Jewish Journal

The Greatest Living American Humorist

by Rob Eshman

June 21, 2011 | 2:38 am

So there’s a post over at Slate.com, “America’s Greatest Living Humorists: Parker and Stone, or Larry David?”

The author, Jeremy Stahl, goes back and forth trying to decide who is our number one funny man:  the creators of South Park, Team America and The Book of Mormon, or the co-creator of Seinfeld and creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm. 

The jumping off point for his essay is a piece at Salon.com by Mark Stoller Zeitz that says… basically the same thing. 

The criteria they go by are “audacity, visual flair, musical chops, verbal invention and gut-busting silliness, not to mention consistency of vision over time.”

“I can think of a few other serious contenders, including Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien, and Tina Fey,” writes Stahl.

Really?  You can’t even think of Howard Stern?  Okay, put Howard aside for a second.  Woody Allen?  Garrison Keillor? Steve Martin? Matt Groening?

Say Stahl can’t think of other “serious contenders.”  Does he have one of those laptop thingees?  Can he Google?  I mean, in the realm of “living” humorists, if not popular and active (those weren’t his criteria), you’d have to add Carl Reiner, right?  And what about Don Rickles?  Whole parts of these peoples’ acts wouldn’t exist had Don Rickles not made the stage safe for Heeb jokes.

But since the writer doesn’t do his due diligence, let me answer his question: Who is the greatest living American humorist?  Howard Stern.

I’ll break it down:

Audacity:  Howard pushed the envelope so far the FCC tried to take away his stationery.  He has taken on the Federal government, popular taste, celebrity culture, and his corporate bosses.  He has rolled the dice on his career many, many times in order to win laughs on hi own terms. 

Visual flair:  Not sure why this belongs in the “humorist” criteria, but so be it.  Howard has turned his show into a ‘visual” medium by painting word pictures of the antics in his studio, the characters in his head, the thoughts in his mind.  So he doesn’t draw funny pictures.  The category was greatest humorist, not greatest cartoonist.

Musical chops:  Are these qualities just selected to tilt the verdict to Stone and Parker?  I mean, what were Mark Twain’s “musical chops?”  Did Will Rogers play the ukelele?  What musical was Jon Stewart in? Anyway, so be it.  Howard incoporates music into every aspect of his show, from his long-running gag-band The Losers to the Robin song parodies.

Verbal invention:  Howard does this for five hours each day, mostly extemporaneously.  He does it without his personal team of highly paid Jewish writers (you try being funny without one of those), and while he is surrounded by talented funny people like Robin, Fred and Gary, he has no big production values besides his mike and his mouth.

Gut-busting silliness:  See above: 5 hours a day. No script. 

Consistency of vision over time:  All credit to Stone and Parker, who are brilliant. But on this last point, Howard wins hands down.  He was upsetting the political hypocrites, religious nuts and celebrity sycophants before those two were out of diapers.  Along the way he’s written two best selling books, starred in a successful movie, created a crazy-funny TV show, and inspired a generation of humorists—like Parker and Stone.

As for Larry David, he’s funny too. I’ve written before that the similarities between Stern and David (and Woody Allen) are telling.

But if the writers for Slat-on pick “audacity” as the lead criteria, Howard Stern wins.

Which begs the question: What web site wins the award for Most Hackey Attempt to Drive Web Traffic Under the Guise of Making a Significant Cultural Observation?  Ladies and gentlemen, the award goes to… Slate!



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Rob Eshman created the blog Serious Stern on June 17, 2009.  Serious Stern is devoted to a serious (hence the name) exploration of the cultural impact of Howard Stern.

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