Laughing Through the Apocalypse

At Funny Times, being liberal's never been so fun.

Raymond Lesser's door identifies him as C.E.O. -- - Chief Entertainment Officer. - Walter  Novak
Raymond Lesser's door identifies him as C.E.O. -- Chief Entertainment Officer.

It would seem to be a period of mourning for the left. For the first time since Eisenhower, Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. Funding for everything from the environment to worker safety is being slashed. And we're about to go to war.

All of which would appear to make for a glum mood at Funny Times, the monthly Cleveland Heights humor paper. This left-leaning digest of cartoons and essays has long been a darling of progressives.

The Washington Post once gushed that Funny Times may be "the best leftist magazine in America." Famous subscribers have included Steven Spielberg and Jello Biafra, former singer of the Dead Kennedys. Hillary Clinton even sent a change-of-address card when she moved from the Arkansas governor's mansion to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But despite -- or perhaps because of -- the country's conservative tenor, Funny Times' staffers are having the time of their lives.

For one, business has never been better. Launched 17 years ago as a free biweekly, the paper now counts 62,000 subscribers and grows by a few thousand each year, says Business Manager George Cratcha. Moreover, Dubya has been a boon for business. Protests against his policies -- particularly the war with Iraq -- have made for cost-efficient marketing, offering a convenient way for Funny Times to reach its target audience, which the magazine describes as "people who think too much."

"The anti-war protests are helping us gather all the like-minded people in one place for us to market to, so Bush is doing that for us!" effuses Publisher and Editor Raymond Lesser.

Bush & Co. also provide a fountain of material. Recent issues have included cartoons showing the President suggesting tax cuts as a remedy for North Korea's nuclear aspirations, the statue of Abe Lincoln spanking a bare-bottomed Trent Lott, and John Ashcroft displaying a slide of Ronald Reagan with the caption, "News Item: Ashcroft bags a funder of Bin Laden and Al-Qaida from the '80s."

"The cartoonists can't keep up with it," Lesser says.

Regular features include the Harper's Index and News of the Weird. Dave Barry and Michael Moore contribute essays, and the paper also runs The Great Indoors, the long-running humor column by former Free Times staffer Eric Broder, who recently signed on as Funny Times' associate editor.

Last year, Funny Times published its first book, The Best of the Best American Humor, a collection of the editor's favorite cartoons and columns from the past 17 years. It features stories by such luminaries as George Burns, Allen Ginsburg, and Hunter Thompson, plus cartoons by Matt Groening and Tom Tomorrow.

But not everyone appreciates the jokes. A conservative reader wrote, "Your pamphlet is not funny . . . You obviously want to ruin our country from within." It's a familiar sentiment for anyone who dared to criticize the President in the flag-embracing days following September 11. Just ask Bill Maher, who was forced off the air after he implied that people willing to blow themselves up for a cause couldn't technically be called cowards.

"It's kind of been a drag as a cartoonist, to tell the truth," says Ted Rall, whose comic Search and Destroy appears in more than 140 publications. "We're back to explaining really basic principles, like 'You're not unpatriotic if you're a Democrat.'"

Conservatives have long carped that the mainstream media are left-leaning. Though the claim is dubious -- see talk radio and cable -- it may be true when it comes to cartoonists. Rall says there's a good reason. "Conservative humor is something of an oxymoron, especially in political cartoons. Making fun of the poor and people who are being killed? Hey, God bless you if you can pull it off."

Yet liberals, too, are easily parodied as overly serious and self-important. Just look at the woodenness of Al Gore, the braying of Dennis Kucinich, or the slew of alt-weeklies, whose editorial policy might best be described as "Hear Me Roar."

"Liberals are famously a mournful and unfunny lot," says Pete Mueller, a frequent Funny Times contributor and the voice of The Onion Radio News. "It does hearten you to look at [Funny Times] and realize there are some people with some less-than-mainstream opinions out there, having fun with the idiots who run our lives."

When Bill Clinton was in office, Rush Limbaugh saw ratings skyrocket and became the media's go-to guy as the Voice of the Opposition. He surged from 56 affiliates and 156,000 listeners in the late 1980s to more than 600 stations and nearly 20 million listeners by the late '90s. No wonder. He had great material: Whitewater, Travelgate, and of course, That Intern.

Funny Times isn't expecting a Limbaugh-sized subscription bounce. Cratcha describes the paper's growth as like a "humor virus . . . slowly spreading across the land." Most new subscriptions come in around Christmas, suggesting it's a popular gift among lefties.

That's OK. Funny Times has modest ambitions. "We're doing our best to be the court jester of the left," says Lesser. "Because doing good in the world doesn't have to be so serious."