What’s So Funny about the 2016 Elections

Still not entirely back to blogging (teaching a full load of entirely new courses brings me back to the worst things about being a new assistant professor….) but recently I participated in a panel at Emerson College on Comedy and the 2016 Election. It was very interesting, especially listening to the professionals in comedy, and Amber Day, who has done some really nice work on politics and satire. (See her book, Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate).

There were many points raised that I found very interesting and thoughtful in different ways. A good discussion from the professionals on the importance of “punching up” rather than “punching down” in political humor. The former serves the classic and important functions of political humor — exposing the humanity, frailty, or arrogance of people in power, while the latter is just mean, and attacks the vulnerable. As one of our candidates would say, SAD!

I also found the observations of Anthony Atamanuik, a comedian who impersonates Donald Trump,  fascinating. Of course he has had to observe and pay attention to the details of Trump’s persona more than any of us (thank goodness), and what he has learned in this process is (not surprisingly) not very complimentary.

So many observers have said that young people get their political information from comedy sources and not actual news outlets. Research shows that young people who watch the political comedy also tend to be very likely to get news from those other outlets. As we  discussed on the panel, a lot of these shows require a lot of prior information to seem funny. And sometimes — most starkly in the case of  the Stephen Colbert super-PAC — the comedy drives people to seek more information elsewhere, thus serves as a good motivator for political learning and engagement.

I spent some time before the panel scouring the research literature on possible impacts of paying attention to political comedy. With a few notable exceptions, it’s a pretty unfortunate literature, based on little experiments in which some people are exposed to a show and some are not. Good try, but no scholarly cigar, kind of like some of the most basic work on political ad exposure. (Or I suppose any impact of exposure literature.) Pretest, stimulus, response. Or, more usually, non-response.

But what would we really expect? It seems to me there is a lot more to say about comedy in politics, and more good work that could be done to understand the role of comedy in politics — both its presence and its impact. As my panel colleagues who actually know more about this reminded us, laughter is a basic human response, an outcome of some basic and essential human emotions.  And political comedy is as old as politics as far as we know. Think of Aristophanes, of turn-about festivals and arts throughout history, Restoration comedy, the political caricatures of the 18th and 19th centuries, and so much more. In case anyone should think that with our current rage for incivility low humor is unprecedented, you might want to check out this 1740s caricature of the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, Robert Walpole, who was widely disliked for his supposed venality and attraction to patronage:



When I first visited England in the 1970s, I was told that the day I could laugh at half of what was in the magazine Private Eye would be the day I understood England. (Of course, since the Brexit vote I’ve doubted my understanding, or worried about it, anyway.)

All this led me to muse aloud about a counterfactual thought experiment. What would it be like if we had elections in which noone laughed? In which there was no comedy (intended or not)?  Something would be deeply and profoundly wrong. Perhaps we can start from that and build up to understand comedy, laughter, and politics.

See the news item here:  http://www.emerson.edu/news-events/emerson-college-today/whats-so-funny-about-2016-election-panel-explores-comedy-politics#.WBCYyZMrL-Y

Oh, and a couple of pros said I was pretty funny. How cool is that?

http://bit.ly/2f7syZe    @VSapiro