Hard for humorists: real world is weirder

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I like a good laugh. Who doesn't? Humor is one of our most important cultural resources. Throughout history, people have relied on it to provide a glimmer of badly needed emotional brightness in gloomy situations.

Unfortunately, we live in a social climate that applauds snide, snappy comments about everything that happens in the world. Over time, this "Last Comic Standing" approach to life trivializes important issues. At its best, humor should bring insight along with amusement, but it can easily slide into a lazy pattern of casual cynicism. I struggle with these considerations every day.

For example, when I heard that voters in Florida had given a thumbs-down to Theresa LePore's bid to retain her position as Palm Beach County elections supervisor, the joke that immediately popped into my mind was: "At least she won't have trouble finding another job. There are lots of openings for election supervisors in Kabul right now. Every warlord in the country is pushing hard for those butterfly ballots!"

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That might have gotten big applause on late-night TV, but my internal hilarity meter quickly dropped back to zero. For me, mental monologues are usually just the starting point for contemplating serious issues, and the subject of Afghan elections is no laughing matter. Most media attention has focused on making the polls safe from terror attacks, but we haven't heard much about the actual ballots in Afghanistan. That seems like a crucial detail. Is anyone but me wondering how they'll be counted, verified, and secured?

Those questions didn't prevent the wise-guy side of my personality from immediately veering back into the joke lane. Is the Diebold company designing special touch-screen machines that can withstand small explosions?

Linking mechanized voting with the push for democracy in the Middle East is another huge opportunity for one-liners, but I'm letting it go. Attention morning DJ teams: You can take my Diebold riff and run with it, but don't be surprised if someone at the firm calls you up and says they already have a bomb-proof model on the production line.

That's another major problem for 21st-century humorists. The real world beats us to punch lines almost faster than we can write them. For weeks I have been crafting a funny remark about Ralph Nader. I never got it completely refined, but the basic point was that a judge had given the go-ahead for his name to be placed on the presidential ballot - in Iraq. The concept of American candidates extending their efforts into other countries seemed harmlessly ridiculous, a joke that everyone would enjoy.

However, a few days ago I read a wire-service report about expatriate voters. According to the story, there are between 5 million and 10 million of them around the globe, with significant numbers in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. And the quote that leaped out at me was from a California-registered Palestinian-American named Mohammed, who said, "This time I'm going for Kerry. If that doesn't bring us justice, it'll be Ralph Nader in 2008."

It seemed funny when I read it. But I probably shouldn't have laughed.

Jeffrey Shaffer is an author and essayist who writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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