Commentary

Saunders: When is a duck not funny? When his name is 'Mallard Fillmore'

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJanuary 28, 2013 

Just that it comes across as homophobic, racist and reactionary, I told one caller last week, is not reason enough to fish-wrap the alleged comic strip “Mallard Fillmore.”

Bruce Tinsley, creator of the 19-year-old strip featuring a right-wing duck that’s carried in The News & Observer, sets out to attack anyone to the left of Genghis Khan. His unmistakable mission is to shock and offend.

You know whom he mainly offends, though? Anyone with a funny bone.

As reader Eileen Burns told me last week, “it’s gotten worse and worse” in recent years. “It seems like it’s gotten meaner.”

Yeah, that happened about the time President Barack Obama was elected. The vitriol has increased since Obama’s re-election, and it boiled over last week in the strip the day after the nation re-inaugurated him and celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. In that strip, Tinsley compared people who celebrate King’s life and legacy to rodents.

That prompted Burns, a native New Yorker who now lives in New Hill, to call me and ask how we could carry such a “hateful” strip. “Very simply,” she said, “it’s hate couched in humor.”

Hateful it is, too. Bile runs through every word of Tinsley’s strip like – yep – bile through a goose.

Anger not as funny

There are certainly ways to skewer liberals and progressives and be funny about it; much about them is lampoonable. Tinsley, however, hasn’t found a way to be funny while doing it. Perhaps he doesn’t want or need to find a way, because he knows that if newspapers chuck his duck for any reason, he can always invoke the “C” word: “They dropped Mallard because he’s conservative.” Quack quack.

The duck dude, though, shows precisely what happens to strips and comedians from the other side. Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory and George Carlin all became less funny when they sacrificed humor for anger and polemics. If you read Garry Trudeau’s unparalleled “Doonesbury,” you know there’ve been times when he has done the same thing.

The best Doonesbury strips are the ones in which Trudeau subtly pricks with a pin – and thereby deflates – his targets on the left or right side of the political spectrum.

Mallard, on the other wing, uses a mallet with which to pound his targets. And all of them are on the left.

A right not to read

You won’t believe this, but there are actually people out there who – EGADS!!! – don’t like my column or me. Weird, right?

Some have said, in different, less-printable words, that they’d rather tongue-kiss a snaggletoothed llama that’s been eating Oreo cookies than read me.

The great thing about America, I tell them, is that while I have a right to write this “drivel” – one of the gentler epithets – they have a right not to read it. That’s what I told Eileen about Tinsley. I also asked if she’d find the duck less objectionable if it ran on the op-ed page, as does “Doonesbury.”

No. “If it has to run,” she said, “it should be on the page with the gun ads.”

At a comedy club in Merrillville, Ind., many years ago, a comedian told a joke that landed on the audience like a lead zeppelin – except for me. I alone laughed aloud when he asked “How do you make a Szechuan duck?”

The answer: throw a rock at his head. Ba-dump.

Here’s one I made up. How do you make a homophobic, President Obama-hating duck funny?

Give up?

So, apparently, has Tinsley.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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