Poking at Power: Can Comedy be a Political Weapon?

Every joke has to start with a premise, or the idea that creates a need for laughter. The need is key — it’s the problem we’re aching to fix. Like a bulging balloon, we anticipate a pop but don’t know where it will come from. The punch-line is the needle of humor. The tighter the setup, the bigger the pop. In 2018, comics have plenty of political tension to draw from. But with corporate sponsors and mass appeal to consider, can mainstream comics push the envelope and still be considered funny?

As the lines continue to blur between satire and the discourse it confronts, the false assurance of a comic’s agreeable voice runs the risk of subduing the public’s drive to take action. The role of political comedy depends very much on the state of its audience. In today’s preternatural political landscape, where cable news mimics sports coverage and entertainment harnesses debate, modern comics have their hands full.

In the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, Dick Gregory successfully confronted racism with humor:

We tried to integrate a restaurant, and they said, “we don’t serve colored folk here,” and I said, “Well, I don’t eat colored folk nowhere. Bring me some pork chops.” And then the Ku Klux Klan came in, and the woman say, “We don’t have no pork chops,” so I say, “Well, bring me a whole fried chicken.” And then the Klan walked up to me when they put that whole fried chicken in front of me, and they say, “Whatever you do to that chicken, boy, we’re going to do to you.” So I opened up its legs and kissed it in the rump and tell you all, “Be my guest.”

Gregory’s joke is an excellent example of harnessing public pain to provide comic relief. Sigmund Freud believed that jokes provided effective means to relieve anxiety and give voice to subconscious urges. Freud described comedy as a “social process,” dependent on timing, placement, and context for effect. Gregory’s joke was not funny just because it was well crafted, although that certainly made all the difference. It was funny because it confronted the truth of its time in a way that surprised people living through the same difficult premises. But as meaningful as his comedy was, Gregory’s jokes did not change the world. “Humor can no more find the solution to race problems than it can cure cancer,” he said.

Laughter is a contagious courage, and it is often said that we make fun of our politicians because it is the only way to endure them. Comedians use political humor to help us reframe our anxieties. But in an era where the American president is a reality TV star and a persistent bad joke, American political comedy has entered new terrain altogether.

Late night talk show hosts break down in genuine tears during opening monologues; our president has threatened executive action against the “biased and unfunny” Saturday Night Live cast; Twitter spits out thousands of one-liners mere seconds after the events that inspire them; mock news debunks fake news, while journalists scramble for facts in a nation of spin. Politics may have never been worse, but comedy has never been more robust. If “jesters do oft prove prophets” as Shakespeare said, modern satire is bursting with zeal.

While there is educational value to comedy, as viewers are often more receptive to alternative ideas when they’re shrouded in a joke, it is lazy to equate satire with protest. Solutions come by way of what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. Political satire and political action evolved as complimentary siblings but are not twins. They can both be cathartic during turbulent times, but their impact was (and continues to be) notably different. Comedy offers brief respite from pain, but it’s not meant for the heavy lifting of political engagement. Expectations for it as such have an unfortunate knack of suspending comics from the very qualities that make them funny.

Today’s top comics take satire seriously as a vocabulary of change and as a platform for a higher calling. But a changed heart is not yet a vote, just as a laugh is not quite a dollar. Performance is a mutual collaboration between artist and viewer. Comedians need audience approval to stay in business, and can go to great lengths to secure it — even if it means holding back, switching gears, or doing someone else’s job.

“Free speech” is a liberty benchmark, and comics are some of its masters. It would make sense that now, in an age of acute political absurdity, we might look to familiar faces we trust to tell us it’s going to be fine. In many ways, that’s what comedy is for. But the sound of our laugher is shifting from a lighthearted giggle to a desperate groan. Changing the world is a team sport, but comics are mascots, not quarterbacks. In recent years, our celebrities have become our champions as much as they’ve been our scapegoats. A comic says what we’ve been dying to hear and — there it is, our relief. But should they cross our moral compass, we’re armed and ready online. We’ve held comedians accountable for their statements at a level we used to reserve only for our leaders.

Last year, SNL writer Katie Rich tweeted: “Barron [Trump] will be this country’s first homeschool shooter.” She was suspended from SNL and apologized publicly. Just a few months later, Donald Trump tweeted: “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man [Kim Jong Un], they won’t be around much longer!” He still has nuclear codes.

As comedian Kaytlin Bailey says, “It’s a little creepy that we’ve suddenly started holding our elected officials to the standards of comics and treating comics like they’re proposing serious policy. But that isn’t unprecedented. Political theater has always been ludicrous.”

Satire has been risky since its inception. Roman satirists were typically former slaves with no right to their country. Ranked among the infamis [“inescapable consequence” attached to certain professions such as gladiators, prostitutes, actors, and slaves], comic performers could not obtain citizenship or enjoy any benefits of the state. They peddled truth and absurdity on the streets at their own risk, with little to lose but their lives.

“Laughter could be one of the weapons of those opposed to Roman autocracy and the abuse of power,” Mary Beard writes in Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up. “One response by the disaffected was violence, conspiracy, or rebellion; another was to refuse to take it seriously.”

Early satirists performed for small crowds of people they’d most likely not see again. Today, any amateur jokester can anger millions without leaving the house. Since political comedy’s humble beginnings, truth-telling is finest when there is nothing to lose. But modern comics have everything.

“There’s a political comedy industry now,” said Mike Still, former artistic director of Los Angeles’s Improvisational and Sketch Comedy Training Center and theater, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, “[and] industry means that it needs to be bought.”

A former student himself, Still has seen political satire evolve from a sideshow act to the mainstage draw in the Trump era. “So many comedians,” he said, “have bought into this idea of ‘Resistance, Inc.’ A million talk shows are all speaking truth to power, [and] after a while, it all becomes noise. How are you going to cut through?”

Still has become a familiar face on the comedy websites CollegeHumor and FunnyOrDie. He’s appeared on nearly every major TV network as a writer, actor, and director. Still also co-hosts Hard Nation, a podcast dedicated to political comedy. But as much as he loves the form, he worries that satire has outgrown its niche.

The rapid-fire world of social media means “we already have a take on Trump’s travel ban getting overturned within two minutes of it being announced on Twitter,” he said, “For political satire to stay relevant and stand the test of time, I think good political satirists will need to take a step back and stop being so knee-jerk…Yes, we can make fun of Trump — he’s awful, he’s a buffoon — but we also need to make sure we’re satirizing the reason there’s Trump.”

The ability to make political jokes is an absolute guarantee under the First Amendment, but what’s not guaranteed is an audience. The business of comedy relies on audience approval. It’s a challenge to play the “brazen truth-teller” and deliver topical satire fast enough for people to see it on Twitter and not risk destroying one’s reputation if a joke is received the wrong way. As political comedy is branded in industry terms, jokes are consumed as a product. Comedians are creative entrepreneurs, telling jokes to survive. Approval is their paycheck.

A Roman comedian was given one life-or-death opportunity to make a handful of citizens laugh at a time. Today’s political satirists take their work to the internet, where the repercussions of bad jokes can echo eternally, and a few good jokes can win you fame and fortune. Can an industry built on such vulnerability succeed without losing its soul?

America loves its performers. Our celebrity fetish is real and harsh; we expect our role models to entertain us with supersized antics without disappointing our morals. Still recalls the now-infamous Tonight Show moment where Jimmy Fallon ruffled Trump’s hair in a friendly gesture. The bit provoked major backlash among viewers and industry fellows. Fallon later admitted that he felt devastated by the reaction on a personal level, but not from a comedy standpoint. He said that the bit was meant to be fun.

Reversing expectations is a risky move. An audience has to trust that the comic won’t misuse their attention. When a dumpster fire explodes, sometimes it’s better to point and laugh than to choreograph intricate dance moves around it. Humor engages negative feelings by underlining the absurd. But when the event itself is ridiculous, a good joke can be as simple as telling the truth. This may appear simple, but it’s not. It’s easier to succumb to silliness and wild antics to distract viewers than it is to lean into their pain. Traditionally, viewers want entertainers to relieve their tension, not amplify it. But in an unprecedented political era, satire has become anything but traditional.

On the day after the 2016 election, Samantha Bee did not hold back. Rather than making light of or distracting from the unprecedented rise of Donald Trump, her jokes leaned into the outrage directly. She admitted that her writers were not in a “funny mood,” and showed viewers a script submission that merely contained a long “AAAAA,” random symbols, and a series of curse words. It was funny because it was true, but that didn’t make the job easy.

To those who would assume that political comics were privately happy Trump won because of the potential material, Bee argued: “No, no, no, shut up! Jokes don’t write themselves. Jews write jokes. And they are scared shitless.” She then cut to a photo of her comedy writers, miserable with the state of the world. Bee, a skilled comic, certainly knows how to deliver a joke. In this case, she spurred us to laugh at serious things.

Surely, comics have a right to be angry. In her Netflix special, Nanette, Tasmanian comic Hannah Gadsby brings the intersection of comedy and injustice into startling focus, repeatedly expressing her desire to quit comedy because it requires her to suppress the truth for a laugh. There is a great deal of hilarity in the show, but as a whole it morphs from her standard self-deprecating humor to a heart-splitting, real-life drama. Viewers looking for a funny escape had another thing coming.

This tension is yours. I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like, because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all of the time. It is dangerous to be different.

Her mastery as a performer and the urgency of her speech keeps viewers engaged, not alienated. Gadsby doesn’t need audience approval anymore, not if she’s quitting comedy. Clued in, an audience can respect that shift. This frees her to take a step back from the punchline and highlight the whole truth as she sees it. With no one left to please, Gadsby exacts her highest intention: to inspire empathy and motivate change. But in practice, her show defies categorization as solely comedic. Nanette is a subversive, dramatic protest performance, applauded by comics and viewers alike. Are works like these exceptions to the old rules of comedy, or have we set a new standard?

¤

Following the Charlottesville riots in 2017, nearly every major late night host had a serious message to share. As a reflection of the world, comedy was at loss for a laugh: Hundreds of racist Americans had marched in a shocking display; one woman was dead and 33 were injured in a weekend of hate. Meanwhile, millions of fearful Americans struggled to come to terms with the state of things and waited for their leaders to speak. But the President of the United States would say nothing to condemn the perpetrators directly, blaming “many sides.”

When the President misuses his platform, what’s a late night TV host to do?

“The leader of our country is called the president because he’s supposed to preside over society,” Seth Meyers said on Late Night. “His job is to lead, to cajole, to scold, to correct our path, to lift up what is good about us and to absolutely and unequivocally and immediately condemn what is evil in us. And if he does not do that, if he does not preside over our society, then he is not a president.”

Judging by Meyers’ definition of presidential behavior, comedians are doing Trump’s job. And who can blame them? If the world’s most powerful leader does not “lift up what is good” and “condemn what is evil,” who will?

Steven Colbert said on The Late Show:

The company that makes Tiki torches released a statement saying, quote: “Tiki brand is not associated in any way with the events that took place in Charlottesville and are deeply saddened and disappointed. Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friend connect with each other at home in their yard.” Yes. Give it up. I gotta say, it’s pretty troubling when a back-yard decoration company comes out swinging harder against Nazis than the President of the United States. Your move, lawn flamingos!

Comedy is a salve, not a bandage. The hosts of late night know this. But influence is power, and any platform comes with some measure of responsibility. Politicians have voters, and comedians have viewers. Both groups are one and the same. When a human need goes unmet in one sphere, one might seek it out in another.

But as comedians step up in ways that some politicians might not, one would benefit by remembering that this is not the norm. If comedians can’t do their jobs (be funny) because the state of the world is too sad, it may be our turn to take the mantle. Laughter helps, but action saves. Call a senator, sign petitions, and explore the reasoning behind opposing views. Vote now and laugh later. Comedy only goes so far. Jesters may prove prophets, but it is wrong to expect them to do that full time.

“At the Emmy’s [in 2017], everybody was so proud of themselves and patting each other on the back,” Still says. “I lost a lot of faith in that day. The joke I wanted to make on Twitter, but didn’t, was: “The Emmy for Political Comedy That Was Able to Stop Trump went un-awarded again this year.” Still argues that while taking a stand against Trump is important, comedians lessen their impact and risk diluting themselves for the sake of mass appeal and relevancy.

This brings Dick Gregory to mind once more, as a paragon of comedy and activism. His political jokes were groundbreaking, but his acts of protest brought serious change. He participated in countless hunger strikes and demonstrations throughout the civil rights movement, and spoke out on serious issues (including Trump) until his death. After Gregory’s passing in 2017, Neil deGrasse Tyson perhaps remembered his comedy best, as “fuel to fight for justice in an unjust world.”

As modern democracy frays at its edges, so does the fourth wall. Our pantheon of funny celebrities are “just like us” in that they’re doing what they can with what they have. But prophets and jesters comment on the future; it isn’t their job to change it. Comedians joke about difficult things because it gives us the strength to take action. At its best and least, it helps. We know the world is in a bad place when our funniest icons break down in tears, but perhaps it’s time to change the way we perceive their influence and purpose to us — not as our role models on the front lines of political change, but as pain relievers and fuel suppliers in our fight to make things better. Laughter isn’t a political weapon, but it can empower our action.

FacebookTwitterEmail