Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White once observed, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.”
As a real-life example of White’s axiom, witness Atlantic reporter Emma Green, who approached a recent interview with the Babylon Bee’s editor-in-chief, Kyle Mann, with scalpel in hand.
Green started with one of the outlet’s most infamous fake headlines: Democrats Call For Flags To Be Flown At Half-Mast To Grieve Death Of Soleimani.
“What,” Green wanted to know, “makes this funny?”
Mann may have had little background in comedy before 2016, when, on a whim, he pitched a joke to a newly-launched Christian satire site, but his wit calls to mind the studied dryness of Bob Newhart or Steven Wright. Speak to him once and you’ll forever read the Bee’s zingers with his deadpan voice in your head.
“It’s funny,’ he replied, “because [Iranian] General Soleimani died and then they called for flags to be flown at half-mast. Get it?”
Green didn’t. “But what makes it funny?” she pressed.
“Do you want me to explain the joke to you?” he countered. “Because the joke is that General Soleimani died and Democrats were sad. If you don’t know why that’s funny, then you’re not the audience for the joke.”
But Green was not to be stymied, and this dynamic played out several more times throughout the interview. She brought up an illustration from Mann and his co-writer Joel Berry’s new book, “The Babylon Bee Guide to Wokeness.” The image featured a peach-colored stick-figure labeled, “bad;” a gray one tagged, “better;” and a black one deemed, “best.”
“Why do you think that’s funny,” she asked.
Mann’s poker-face still did not break. “It’s because being peach is not good.”
“Riiight.” This time Green hesitated for a moment before evidently deciding she was going to have to guide Mann where she wanted him to go. “But you’re not just talking about that in terms of stick figures, right?” (Lord help this woman if she ever gets ahold of the old Abbot and Costello bit, “Who’s On First.”) “You’re talking about that in terms of how progressives think about a hierarchy of race?”
Mann conceded the point flatly. “Sure.”
“So why is that funny?” Green pushed again.
At last, a frustrated Mann snapped, “I’m not going to sit here and deconstruct and explain every joke to you. We’re taking this ridiculous position in order to mock something — to make fun of this idea that your skin color matters in setting up a hierarchy of the oppressed versus oppressor class. If you really don’t get the joke, I can’t help you.”
If it feels a little tedious to go through this exchange, that, of course, is the point. The tedium of inquest and explanation robs the satire of its power. Except Mann refused to play by the rules. Thus, when Green posted the interview to social media, it became a joke in itself. Bee fans guffawed, sharing screen-shots and quoting excerpts of their favorite parts.
“This Atlantic interview with [Kyle Mann] is almost as funny as a really great [Babylon Bee] piece,” tweeted The Federalist’s political editor.
His colleague Mollie Hemingway posted a recent Bee headline — “Backed-Up Cargo Ships Positioned To Spell Out ‘Let’s Go Brandon’” — alongside the quip, “Does anyone want to explain this one to The Atlantic?”
Finally, someone asked. “Does it count as media consolidation when the BABYLON BEE absofreakin’lutely owns the journo from THE ATLANTIC?”
But listen to a podcast where Green discussed the interview and none of Mann’s deadpan responses colored her understanding of their interaction. Why, she wondered in tones so girlish and guileless you could almost picture her with all the wide-eyed, blinking confusion of a Disney cartoon, are Mann and his team so intent on creating humor that only one side of the aisle finds funny?
“I think there’s something…almost bittersweet about that idea, that there probably isn’t humor — especially humor that gets at all political — that Americans could just set aside their differences and find funny together,” she told the host.
Even in the aftermath, The Atlantic still didn’t seem to get the joke: That the left — in particular the leftist media — turned the sort of late-night, all-purpose political jibes that Americans could enjoy en masse into scolding, agenda-driven attacks. And that forced conservatives to forge their own subculture for amusement. In other words, The Atlantic helped create The Babylon Bee.
That said … Green has been covering faith-based stories for one of the oldest, most elite culture journals in the U.S. for more than seven years. If she really doesn’t understand why the Bee’s headlines make conservative Christians giggle, you have to wonder—is she qualified to be a religion reporter at all?
Personally, I suspect Green probably is qualified for her job and she and her outlet do get the jokes. They just wanted to kill that frog.
Mann, however, is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. When I speak with him and Berry about their new book, he tells me he believes Green legitimately thinks The Babylon Bee is doing something dishonest or sinister. It just took him a few minutes to figure out what Green was driving at.
“Because I get so many interview requests, it didn’t quite sink in for me who I was talking to until a few questions in,” he recalls. “Then I was like, Oh, OK, I know what you’re trying to do.”
While he won’t lay the responsibility for their contentious exchange at Green’s feet, he does feel that someone at The Atlantic hoped to catch him in a soundbite that would give the impression he was defending racism. “Which is weird,” Mann says, “because that joke with the stick figures is mocking racism on the Left. But I think [The Atlantic] [doesn’t] see it that way. Like they don’t think that is racism.”
Bee managing editor Joel Berry agrees with Mann that Green really doesn’t understand why his outlet’s jokes amuse so many millions of Americans, but he concurs that elite media outlets like The Atlantic helped create the environment that fosters their own blinkered perception.
“I agree with the premise that comedy does have to ring true in order to be funny,” says Berry. But now you’re kind of dealing with two separate truths, two different views of reality. You’ve got half the country reading Fox News and the Daily Wire, and the other half is watching CNN and MSNBC. So there’s a lot about the premises of our jokes that, if you are not familiar with what the right is talking about, it’s going to go over your head.”
As an example of that, he points to the very Soleimani headline Green brought up, about Democrats flying the flag at half-mast to mourn his death.
“You know, we were kind of satirizing the fact that whenever a terrorist or a tyrant around the world dies, the Left eulogizes him with this flowery, affectionate language. For someone in the world of leftist journalism, there’s a kind of a lack of self-awareness there that allowed the joke to go over their heads.”
Berry says he’s as depressed as Green that shared laughter has grown so hard to come by in our nation, but he finds a silver lining in the fact that progressive extremism in the news business, in particular, has led some comedians back to a place where they’re voicing the feelings of the underserved middle.
“Comedians like Dave Chappelle and Bill Maher are bringing some of that common humor back. I think there are a lot of people on the traditional left who would still agree and still laugh at a lot of the jokes that we tell.”
Both Mann and Berry share that there have, in fact, been times when those on the opposite side of the political spectrum do appreciate the Bee’s humor, even if they don’t agree with it. Mann recalls an occasion early last year where actor/comedian Patton Oswalt did the Bee the professional courtesy of acknowledging they’d well and truly burned him.
“We made fun of Oswalt in an article because [during the pandemic] he posted something like, ‘Oh, you guys, you guys want to get out of your houses and go to Fuddruckers,” Mann remembers. “So you know, he was kind of mocking people that wanted to go to their jobs from his mansion or whatever. And we pointed that out. He shared our article and was like, ‘OK, they got me. That was pretty good.’
In fact, what Oswalt said was, “Well sh**. This is a well-deserved slam on a very badly worded tweet of mine from a week back. At least it’s a funny-as-f**k slam. Touché, you magnificent bastards.”
Mann laughs remembering the exchange. “Yeah, I just loved that moment of this comedian who was able to respect the joke even though he’s got a different political point of view. How cool is that, you know?”
And moments like that are the reason the Bee boys say they’re not going to let The Atlantic’s hand-wringing over “Who Would Jesus Mock” dissuade from their purpose, whether the media gets the jokes or not.
“Satire has this prophetic role to play,” Mann says, explaining that he and the rest of his team can point to numerous biblical examples, including Jesus’ descriptions of legalistic, humorless religious leaders as a “brood of vipers” and “white-washed tombs.”
“Jesus used brutal and savage humor where you would be very uncomfortable if you were a fly on the wall for some of his encounters with the Pharisees,” he points out. “That was him just completely throttling the cultural power of his day. So yeah, that was kind of what they tried to do in The Atlantic piece. It was like, ‘Who would Jesus make fun of?'”
In response to that, Mann says it’s not his role to speculate what Jesus would have said to the Black Lives Matter or LGBT movements that hold so much cultural sway the media turns blind eyes when they burn cities and all eyes when a few dozen of them decide to hold a streaming company hostage.
What he does know: “God has given us this tool of satire and humor, and it would be a sin for us not to use it.”
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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