In the margins of my homework, next to a line I’d meant to be the big zinger, Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame wrote: Not funny, just mean, you missed the beat.
It was Winter 2006, I was taking a comedy writing class with Professor Keillor at the University of Minnesota, and I remember his red ink feedback because it hurt. Humor requires not only informed, intelligent observation and good writing skills, but profound empathy and masterful timing. Comedy writing, I would learn, is hard.
I thought of Keillor as I watched this year’s Fancy Farm speeches on KET and wondered what he might write in the margins of so many humorless speeches.
Kelly Paul, filling in for husband Rand Paul as he remained in Washington DC to inexplicably vote against a $35 cap on insulin, was downright beaming as she screamed, “Democrats went from a chicken in every pot to a drag queen in every school,” and “Come November, we’re going to say bye bye to the Democrats and their drag queens,” and “Democrats say America is a hateful nation, a racist nation.”
What Ms. Paul delivered from start to finish was a loud, hate-filled, Donald Trump rally speech minus Mr. Trump. Where were the jokes? Is this what masquerades as humor in 2022?
Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles opened his speech with the words, “Kelly Paul, wasn’t she amazing?” seemingly making this choice on the fly, so I wondered if Comm. Quarles heard humor that I’d somehow missed? Was it “amazing,” Comm. Quarles, to hear a senator’s wife punch down on Kentucky’s already-marginalized communities?
Back in class, we were taught that punching down was off limits. This was, in fact, the greatest sin you could commit in Keillor’s class, who taught us by example how to punch up. After a Feb. 2006 incident in which Dick Cheney shot his friend, Harry Whittington, while quail hunting on a Texas ranch, Keillor practiced his own potential zingers on us as if to say, “this way, this is how it’s done.” And we laughed until our cheeks hurt.
By the time we got to State Rep. Savannah Maddox’s Fancy Farm speech, the lack of laughter was deafening. “But let’s not forget what we’re really here to fight for,” she said, mirroring earlier comments by Ms. Paul, “the chance to dethrone Andy Beshear, the governor who shut down our state, closed schools, and harassed church-goers on Easter Sunday. I was standing up to the tyrant from day one.”
Was there a zinger in there somewhere? Did I miss it? Rep. Maddox went for the governor, the powerful, in her speech, but I suspect Keillor would have written on her paper in red ink as he’d written on mine: Not funny, just mean, you missed the beat.
In the end, it was not so much one line or one speech that stood out at Fancy Farm, it was the overall tone on a GOP-crowded stage. Fancy Farm is no longer about clever zingers and good old southern humor. As Western Kentucky native Jayne Waldrop, tweeted, “Wendell Ford was the king of zing. Just like everything else he has touched, McConnell ruined the spirit of the Fancy Farm picnic with his humorless brand of bused-in meanness.”
In the years after our class ended, I would often come across the jokes that Garrison Keillor had worked on in our class, and later perfected. Here is one of many: “Evidently some people were disappointed that Dick Cheney didn’t receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and believe me, I sympathize … face it, Mr. Obama is going to draw a bigger crowd than Mr. Cheney would have. When a man has shot somebody in the face with a shotgun, people are going to be reluctant to line up en masse in his presence lest he get excited again.”
While we don’t expect our politicians to be professional humorists, this is the tone of the humor we expect from Fancy Farm. The gentle, obvious jab. The easy laugh. We did not get it, and I suspect Ms. Waldrop is right, that those days are over.
The Fancy Farm we knew is dead, and it is the mean-spiritedness of our GOP officeholders and candidates — the men and women who represent us — that killed it.