Media, Politics

US national default: The funny side

By Kevin Bloom 28 July 2011

What’s funny about the United States defaulting on its debt repayments, losing its triple-A credit rating, and sending the world into a financial crisis that makes 2008 look like child’s play? Exactly. Although you wouldn’t be able to tell from all the joking that’s been going on in the American media of late. Here Daily Maverick ranks the jokes from the least funny to the most. Not. By KEVIN BLOOM.

“The debt ceiling debate is such a mess right now, Al Qaeda is desperately trying to find a way to take credit for it.” This is what Jimmy Kimmel said on his ABC talk-show a few nights ago, and it’s not funny. In fact, now that American media has taken to responding to the debt crisis with wild and hysterical laughter – dark prognostications of a second global recession, it seems, have started to outlive their news value – it’s probably the unfunniest quip of them all. Why? Because, well, the Navy Seal Team that assassinated Osama bin Laden can sadly not be deployed against the Tea Partyers who got their country into this mess; a few months after successfully shooting the free world’s most terrifying menace, the US is now about to shoot itself. It’s the perfect definition of a tragedy, a set of fatally destructive circumstances of the protagonist’s own making. And tragedies, as we know, aren’t funny.

Unless of course they are. Here’s the second-least-funny quip about the debt crisis, according to Daily Maverick’s secret measurement system: “Democrats warned that if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, the government would cease to function. How would you be able to tell?” This was Jay Leno on his own late-night show, and it’s not funny because when the US government ceases to function we won’t be laughing in the developing world, although it is a little funnier than Kimmel’s lame joke (at least Leno doesn’t invoke Islamic fundamentalism, which is never funny, ever).

Mercifully, the joke ranked by us third-least-funny ventures neither into the realms of Islamo-fascism nor anarchic disorder, and focuses instead on the use of the word “debate” to describe what’s been happening recently on Capitol Hill. “The ‘debate’ we’ve been having?” asked Jon Stewart. “Is that what that noise out of Washington has been? It sounded like an elephant seal trying to fuck a truck.” That is kind of funny, right? Never mind that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is going to read like Beatrix Potter in a couple of weeks, we can crack a smile at that one, no?

Maybe; but when it comes to economic apocalypses, the talk-show hosts are one thing, New York-based gossip websites quite another. Gawker’s ten-step guide for getting through the national default is an object-lesson in the zen approach to species degeneration, even if it’s not exactly fall-down funny either. Step three: “Change the national address. ‘USA, c/o Mexico. Postman: leave all correspondence in Juarez.’” Step four: “Put a blanket over all the aircraft carriers. Try telling someone you can’t pay them back when you have a boat.” Step five: “Liquidate all unnecessary states. Make the hard cuts. Don’t just stop at New Hampshire.”   

More subtle than Gawker, and more classy by far than the talk-show hosts, are the New Yorker’s cartoonists, who were asked by cartoon editor Robert Mankoff for their take on the crisis. Wrote Zach Kanin: “If the debt-ceiling crisis is really that big a deal, then how come I don’t hear anything about it when I stay in bed, turn off my TV, and don’t look at newspapers, magazines, or the Internet or listen to my voice-mail?”

Now that’s funny. What if we all just ignored the fact that the United States has to repay its debts? What if the rest of the world simply took no notice of the trillion or so dollars that the country has spent on funding wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? What if the state of California didn’t just take out a $5.4 billion bridging loan as an insurance policy against a deal not being reached by 2 August? What if the Dow Jones didn’t drop 200 points on Wednesday? What if the US weren’t in danger of losing its triple-A credit rating? What if America, who made the last global financial crisis, weren’t really really close to making the next one?

In light of these questions, the funniest quip about the debt crisis according to Daily Maverick has got to be that of Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips, who wrote something hilarious in the Washington Post on 27 July: “We understand that we must stop the spending. Where this country is headed under the Obama-Pelosi-Reid axis of fiscal evil is not uncharted territory. Greece has been there and done that. The Greeks borrowed too much and spent too much, and they cannot tax their way out of their problems. Greece has created such an entitlement class that its politicians cannot cut spending without being voted out of office. The Greek economy is going the way of the Death Star in Star Wars, and the final explosion should be just as spectacular.”

Ha ha, Mr Phillips, ha ha. Did you see that? The world just exploded like a special effect in a George Lucas movie. DM

Read more:

  • “Ten Easy Steps to Getting Through Our National Default,” in Gawker;
  • “Cartoonist’s Solve the Debt Crisis,” in the New Yorker;
  • “Why the Tea Party is unyielding on the debt ceiling,” by Judson Phillips in the Washington Post.

Photo: With the skyline of New York behind them, people play a game of ultimate frisbee in a park in Weehawken, New Jersey, June 4, 2011. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn


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