A Funny Thing about a Great Divide

Last Friday marked the beginning of an American institution. On October 11, 1975, Saturday Night Live debuted. And within forty seconds, host George Carlin was already cutting away at one of the great American divides: football versus baseball.

(The video of that opening monologue is here. For those of you reading in the classroom or office who don’t want to get busted watching videos at work, you can find a transcripted version of Carlin’s routine here.)

As I watch the baseball-football monologue, I’m struck by how these brief comparisons between America’s two most popular sports so easily widen into larger cultural divides. That was true in 1975, when the country was still reeling from Watergate and Cambodia and Vietnam. And it’s true in 2013, when we are often too blinded by political ideologies to even talk about caring for our neighbors. Every issue, it seems, has two sides and multiple voices, but no room for compromise.

Football is a game of aggression, played under the pressure of an expiring clock, based on quick reaction and brute force. Baseball, on the other hand, is a game of courtesy, governed by tradition and unwritten codes of conduct, based on anticipation and highly specialized skills.

The two games don’t just differ in rules or vocabulary. They represent completely different ideas of competition. Both baseball and football fans love sports, use them to teach their children, care about sportsmanship and fair play. But both sides can get so entrenched in their perspective that neither can see the common ground on which they stand.

Which is why Carlin’s routine works so beautifully. He uses humor to disarm the combatants. His jokes are not rhetorical in nature, meant to ridicule one side and fire up another. They are merely observations that tell the truth without accusation. And because they are funny, they provide commonality.

I’m not so naïve as to think that our latest national spat over the budget, healthcare, and the debt ceiling can be solved by a comedic routine. Some tensions require long-term work from both sides. Some may end up being irresolvable.

But I am naïve enough to think that we need humor to shed light on things we could not otherwise admit to ourselves. We may not be able to laugh at some of the crises we’re dealing with; there’s nothing funny about the struggle to survive for many of our poorest citizens. But we can laugh at ourselves when our battles for justice devolve into petty or ridiculous fueds. And maybe by laughing we can see that we don’t have the market cornered on wisdom, that common ground may exist if we can build a bridge to it, and that no ideology is more important than providing real help to real people.

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