The Witzelsucht Memorandum

Where sarcasm passes for satire

You know that Spring is finally here when the ads for used motorcycles in the Washington Post sports section begin taking up as much space as the nearby ads for houses of prostitution masquerading as spas and massage parlors.
Early April '04  -- Comedy in Gov't


The really funny thing about Dubuya's "those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere" routine at the Radio and Television Correspondents' dinner?   He came up with that bit before we invaded.


Last week, Congress heard testimony from RICHARD FOSTER, chief actuary for Medicare, our nation's gargantuan program of health insurance for elderly and disabled people. You all know what happened:  For many years Foster's made economic forecasts for executive branch agencies and shared his prognostications with any congressman who asked. But when Foster figured out that the new Medicare bill with its prescription drug coverage would end up costing $150 billion more than previously believed, he was warned by former Medicare head honcho TOM SCULLY that if didn't keep his mouth shut he'd be out of a job, axed, eighty-sixed, hit the bricks, scram, pack up your pencils and vamoose, and don't let the door hit you on the way out, pal, 'cause you're history, so make like a tree and leave. 

Okay, so maybe Scully didn't tell Foster to make like a tree and leave, but he did tell a staffer for congressman Pete Stark that Foster would be fired "so fast his head would spin." 

Scully said he was only joking. . . that he never threatened Foster's job, except in jest.

If that's true, then it was a bit Scully should never have attempted, at least not without checking with Wit Memo first.

Wit Memo may not know much about Medicare, but we know plenty about comedy, humor and wit. F'r instance, we know that comedy, humor and wit are all pretty much the same thing, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

And comedy isn't pretty. Mel Brooks said that tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into a sewer and die. From the time long ago that the first homo sapien passed fetid water through his nose after witnessing a Neanderthal slip on a scrap of mastodon blubber and fracture his skull, comedy has had a nasty edge. Humor can hurt. Some high Lamas, for instance, believe that specific combinations of certain bad puns can induce a fatal disruption to the body's chi

Mean humor is like a gun: in the wrong hands it can wreak unintended devastation. Before you realize what you've done the butt of your joke is writhing in agony and the bystanders are recoiling agape as you plead, "but I was only kidding! I didn't mean it!  I didn't know the joke was loaded!" Whether it's shouting "FIRE" in a crowded theater or issuing a loud greeting to Jack, your fellow airline passenger, threat humor should never be attempted by amateurs and dilettantes. And when the joke takes the form of a threat to harm someone you have the power to harm, the potential for a dangerous misfire is at its greatest. 

Had Scully asked, Wit Memo coulda told him how he could threaten to fire Foster without losing the main point: that it was only a joke.

First, let's take Scully at his word. He wasn't really threatening to fire Foster. He was only joking. Why the benefit of the doubt? Because Scully seems like a nice guy who might like a joke now and then, and not, say for example, a rageaholic who blows his stack in angry phone calls and emails. We're charmed by his love of hackneyed cliches, like when he told that congressional staffer that Foster would be fired so fast his head would spin, or when he later challenged the government to investigate him "until the cows come home."  Wit Memo is utterly dependent on hackneyed cliches. (We were dismayed when Martin Amis declared "War Against the Cliche," and relieved when he later admitted he'd been wrong. Cliches are all that hacks like Wit Memo and Scully have.) We also like the way Scully changed his agency's name from the yawn-inducing "Health Care Financing Administration" to the snazzier, happenin' "Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services." It's a rare government agency indeed that has the audacity to put an ampersand in its official name. Scully also created the Medicare blimp, the lighter-than-air billboard that advertises the 1-800-Medicare info line to those seniors who might tune in to football games, NASCAR races, and other blimp-friendly events. 

Before Scully, Medicare didn't have a blimp. Now, Medicare has a blimp. 

Wit Memo could have cautioned Scully that dangerous humor is an art that must be practiced in accordance with the following seven rigidly prescribed conventions to assure that the audience will respond with laughter, and not with kicks and blows, or frantic calls to Congress and the press:

  • Reference a readily recognizable archetype. If you adopt the character of a famous boss then it's not really you making the threat. Donald Trump and his TV show notwithstanding, the most famous false firing threat of all time is Captain Kirk's "then Scotty, you're fired" routine. He always said that upon learning that despite Officer Scott's doin' the best he could, the ship just can't take any more, and she'll blow apart.  We knew Kirk was kidding, because if the ship really couldn't take anymore and did blow apart, there'd be no one left to fire.   If your staff has more esoteric tastes, try a bit of Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glenn Ross: "first prize is a Cadillac. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired."  If your employee responds by brandishing his watch and hissing "You see this watch? This watch cost more than your car. That's who I am, and you're nothing," then you know you're slayin' them once again. If he bursts into tears or contacts Human Resources, then it's back to the drawing board.

  • Careful choice of words and inflection can make all the difference in the world. Instead of, "you're fired," try, "you are so fired." Or Julie Brown's Madonna take-off, "you are so almost fired."

  • Clearly be doing An Act. Try one of those high-speed, both-sides-of-the-conversation routines like Robin Williams used to do, with different voices for each side of the conversation:  "you're fired!/you can't fire me, I quit!/you can't quit, you're fired!"

  • Use disproportionate threats that no one could take seriously. You: "Are there any donuts left?" Employee eating donut: "no, they're all gone." You: "then you're fired." Note: this technique may not work if you have, in fact, fired people for eating the last donut.

  • Only threaten to fire someone whom you really wouldn't or couldn't fire.  Lotsa folk can enjoy this one. Say your boss is away, and has made you acting chief of the office. It's in name only, you don't have the power to do anything, and everyone knows it. Sidle up to a coworker and whisper, "I'm acting today, so . . . you're fired."

  • Use outlandish language. If you tell an employee that you're going to have to let him go, or to clean out her desk, you're not likely to have a laughing employee. But promising that "you'll never work in this business again!" guarantees guffaws.

  • The last but most important and potentially time-consuming convention is, develop a reputation as a kidder. Such a rep may be earned only through dedicated endeavor over an extended period of time. But the delayed reward is substantial: you can get away with almost anything. 
  • Thus did Wit Memo once pretend to be drunk at an office party and tell the boss that "you stink, your whole operation stinks, I quit!" with no repercussions, even though the boss didn't get The Simpsons reference!

    Had Scully kept his big yap shut until after he got the word from Wit Memo, he'd be sitting fat, happy and ignored in his high-powered job lobbying his old government agency (the job he got while still working for that old government agency), instead of facing the prospect of having to fork over an ungodly portion of his new high income in lawyers' fees. 


      Is White House Press Secretary SCOTT MCCLELLAN really . . .

                           . . . Ohio highway sniper suspect CHARLES MCCOY

    Coming soon:  the big cicada invasion, and tax the internet now!

    The Witzelsucht Memorandum