The politics of comedy

Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

I had the pleasure of learning about John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight in my High School English class. I was taken aback by how hilarious and informative the short HBO segments could be all the while stoking concern about a social issue that I was formerly ignorant about. I distinctly remember my teacher talking about how it was the comedy that made politics and policy more accessible to everyday people. I quickly accepted this hypothesis and never questioned it until recently.

Political comedy talk shows are commonplace today. Even late-night talk shows have become more engaged with political commentary. With the election of Donald Trump, it seems insensible for TV personalities to not make a smart quip about the president. A new wave of YouTube pundits and meme pages have also risen to provide their snarky remarks on political affairs.

With this new widespread accessibility to politics for the average Joe through the realm of comedy, it is inevitable that the politically engaged would shift in demographics. Staying entertained and informed appears to be a win-win for the American people.

However, hardly anyone would say that the political process has become more pleasant or less corrosive for everyday participants. Some would blame Trump but there may be a more holistic answer. The rising tide of political comedy is also not solely to blame but is a piece that is tightly correlated with many pieces in this saga of political corrosion in the United States.

Firstly, skepticism is due to any political commentator or actor who has a financial interest in political coverage. This basically includes everybody except your earnest Grandma on Facebook and maybe NPR. Newspaper, cable television, late-night talk show hosts, all have an incentive to capture as much attention as possible for as long as possible. So, the incentives regarding political comedy, in particular, are already distorted to favor filling a certain niche or highlight/fabricate the clearly outrageous.

Even for non-comedic political pundits, network executives understand that even the news coverage of politics can be positioned in a way to be entertaining. The New York Times may publish an article about some drama between a lobbying firm and Congressperson. This type of coverage may be newsworthy in itself, but it may be deliberately highlighted for its entertainment value as well.

It is this perverse incentive that skews political coverage. Unbeknownst to voters, who behave more like consumers, this is what they want. Political coverage, by its very nature, will always skew towards providing what people want versus want they need. Thankfully, want consumers/voters want is at least partially tied to what they need. For example, coverage of a contentious vote on a bill in Congress may be overly dramatized and emotionally charged but it still provides a partial semblance of informative reporting.

Entertaining political coverage at its extreme is in the form of Last Week Tonight, The Daily Show, and meme pages. Perhaps it is this type of reporting and opining that has gone too far. While it is informative and achieves to inform political participants, who may have otherwise been disengaged, perhaps the corrosive effects of this form are not worth it when alternatives are available.

This is not to say that these programs have not had a “positive” real-world impact. I am a progressive on numerous policy issues and the policy effects that John Oliver has had are quite good from my perspective. Oliver wields true power through his program, and it can be harnessed for tremendous good. There may not be a one-to-one conservative example, but the idea still stands.

The issue is not with the analysis and meat of the content. The true corrosion occurs culturally through the medium of irreverent comedy. While Oliver’s segments are littered with analysis and expert opinions, they are equally littered with irreverence and a form of elitism.

Comedy by its nature laughs in the face of the sacred. It desires to shed light on the absurd and affirms to the soul what it deems as ridiculous. However, there ought to be limits. Sometimes we catch ourselves laughing at what is exceedingly dark. People will literally say, “I’m probably going to hell for laughing at this, but…” Some comedians will unironically argue that there shouldn’t be limits on comedy because then everything can be arbitrarily condemned as something people shouldn’t joke about. This is a clearly bad take and many of these comedians would be quick to retract such nonsense if they had to deeply confront the traumas and suffering they joke of or had to relive the very trauma that they speak of in their stand-up sketches.

This is not to say that all comedy is bad. Comedy rightly marginalizes the trivial and ridiculous. It provides catharsis and perspective for coping with what is truly painful. However, it clearly has its limits.

It is hard to discern what ought to be laughed at in politics today and what ought to lead to somberness. Politics has become simply too painful that it is much easier to be irreverent of all perspectives and to not take oneself too seriously. Unfortunately, as we still need to navigate decision making within the most powerful nation on Earth, a complete dismissal of seriousness is not an option.

But if comedic political information allows voters to make seriously informed decisions, what is the problem with political comedy? It is the cultivation of irreverence that leads to delusion and hubris. The elitism in Oliver’s segments is a form of cultural elitism. The liberal ideology is propped up not only by facts and analysis but by the slaughtering of conservative strawmen. How can there be any serious rebuttal or dialogue when the representatives of the other side are called childish names and sexual taglines are issued to names?

To be fair, Oliver does seem to make a good faith effort in presenting the conservative viewpoint. However, the result of such coverage is not a good faith attitude within viewers. Viewers are trained to be visceral in their name-calling. They are rewarded among their tribe for how silly they can portray the other side. Polarization and communication collapse is the obvious and inevitable result when political comedy takes up such a dominant position in political coverage.

This is the delusion of pride. Visceral comedy is designed to not only be irreverent with what are truly ridiculous ideas and policy but it goes ahead and says that the people who believe such ideas ARE ridiculous.

I’ll be the first to admit that people are crazy. But our politics cannot stop there. The craziest and most ridiculous people are also those who are the most in need of truth. They need to be pulled out of delusion and then some. Hillbilly caricatures are funny and are designed to demonstrate disdain for certain types of rural conservatives but cannot be how we literally view and treat said “hillbillies.” This is not to say that some types of people ought to be reasoned with but there absolutely cannot be any sense of superiority. Elsewise, we become victims of a different kind of delusion.

As a practical matter, politics breakdown when we make inappropriate distinctions amongst ourselves through visceral jesting. The other side may be wholly unreasonable but childish name-calling is not driving them towards reasonableness.

Should political comedy shows simply close shop? Perhaps not. There is a way to be comedic and appropriately reverent. I think many shows are needlessly condescending where the show hosts give off a sense of moral and intellectual superiority. This is ironic as they are hardly being brave (conservative and liberal) in that they cover topics that nicely fit into the ideological camp of the day.

Should we stop watching political comedy? Depends. If you are cognizant that what you are receiving is the pinnacle of political bias and you are willing to practice caution in how the comedy affects your attitude towards others, then shows like Last Week Tonight can be powerfully informative. But with all things capitalism, your attention, and your advertising dollar pay for this type of programming.

In sum, as a society, we ought to be critical of how deeply an entertainment-centric ethos has immersed political coverage. Diving further into this experiment hardly seems like a good idea for the health of the nation. We will lose some political participants who only participate in the political process due to the plethora of comedic and entertainment political programming. In that case, we ought to consider whether we want such a person participating in the political process in the first place.

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