Something Funny About Ann Coulter

Her "satire" defense on anti-Muslim “camel” crack raises a question: who’s a comedian these days?

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Ann Coulter: Funny Girl?

    When "Family Guy," an animated exercise in satire, recently aired a joke some took as ridiculing Sarah Palin's toddler son, who has Down syndrome, she decried the gag as a "kick in the gut.”

    But when asked about Rush Limbaugh's use of the word "retard" as a slur, Palin ultimately defended the right-wing radio host’s comment as "satirical."

    Now, another conservative commentator, Ann Coulter, is catching some flack for telling a Muslim student Monday to “take a camel” as an alternative to flying. She later defended the crack as "satire."

    Ann Coulter might be a lot of things to different people – but is she a satirist?

    The use of the S-word defense in the Limbaugh and Coulter cases comes at a time when the roles of comedian, commentator and politician are changing, and sometime overlapping.

    Context is more crucial than ever, especially in theses times of political polarization.

    The camel quip, spouted by, say, Don Rickles, an equal-opportunity offender whose old-school act is built upon being able to laugh at silly stereotypes, probably wouldn't have gained much notice.

    Coming from Coulter, who has said Jews need to be "perfected" by becoming Christians, and who once accused four 9/11 widows of “enjoying” their husbands’ deaths, the camel remark has spurred an understandable fuss. Coulter has claimed the satire defense before: when she suggested that Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens be poisoned, she laughed off the line as a "joke."

    It’s hard at times these days to tell who’s a comedian. Bill Maher, Dennis Miller and Don Imus are among the comics who sometimes go beyond humor in making a point. In June, Maher used his HBO political- and comedy-infused to talk show to basically declare the Obama presidency a disappointment.

    Then there’s Al Franken, who has gone from comedian to politician. The former "Saturday Night Live" writer and performer largely has kept his funny-guy persona under wraps since being elected to the U.S. Senate. But there was something unsettling about news that "SNL" head writer and "Weekend Update" anchor Seth Meyers has been tapped to appear at a Franken fundraiser this weekend.

    Palin, meanwhile, seems to be bouncing from politics to punditry (her Fox news gig) to reality TV (she’s shopping a show about Alaska) as she gears up for an apparent 2012 run for president. Earlier this month, she stopped by “The Tonight Show” to swap one-liners with Jay Leno.

    She wasn’t half bad – but that doesn’t make her a satirist.

    It would be disingenuous to suggest that comics don’t have political leanings. But ultimately, a good satirist’s job is to get people to laugh and think about things in a new light, or at least prompt discussion. The best of the mainstream TV forums for political humor – “SNL,” “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” – take comic shots at hypocrisy across the political spectrum.

    It’s hard to put Coulter in that company as she leaps across the line into what some would call hate, often without a trace of anything resembling humor.

    After the camel remark, officials at the University of Ottawa scrapped plans for Coulter to speak Tuesday night, citing protests and fears of violence.

    Giving into the mob was wrong, and confers on Coulter more power than she deserves. Let her bring on her brand of “satire” – and give the crowd a chance to laugh her off the stage.

    Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.