Photo by Express Newspapers

Last laugh

Intellectual wits like P J O’Rourke are rare birds these days

Artillery Row

“Giving money and power to government,” noted P J O’Rourke, who died this week, “is like giving whisky and car keys to a teenage boy.” It’s a classic O’Rourke remark: droll and funny, with a crunchy libertarian message. You can, in this case at least, judge the man by the quality of his Wikiquotes.

But P J O’Rourke was so much more than a gag writer, though his gags were great. Journalist, satirist, commentator, he liked the term “humorist” — so let’s go with that. It is, perhaps, most apt — writing prose that makes you laugh is hard. Writing prose that makes you laugh and conveys complex political ideas is almost impossible. But O’Rourke cut those sentences with ease.

Just read Parliament of Whores or Eat the Rich to see what I mean. These are books full of wit, wisdom and literary panache. And dick jokes. He could never resist one of those. Indeed, all the best photos of O’Rourke capture, behind the wry smile and the waft of cigar smoke, a mercurial hint of sophomoric twinkle.

Reagan loved jokes even more than he loved jelly beans

Intellectual wits are rare birds these days. Online argument and the coarsening of debate, here and in America, has seen to that. As somebody the wilder fringes of Twitter would gleefully brand a “fascist” (meaning, in normal-speak, mildly conservative), I find this development particularly saddening. Donald Trump, who O’Rouke loathed, has had a lot to do with it. It’s a sour irony that the former Apprentice host used the slogan “America First” to help him colonise the Republican Party. The phrase was first used by Ronald Reagan, a Conservative hero O’ Rourke was happy to champion.

Reagan loved jokes even more than he loved jelly beans. There were his famous anti-Communist “stories”, of course; and the jokes used to rib his opponents — such as the GOP candidate, out in the brush, who gave an election address standing on a pile of farmyard manure: “That’s the first time I’ve given a Republican speech from a Democratic platform”.

This was an ideologically-inspired wit that was elegant and droll, and all the deadlier for it. The Gipper’s famous retort in the second ’84 Presidential debate — “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience” — was a million miles from Trump’s ghastly, sweaty obsession with smart women and menstruation.

Maybe it helped that, during the 20th century cultural explosion, Liberal and Conservative wags, whilst the specifics of their politics differed, could coalesce around shared targets. “So long mom, I’m off to drop the bomb, so don’t wait up for me,” trilled Tom Lehrer, the great liberal satirist and mathematics Professor who, despite his death being reported multiple times, is thankfully still with us. There was a broad, and very real, fear of World War Three, just as there was a broad rejection of Communism. Indeed, Holidays in Hell, O’Rourke’s wry and hilarious travelogue, should be required reading for any bright student flirting with that desolate ideology. It’s impossible to fully understand it until you’ve joined P J for a piss-up in the Polish People’s Republic.

Nobody likes the trite progressive who deliberately doesn’t get the joke

The laziest refrain from the most unoriginal elements of the left is that Conservatives are not funny. That is simply untrue. Comedy, on both sides of the Atlantic, has a notable history of right-wing writers and performers. In the UK, the incomparable Peter Cook cheerfully thought of himself as an anarchist right-winger. Many much loved comedians, although their humour was not necessarily political, were personally Conservative: Eric Morecambe, Kenneth Williams, Bob Monhouse, Ronnies Barker and Corbett, Eric Sykes — the list goes on. Ken Dodd made a virtue of his outrageous tax avoidance. Routines about the size of the state, or the deficiency of the public sector, were as common as Ben Elton ranting about Fatcha.

Humour is a powerful weapon for anyone trying to communicate an idea. In this polarised world, in which a wing of the activist left are trying to make a virtue of having no sense of humour whatever, it could prove a particularly powerful tool for Conservatives. Nobody likes a party pooper, and nobody likes the trite and self-aggrandising progressive who deliberately doesn’t get the joke. Those who believe in a smaller state, a controlled government and individual choice should find plenty to skewer in their opponents’ increasingly contorted and absurd positions.

P J O’Rourke always got the joke. Even his rejection of the modern Republican party, the party that was his ideological home for a lifetime, was packaged humorously: “I am endorsing Hillary, and all her lies and all her empty promises… She’s wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.” It is a huge pity he won’t be around to comment on the 2024 election. “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it,” he once joked. Well, I reckon you could do a lot worse than being found, slumped in a leather armchair, a stray cat nibbling at your fingers, a tumbler of whisky at your feet and a smouldering cigar burning a hole in your slacks, halfway through a book by P J O’Rourke.

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