O’Rourke’s humor hasn’t changed with times

By Alex Spanko
October 30, 2010

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On a certain level, it’s hard to blame P.J. O’Rourke for the fact that his latest book seems so stale and dated. It’s not his fault that new-school satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have elevated political humor above the easy punch line to a more thoughtful plane.

Unfortunately for O’Rourke, this brave new world of topical humor asks much more of its comedians. Americans already know that politicians are sometimes untrustworthy and that Congress is often a gridlocked mess of confusing legislation and corruption. This alone is not funny, and simply saying it does not constitute a joke.

O’Rourke leans on these tired bits of pseudo-wisdom like hundreds of tiny crutches, desperately trying to prop up a collection of ideas we’ve heard a million times before from a million comedians. To O’Rourke’s credit, a couple of those ideas are worth another look. But it’s incredibly difficult to give him a chance when his jokes never rise above the level of a washed-up Borscht Belt comedian.

At face value, O’Rourke — a veteran journalist and humorist — seems to expound the kind of informed moderate opinion that doesn’t get much airplay on cable and radio. He takes great pains to paint himself as a conservative, but he gives at least implied support for abortion rights and more lenient drug laws. He criticizes President Obama’s economic policies at length, but he also takes potshots at Sarah Palin and the current GOP establishment. He even heaps pointed — if a little belated — grief on talking heads like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh for directing their pontifications “at the pious women in the big hats standing blamelessly in the choir.’’

But instead of using his sense of humor to make coherent points about his unique ideology, O’Rourke falls back on tropes that were old when he helmed National Lampoon in the late 1970s. Politicians are crooked. Hippies are self-indulgent and fond of recreational drugs. Children are difficult to raise and discipline. Wives are bossy and no fun at all — but they’re nothing compared to villainous ex-wives. And when he runs out of decade-old cracks about Bill Clinton’s promiscuity or Hillary’s steely demeanor, he resorts to unabashed racism.

“The Chinese have decided to import money instead of things they can immediately enjoy — my black Lab would make quite a stir fry,’’ he writes in his chapter about the trade deficit, immediately negating whatever political concept he was trying to explain.

This is O’Rourke’s biggest failing as a topical humorist. When he offhandedly refers to Medicare as “Social Security’s civil union life partner,’’ it’s impossible to tell exactly what he’s attempting to say or where he stands on either health care or gay marriage. When he peppers a legitimately interesting argument about US-China trade with tired stereotypes, he immediately loses his right to discuss the topic with even a hint of seriousness.

Great satirists blur the line between criticism and comedy until the two ideas are one and the same. O’Rourke draws a thick border between the two, matching each political concept with a weak barb that dulls the effect of both. Stereotypes and one-liners aren’t enough to make it in the world of political satire anymore. For a man who rails so passionately against the American political establishment, he is the very personification of an American humor establishment that rightfully crumbled years ago.

Alex Spanko can be reached at


By P.J. O’Rourke

Atlantic Monthly, 275 pp., $25