It might help if Congress had a sense of humor about itself. Except for Barney Frank, nobody in our estimable House of Representative seems to have the slightest idea how funny they are — funny in a stupid, vulgar sort of way, but funny nonetheless. Congress is the Whoopee Cushion of government. Is that really funny? Well, yes — if you think Whoopee Cushions are funny.
How about the Senate: funny or not funny? Many people insist on seeing the August Body as a serious, deliberative council full of earnest public servants trying to do their best by the voters who sent them there. This is a nice conceit but ignores the obvious fact that the Senate is actually opera buffa. How can any organization that would embrace the likes of Alphonse D’Amato, Strom Thurmond, Mitch McConnell and Joe Lieberman take itself seriously? And let’s not forget John McCain, who used the last presidential contest to develop his considerable skills as a stand-up comic. The Senate is Steve Martin arrow-through-the-head funny. It is Chevy Chase pratfall-funny. It is W.C. Fields child-hating funny. The Senate is a laff riot.
The Supreme Court is something else. It has a distinct sense of humor but it doesn’t play for laughs. The court’s idea of good fun is the practical joke. A good example of what it thinks is funny is its recent ruling that corporations and unions are just the same as private individuals and can contribute as much money as they see fit to political campaigns. This subtly hilarious judgment wiped away the fruits of fifty years of legislative struggle to limit the influence of money on American politics.
The ruling on campaign contributions was a fine example of high judicial humor, the kind of well-planned prank that brings that creepy smile to John Roberts’s lips. But this stunt, however amusing, was as nothing compared to the ruling of the Rehnquist Court that gave the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush. Now that was funny. And it was funny in a way that goes on being funny. It is still funny to the young soldiers who were blinded or lost their legs in Dubya’s Arabian adventure, itself quite a good joke. Of course we’ll never know if the thousands of soldiers who have been killed in Iraq saw the fun in it, but we can say that they would never have had the ultimate comic opportunity without the help of the Supreme Court.
This brings us to some interesting questions. Who is the funniest Supreme Court justice? John Roberts? Sam Alito? Clarence Thomas? Thomas held the title for years, but competition arrived with the appointment of Roberts and then Alito, both of whom are knee-slapping, gut-wrenching, tears-starting hilarious. Most court-watchers believe that Thomas has been eclipsed by the two newer justices not only because they are funnier but because he has run his one joke into the ground. After twenty-some years, nobody thinks a judge acting like a moron is amusing.
On the other hand, Roberts and Alito, the Abbott and Costello of the court, are not only the funniest of the justices, they are the smartest. Roberts, it is said, is so smart he will have nothing to do with any of the other justices except Alito and Scalia. Alito and Scalia are so smart they know how they are going to rule in a case without reading briefs, researching the law or listening to arguments. Roberts follows much the same judicial method.
Remarkably, they always agree, although they express their opinions in different ways. Alito shows delight by scowling while Scalia revels in judicial bad manners, interrupting and insulting the lawyers who appear before the court. Roberts smiles in a way that suggests that a small dog is biting his ankles under his robe. Laurel and Hardy were never better than this, perhaps because they lacked the nuanced comic depth one can only acquire at Harvard and Yale law school.