Noam Chomsky, comedian?

The veteran agitator has a stand-up's sensibilities, argues Matthew Alford

Mention Noam Chomsky and ‘funny’ might not be the first word that comes to mind. But many of the best political comics are well aware of his work – including Mark Thomas, Jon Stewart, and Mark Steele – and the late, great Bill Hicks has even become widely known as ‘Chomsky with dick jokes’.

For those unacquainted, Noam Chomsky is not a comedian but actually a 79 year old anarchist who has spent most of his professional life since the Sixties criticising the power structures of his native United States and who, according to a recent readers' poll in Prospect Magazine, is the world's foremost living intellectual.

So, is Chomsky actually funny as well? Last year, I attended an evening speech Chomsky gave in the town of Windsor on the US-Canada border. Although his actual lecture was dry and detailed, during the question and answer session it struck me that Chomsky – like Hicks - was not only successful in terms of conveying his radical political message but also in terms of raising laughs.

No big deal, you might say. All public speakers should be capable of generating a few giggles through amicable one-liners and indeed, Chomsky obliged - for instance, teasing the audience about them pinching his whisky and joshing about his avoidance of administrative work at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology, where he is a professor of linguistics.

However, what was unusual about Chomsky's talk was that he was also able to get belly laughs with dark-laced, insightful humour about conceptual, politicised subject matter. Is it really the case that ideologically loaded one-liners can work without the vulgar streak of a Hicks or a Sadowitz?

If we look back at his lengthy career of dissent, Chomsky has utilised black humour throughout:

Rejecting the idea that the current American government is amoral, he said: ‘The Bush administration do have moral values. Their moral values are very explicit: shine the boots of the rich and powerful, kick everyone else in the face, and let your grandchildren pay for it.’ Piddle-a-dum – tsssh!

On education: ‘If you've resisted the temptation to tell the teacher “you're an asshole” which maybe he or she is, and if you don't say “that's idiotic” when you get a stupid assignment... you will end up at a good college and eventually with a good job.’ Add a few more profanities and that wouldn't be out of place in a George Carlin routine.

On democracy: ‘I have often thought that if a rational fascist dictatorship were to exist, then it would choose the American system. I have also often thought that my schlong is so big I should wear a sign round my neck to discourage people from offering it peanuts.’

To be honest, the last one might be apocryphal. That really would be Chomsky with dick jokes.

Although Chomsky's speeches are packed with information almost as dense as his written work and his delivery is even slower than in his younger days, the languid drip-drip of logical argument, irony and incredulity can lead to bleakly comic results.

In Canada, Chomsky seemed to relish his lines more than ever:-

On fear in America: ‘It's to the point where Ronald Reagan could put on his cowboy boots and cowboy hat and declared a national emergency because the national security of the United States was in danger from the government of Nicaragua’ – dramatic pause – ‘whose troops were two days from Texas.’ Everyone laughs at the concept of a piddly little third world nation trying to invade the world’s greatest superpower and after 48 hours still being 2,000 miles from its capital.

On Iran: ‘Let's assume Iran had 5,000 nuclear tipped missiles. Would they attack Europe with them?’ The audience cracks up as they perceive the absurdity of US propaganda about the Iranian threat and then Chomsky, like any comic worth his salt, comes in with a well-timed topper: ‘It's more likely that Europe will be struck by an asteroid’, although ‘would they bollocks?’ might have been more appropriate for the club circuit.

To gales of baffled laughter from the largely Canadian crowd, Chomsky threw the question of America's ‘Star Wars’ missile defences on its head, commenting that ‘the US would blow Canada out of the water if Canada allowed say, Iran, to put up a missile defence in Canada’. Ben Elton, eat your heart out. No one could accuse Chomsky of selling out or pandering to his audience.

Of course, in reality Chomsky did not come close to the professional comic's benchmark of one gag every 20 seconds. In his half-hour Q&A I measured a laugh only just over once every couple of minutes with his highest hit rate coming when he waxed lyrical about the resistance of librarians to the Patriot Act, beginning his riff with droll understatement: ‘I don't know about Canada but in the United States librarians are not a radical group.’

OK, so he's not going to be having the Stags and Hens of Jongleurs choking on their chicken wings anytime soon, but Chomsky's success as an unlikely entertainer suggests that intellectual discourse has a place within the comedy genre and that there is something inherently amusing about the exposure of establishment propaganda.

Ultimately, Chomsky is entertaining because like all good observational comedy he neatly articulates things that seem so obvious after he's said them and, as in the tradition of satire from John Swift to Chris Morris, he knows his stuff.

Chomsky was actually asked about the role of comedy following reports that people were receiving more of their news from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show than from serious news programmes. He responded by commenting that ‘there is a tradition of the court jester from medieval times who is given leeway. He can mock the king. In fact it’s his job… satirists are just allowed some more leeway and some of them use it pretty intelligently.’

Noam Chomsky is not exactly a jester but he does mock the king and he can be pretty funny, even without any nob gags.

  • Matthew Alford is a media analyst and one half of the comedy duo Bullett and Gunn. and

Published: 21 Jan 2008

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