[29 March 2006]
That’s what I want: a world where no matter what somebody says to you, you can just interpret it to mean whatever you want it to mean.
In the medieval court, one figure had “fool’s license” to speak dangerous truth to power. An iconoclastic outsider masked in colorful garb, the court jester punctured the court’s pretensions with stinging sociopolitical commentary cloaked as harmless frivolity. Some stand-up comics have carried on this tradition. Lenny Bruce, patron saint of the truth-speaking comic, summed up his act by saying, “The truth is what is. And what should be is a fantasy, a terrible, terrible lie someone gave the people long ago.”
Brad Stine wants to be that kind of comic, but his truth is different from Lenny Bruce’s. Where Bruce railed against the conformity and hypocrisy he saw in 1950s America, Stine, a conservative Christian, reveres that America. Tolerate This! opens with a black-and-white sequence that establishes his conservative bona fides: he’s shown in photographs with Tom DeLay and Rudy Giuliani; Alan Keyes appears briefly; and a sinister, presumably liberal underground operative intones of Stine, “He’s a hero to half of America. His momentum is killing us, and he’s got to be stopped.” When Stine appears on stage, he congratulates the Indiana audience on being “so American, so what we used to be,” before launching into a bit on the weirdness of applause.
What follows is 80 minutes of Seinfeldian observational humor given Denis Leary’s overblown delivery, with Bill O’Reilly’s talking points serving as applause-break segues. Stine’s insights range from “Spiders are ferocious” to “Eve was a shop-a-holic.” He opens a sequence called “Man/Woman” with the declaration, “We have people in this country who don’t believe men and women are different.” Really? This kind of oblique straw-man argument crops up repeatedly in his performance. Here, it introduces a lengthy discussion of emotional and physical gender distinctions.
Finally, a comedian brave enough to base a bit on the differences between men and women. Those differences, by the way, boil down to men being uncouth sports-a-holics, while women are pretty shop-a-holics.
So, Tolerate This! offers mediocre comedy, not exactly unusual these days. But those hackneyed observations come from perspective rarely made explicit in stand-up: that of the Christian right. Granted, much of Blue Collar Comedy Tour is aimed squarely at NASCAR dads and has an implicitly conservative viewpoint, but Stine’s work panders to a smaller, more die-hard constituency of mad-as-hell conservatives.
Stine’s self-applied label, “The comedian for the other half of America,” sums up his messianic pose toward the audience, people who see themselves as persecuted by the Hollywood powers that be, beset by the tyranny of public schools, and woefully unrepresented in the Republican Congress and White House. They’re the real, non-judgmental Americans, tired of “activist judges” who want to make it “illegal to have a moral point of view,” according to Stine. It’s the same hyperbolic, factually dubious sloganeering you’d expect from a moral-majority politician, full of venom for the outside world and reassurance for the loyal listeners. It’s a tone that damns the world but redeems those within earshot; it’s hard not to think of Stephen Colbert, of The Colbert Report, saying, “You’re the heroes. You people get it.”
The “other half of America,” in Stine’s view, is made up of people who want “hip, cool, fun entertainment that doesn’t come with curse words.” (It includes, presumably, people who use the word “hip” without irony.) That entertainment consists largely in pining for a now-lost America. Where Lenny Bruce told us to beware of anyone promising utopia, Brad Stine reassures us that America was once that Promised Land, where people worked together and common courtesy was, well, common. As an example of this decline from greatness, Stine describes the tendency of concession booth operators to conflate Coke and Pepsi. He ordered a Coke and was asked, “Pepsi?”—as if the two were the same thing! Then an usher asked to see his ticket stub! Where’s the common courtesy of that bygone, sepia-toned America?
Yes, it’s unfair to compare Brad Stine to Lenny Bruce, a comedy pioneer and genuine First Amendment martyr. Every comedian working today would fall short of that standard. But there’s a more telling difference between Bruce and Stine, one that comes down to a fundamental disagreement over what constitutes “truth.” Though both claim it might be stated in a capital-t kind of way, today that word always takes quotation marks. Now, our recognition of truth is not based in its challenge to our preconceptions, but in its capacity to comfort us. That kind of “truth” would be alien to Lenny Bruce; it suits Brad Stine perfectly.
In its repetition of conservative bromides and righteous indignation, Stine’s show is as comforting as a lullaby. But if you expect more from stand-up comedy, you won’t find it here.