night humor programs long on late and short on humor? Color me impatient, but is it too much to hope that, one day, we might actually hear something funny out of Jay or Dave? Not to mention Saturday Night Live, about which the best you can say is that it is live.

Maybe not. According to Cornelia Van Whatsit, the acting co-chair/facilitator of the ACHS, all we can expect is more of the same. "I don't want to be a Cassandra," she confided to me recently, "but if the President doesn't start paying more attention to humor and satire, our country is going to suffer."

Talk about irony. Is this not the same President who, as a young man at Yale, loved nothing better than hanging around with the boys swapping jokes? Perhaps he misses the days when satire was controlled by an Old Boy's network that effectively excluded women, children, and minorities from mainstream American humor.

Watch carefully and you will see that George W. just won't crack a smile, even in public. Where previous administrations considered humor to be a bread-and-butter issue, our current president doesn't even pay lip service to the idea.

If you need more proof that the men up top are ignoring our needs, the Government Accounting Office has just released a new study showing that, when men are in charge of a government department, the average worker will hear 57 percent fewer jokes and look at 32 percent fewer cartoons during the workday.

According to the study, this is not the case everywhere. In fact, in organizations headed by women or minorities, the amount of humor in the workplace is actually increasing.

Our spin-sensitive politicians would have us believe that humor is in short supply and must be administered carefully for the good of the country. Tell that to Maria Rodriguez, a single mother of six, who works three jobs to support her family and who hasn't heard anything funny in eight years. "Some days I could really use a good laugh," she says wistfully.

Tell it also to Herman and Sally Glimpshir, a retired couple in Fargo, North Dakota, who have been trying to live on their tiny social security pension since Herman hurt his back, six years ago, lifting their tiny black and white TV set.

"We haven't heard anything funny in months," said Sally at a recent gathering of the Fargo Every-Other-Wednesday-Afternoon Women's Club. "And, to tell you the truth, we really don't know if we will ever laugh again."

I can just imagine White House strategists sitting around a table, devising a way to present the President as someone who really cares about laughing. Of course, as one such advisor put it, they won't actually let George W. tell a joke, as that would "send the wrong message."

Translation: With mid-term elections on the horizon and the possibility of a second presidential term in 2004, there is no way the White House is going to do anything to offend the 78 percent of Republicans who feel that "life needs to be taken more seriously."

Well, Mr. President, maybe you need to rethink your priorities. The humor gap is real and it is getting worse. Perhaps you might consider that people who are suffering the most right now are the very ones who will have the deciding votes in 2004: the retirees, the single-mothers, and the working poor.

We all admire your leadership when it comes to saving the free world from our enemies, but sometimes determination and seriousness are just not enough. If there is one thing that history has taught us, it is that a warlike response to adversity is not always the best answer to a difficult problem.

In other words, Mr. President, don't get angry, get Mad.

Stories by Harley Hahn

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