Genius or Idiot?

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

Humorous commentary is both one of the most sought after jobs in publishing and one of the most problematic. Newspaper and magazine editors have long understood the appeal of humor, but they also understand that it’s not their primary job, and that a writer must have a particular mindset to sustain a humorous column in the long-term. Everybody wants the job, but wanting is not the same as producing good copy day after day after day.

Endurance is patience concentrated. – Thomas Carlyle

One of the obvious problems with writing commentary is encapsulated nicely in the title of this piece. When your opinion finds its way from your confused brain to your keyboard, it’s not always viewed by readers as a fine addition to the wisdom of the ages. Indeed, some people will gladly dismiss your words out of hand, or even burn you in effigy.

For youngsters, ‘burning in effigy’ was the old-school, non-Internet version of the hashtags #hate-this-fool and #roast-his-giblets.

No one can have a higher opinion of him than I have; and I think he’s a dirty little beast. – William S. Gilbert

But, I Say…
Despite any possible backlash, writers have a fascination with commentary, including humorous commentary, no matter what format or genre we choose to pursue. Some part of our ego deludes us into believing that our opinion is vital to the survival of the universe, which may be why so many of us enter the Frito Lay 25 words or less essay contest.

Rampaging ego aside, all opinions are created equal, being spawned from the firing of synapses within a human brain. It’s only upon being communicated that opinions become differentiated.

We credit scarcely any persons with good sense except those who are of our opinion. – François de La Rochefoucauld

Not all commentary is equal upon delivery. Note, Hollywood stars’ opinions receive inordinate attention even if the speaker is a world-class idiot. This is somewhat surprising since winning an Oscar simply means that you’re very adept at not being yourself and at representing things make-believe. There is no Oscar for Fewest Brain Cells Killed at the After Party.

Less Than Reputable
We must also admit that some opinions may be disreputable or even wholly criminal. At this very moment, Bernie Madoff has an opinion on both the current stock market and survival strategies when one drops his soap in the prison shower.

Of Two Minds
Humorous commentary requires a unique mindset because it’s a bit schizophrenic. Is the goal to make your point or get a good laugh from the reader?

These goals are not mutually exclusive. One can express a valuable opinion in such a way that the reader is both intrigued and amused, but it’s not always easy. More to the point, it’s not always successful.

For over thirty years, Andy Rooney‘s weekly commentary on 60 Minutes (CBS News) was often hilarious, but just as often merely grumpy. Yet, America loved him and mourned his passing because he gave us many marvelous insights, such as:

Vegetarian—that’s an old Indian word meaning lousy hunter.

Cover image: "Sexual Evolution"Curmudgeonly Andy was certainly not alone. The magazine The Atlantic offers a list of 10 of the Funniest Essayists of Our Time and the networks give us such fabulously funny political commentators as Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Dennis Miller. Many standup comedians are well-known commentators, including Lewis Black, D.L. Hughley, Janeane Garofalo, and Chris Rock.

Keep It Simple
Writing humorous commentary, one has two choices:

  1. Humor takes priority.
  2. Message takes priority.

Hardly rocket science, but in the rush to put words on paper, it’s easy to lose one’s intent.

A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding. – Marshall McLuhan

If your intent is to stress the joke, go for the laugh and don’t worry about it.

However, if your message is most important, worry over every word.

For inspiration, take a good look at the people mentioned above, and at their very fine work. They make us think, AND they make us laugh. In addition, whether viewed as a genius or an idiot, these writers have the courage to continue working day after day after day…

Parting Funny: She cried, and the judge wiped her tears with my checkbook.Tommy Manville

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4 thoughts on “Genius or Idiot?

  1. I’m satisfied with being funny or witty occasionally; it’s a lot of work. And so easy to miss the mark, as your comment on Andy Rooney duplicates my opinion: sometimes just curmudgeonly. And yet beloved.

    Ditto many TV talk hosts – it’s a gift not uniformly distributed, and if you fail, you fail big in front of an awful lot of people.

    But when it’s right, it is so right – and everyone else wishes they’d said it. Or done the funny skit. Or made that look.

    It almost makes you forget and forgive their many sins (such as thinking they are experts on things they are NOT experts on). At least they TRY.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some excellent points, Alicia. Perhaps most apropos is your noting that comedy does require the courage to “fail big in front of an awful lot of people.”

      I have to differ on the “expert” comment, though. Human nature: Everybody is an expert on everything…just ask them for an opinion.


      • “If I want their opinion, I’ll give it to them.”

        If the so-called experts were better at defining the limits of the expertise?

        I have come recently to realize there is an interesting phenomenon going on at Amazon: the huge number of answers to questions in the Ask a Question section of a product page that begin with, “I don’t know, but…” Then the person proceeds to offer a complete guess, followed by someone offering and entirely different guess after the same prologue.

        I’m wondering if these people get points for answers, right or wrong being irrelevant.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” – Abraham Lincoln

    “…answers, right or wrong…” is pretty normal. I think many people fear not having or expressing an opinion, while only the latter can make them appear foolish. Whether an opinion is informed or not does indeed seem irrelevant in many cases.

    However, this aspect of humanity is also a fine tool for comedy. Remember, Gracie Allen? She was one of the most intelligent people in show business, but her “idiot” stage persona was absolutely hilarious. Even today, I’ve never seen anyone do it better!


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