Sunday, February 19, 2017

A punchline and the truth: some thoughts on political comedy

It is a common view that the chief unifying element of all comedy is truth. Conduct an experiment: think of a comedian’s particular routine that you appreciate, or even any single joke that is in your own quiver of available party tricks, and consider it in terms of its function as a courier of truth. Quite nearly every comedy category, and indeed very nearly every joke you will be able to think of serves in at least partial support of this notion, right down to humor that trades on racial, ethnic and heritage stereotypes.

The underlying “truth” of Polish jokes is that Poles are stupid, the underlying “truth” of Hispanic jokes is that Latinos are lazy, and the underlying “truth” of black jokes is that they are, well, you name it. Flip that ugly coin over and you can instead illuminate a righteous and difficult truth: when Robin Williams was asked on a German radio show by a German radio host why there were no great German comedians, Williams answered, “Because you killed them all.” The underlying truths here are that a disproportionate percentage of Jews are comedians and that Hitler’s Germany perpetrated a Jewish genocide. From its ugliest ascriptions of what is truthful to courageous examples of plainly speaking the truths of history’s greatest crimes, comedy that reaffirms an existing truth in the listener’s mind can for good or ill deliver a powerful strike to the funny bone.

I was having this discussion with a friend, and he offered the hardly debatable observation that the left has always been better at using comedy to promote their view of the truth than the right. And why is that? Is it because more of the truth is on their side? Or, is it merely that progressivism by its very nature is required to illuminate the folly of the status quo? Some elements of both of these explanations are perhaps present, but the larger factor I see is a preference of most audiences for folly to be pointed out on those who aren’t already suffering. Cruel comedy can work, but only if the joke’s butt is perceived as being able to survive the treatment. This is why comedy roasts work. The person in the hot seat is typically a successful celebrity, and whatever public gaffe is going to be rubbed in their face has already been there before and can be processed anew without it appearing to be a gratuitous swipe.

Pretend for a moment to appreciate slapstick and think that a man slipping on a banana peel is funny. Now, which scenario makes it just a bit funnier: if the man slipping on the banana peel is wearing a silk suit and a cravat, or if the man slipping on the banana peel has a seeing-eye dog? The answer is obvious. We much prefer the injury coming to a fellow who has other deep advantages in life.

We don’t take particular delight in the further degradation of the already downtrodden. The right contains industrialists, bankers and men in silk suits and cravats, and the truths that a corporatist comedy orientation would have to take would be against its antagonists: environmental advocates, university professors, scientists, intellectuals, the myriad poor and various legions of the hapless. Not a lot of laughs there. For most people, none of those categories provide quite the satisfaction of our friend in the silk suit making that three-point landing. Now if the seeing-eye dog could slip on the banana peel, you'd have some irony, but with the average person's preference that the recipients of their schadenfreude be able to withstand the storm, along with dogs in general being off limits as a joke's ultimate victim, we will always prefer the pratfalls of the rich and famous.

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