Fresh Eyes: The Iron Rule of comedy, Charlotte edition

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by Brad Krantz

The great comedian and the original host of “The Tonight Show,” Steve Allen, was quoted in the New Yorker in 1958 as the guy who came up with the equation tragedy+time=comedy. But these days there’s not much of an allowance for time. The window gets smaller and smaller. Always remembering to think before you tweet or post or say something, you may suddenly be a headline you never wanted to be with your job on the line.

When I first heard the news about then-Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon getting a real life American Hustle job from the FBI last Wednesday afternoon, my first thought was, “How will I handle this important story on the air tonight?” One of the great things about doing talk radio is the chance to be first-in to be able to deal with a big, breaking story like this on the premier radio station in Charlotte, WBT (1110 AM)… the station that’s been on the air since Warren Harding was president…. the place that folks still turn to in a crisis, natural or political, even in an age of blanket social media.

Stories like this evolve and move faster than ever, and by the time Britt Whitmire and I took to the air at 6:05 p.m., I declared, “There’s no way this guy lasts in office through Friday.”  I was right but wrong. We learned of his actual resignation by 7:30. One has to quickly discern the true nature of the “crisis,” and after 37 years on the air, my judgement was simple: comedy tonight. After a tragedy, the question is always asked, “Too soon?” But that time frame has been shrinking for a long time, and I’d bet the line, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” was uttered closer to April 15, 1865 than we think.

The bagging of a dishonest politician, additionally, is hardly a tragedy deserving of the kind of truly serious approach one would take after a school shooting or a terrorist bombing or a fatal mudslide or the disappearing plane. This was just another greedy, amoral politician who got caught, and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to get the first laugh from all this. A week later, I’m glad we didn’t treat this with the reverence of a presidential assassination, when it’s one guy inflicting a wound on himself.

On page 4 of the 42-page FBI complaint document, there are details of a dinner that Patrick Cannon (still a year away from becoming mayor of Charlotte) had with an undercover agent, where they discussed the “developer/investor’s” prospective $12,500 “investment” in Cannon’s supposedly breakthrough feminine hygiene product named “HERS,” in exchange for future help with permits, zoning, and/or ABC issues. So many questions, so few answers, including my first one: Are there REALLY some feminine hygiene issues still out there waiting to be solved by a male politician from Charlotte? No Pat McCrory or even Bill Clinton jokes here, please.

My second question was this: Couldn’t Cannon have come up with a better name than HERS? Of course he could’ve. He need not have looked very far. He could have just gotten out a map and looked at the Charlotte suburbs. Prospective product names could have easily been any of these: Mint Hill… Pineville… Love Valley (Iredell County 0… Mount Pleasant (Cabarrus County)… Cherryville… Mount Holly. Wouldn’t Aunt Bee have been the perfect spokeslady for it?  “For when you need a bit of sprucing up… down there.  Do what Bee does… pick up some Mint Hill Spray, today!”

Of course, it’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback this Saga of Stupidity, asking why he did it. We know Rule No. 1 for these stories is that the person thinks they’re smart enough or special enough to get away with it, having no apparent regard for their family and everyone who ever had an ounce of faith in them. Everything else comes second. Which brought me to the idea of quickly assembling a Sour Sixteen Bracket of Sleaze.

First round matchups included No. 1 seed Spiro Agnew taking on Scooter Libby, Patrick Cannon (late entry) going up against Virginia’s Bob McDonnell in the charged-but-not-yet-convicted division, No. 2 seed Marion Barry against NC’s Meg Scott Phipps, and local blockbuster grudge match Jim Black vs Mike Easley. Bracketology is an inexact science, and I inadvertently left Dick Nixon out of the tournament. My apologies to his fan base.

Which reminds me of the dumbest caller of that day, who started out, “You know guys, this is nothing new, he’s not the first….”  We cut him off, hung up on him for playing the role of Too Serious Geezer Cliche Caller who has no idea he’s not informing anyone of anything. 2014 Version of the Comedy Equation of Immediacy:  tragedy+time=possible missed opportunity for comedy. But you gotta know the territory! You never want to find yourself having to retract or apologize. The Patrick Cannon Instant Resignation Story was ripe from the minute it broke.