Monday, January 24, 2011

Supreme Court humor

But the seminal study in this area [of Supreme Court humor], from 2005, was indeed lighthearted. It counted up how often comments from given justices were followed by the notation “(laughter)” in the official transcript, and it calculated that Justice Antonin Scalia was by that measure the funniest member of the court, followed by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

Justice Clarence Thomas beat out Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the title of least funny justice, but only by a little and aided by the fact that he never asks questions.

The old study’s author, Jay D. Wexler, a law professor at Boston University, was frank about its methodological shortcomings.

The “(laughter)” notation, he wrote, does not “distinguish between the genuine laughter brought about by truly funny or clever humor and the anxious kind of laughter that arises when one feels nervous or uncomfortable or just plain scared for the nation’s future.” ...

The new study [by Ryan Malphurs] has had respectful coverage in The Washington Post and on National Public Radio. ...

Justice Scalia again turns out to be the funniest justice, and he is again followed by Justice Breyer. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who joined the court in 2005, after the Wexler study was completed, was “squarely in third place,” Mr. Malphurs found. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who came onboard in 2006, gave Justice Ginsburg stiff competition for the role of least funny justice who talks. ...

Chief Justice Roberts has a light, witty touch, while the laughter that follows a long hypothetical question from Justice Breyer can feel like an expression of relief. Justice Scalia, by contrast, will repeat jokes mercilessly, raising questions about whether he has artificially increased his laugh count.
--Adam Liptak, NYT, on the Supreme Court laugh track

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