MONEY AIN'T FUNNY
June 1, 1998
Essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers jokes about rich people.
ROBERT ROSENBLATT: One of the penalties of living in a time of economic prosperity is that no one makes fun of the rich anymore. This is a serious cultural law. For all of American history it has been customary to poke fun at the rich. At their Diamond Jim Brady/William Randolph Hearst/Mrs. Aster/J.P. Morgan/J.D. Rockefeller/Vanderbilt extravagances, their jewels, their mansions, their behavior. What pleasure movies took in the Depression years to show the idiot rich at play-as in the wonderful "My Man Godfrey," which begins with the rich on a scavenger hunt. A horde of dimwitted playboys and girls comb New York in search of a forgotten man-a hobo, who will be first prize in the hunt.
ACTOR: Do you mind telling me just what a scavenger hunt is.
ACTRESS: Well, a scavenger hunt is exactly like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you try to find something you want and in scavenger hunt you try to find something that nobody wants.
ACTOR: Like a forgotten man.
ACTRESS: That's right. And the one that wins gets a prize, only there really isn't a prize. It's just the honor of winning, because all the money goes to charity, that is, if there's any money leftover, but then there never is.
ROBERT ROSENBLATT: The forgotten man turns out to be Godfrey-William Powell-who turns out to be morally and-needless to add-intellectually superior to the family whose fortunes he rescues. In a way the laugh was built into "My Man Godfrey" at the outset. Movie audiences always assumed that the rich were a ridiculously empty lot-airheads no matter how expensive their air. Not today. They don't make movies about the silly rich today, because everyone wants to be the silly rich. Why mock 'em if you want to join 'em? And the point is in this bullish season that you can join 'em. Thanks to the stock market you can buy several houses--$10,000 wristwatches, a yacht, a plane. Aristotle Onassis wanted to buy the Island of Ithaca because it was the home of Odysseus. Why not you? The Maharaja of Baroda gave his elephant $125,000 diamond earrings. How dressy is your elephant? This is not to suggest that one ought to make fun of the rich for no reason. But the rich of today offer plenty of reasons. And instead of being given the horse laugh, they are treated adoringly. Why is Bill Gates taken seriously?
BILL GATES, Microsoft: Any attempt to block the release of Windows 98 would-
ROBERT ROSENBLATT: Gates argues that he is entitled to a monopoly, and nobody hoots. How about Wayne Huizenga, who sold Blockbuster Video to Viacom and bankrolled the Florida Marlins, who won the World Series? He rewarded the team by taking it apart. That's Wayne's world. How about Nike's Phil Knight, who recently reformed his moral code so that he only hires and underpays older third world teenagers?
PHIL KNIGHT, Nike: I figured that I'd just come out and let you journalists have a look at the Great Satan up close and personal.
ROBERT ROSENBLATT: Is anybody giggling? I don't know about you, but I can't wait for another Donald Trump autobiography that tells me how brilliant he is. Nobody laughs when someone bids thousands at an auction for a bottle of wine or spends tens of millions on an apartment. When Cornelius Vanderbilt II erected "The Breakers," his summer cottage in Newport, Rhode Island, 70 rooms, bathrooms with a choice of sea water or fresh water, there was reason to howl. Now we want a copy. The New Yorker Magazine made its original reputation by deriding and envying the rich at the same time. That, I suppose, comes close to the American way of looking at great wealth, especially tastelessly-spent wealth--a little hypocritical but also understandable in a country based on capital. But if envy isn't balanced by mockery, then everyone's a fool. Only in an era without self-criticism is it not ludicrous to spend $250,000 on a car, or to pay Larry King $7 million a year. The rich are different from you and me not because they have more money but because they serve a social purpose. By their extravagances, they remind us of what is truly valuable. The best reason to make fun of the rich is to feel better about not being rich. One may be proud to stand on firmer, if poorer, ground. That is why I believe in some secret regions of the mind people wanted the Titannic to go down.
ACTOR: Iceberg right ahead.
ROBERT ROSENBLATT: They didn't want to see others die, but the Titannic was a monument to money, to excess. Of course, that was then. Now the movie, itself, is a monument to excess. So hail Bill Gates, hail Huizenga, Phil Knight, Trump, hail millionaire athletes, millionaire actors, millionaire talk show hosts, and sing that great old song, "Ain't We Got Fun," but change a line. The rich get rich and the poor get hopeful.
SONG: Ain't we got fun?
ROBERT ROSENBLATT: I'm Roger Rosenblatt.