By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Political humor is a wonderful and necessary rhetorical tool in shaping our perceptions about politics and politicians.

Growing up in the 80s/90s, I was shaped in part by the many hilarious impersonations of politicians by one of America’s most notable comedic institutions: Saturday Night Live. A number of SNL’s most famous impersonations have become more ingrained in our culture than the actual politicians.

Still today, when I hear George H.W. Bush I first think of SNL’s Dana Carvey:

And Carvey again for Ross Perot:

Ross Perot

“Can. I. Finish?”

And Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis:

 

These days, it seems nearly impossible to separate Sarah Palin from Tina Fey’s brilliant impersonation of her:

Sarah Palin

When done well, political humor reveals critical truths about politicians, policies, laws, and societal injustices, all in a way that makes us laugh and makes topics a bit more palatable and approachable. Even scorching criticism can be made to seem charming in the right hands; Fey’s Palin is a good example. In some ways, so is Jimmy Fallon’s Trump impersonations, like when he played Trump with the cast of Full House.

 

Or back in the 90s when Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton stopped in McDonald’s to sneak food off of customers’ plates:

phil_hartman_clinton

In this way, humor invites a larger audience into important discussions. Upon taking over The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon was advised by his predecessor Jay Leno to lengthen his monologue because it isn’t just a source of laughter, but also as a way to inform people about the news of the day. And the same can be said for other famous sources of political humor like The Daily Show and The Onion.

However, I wonder if our round-the-clock access to social media, communication, and information has created a detrimental excess of political humor.

This week provided one possible example.

On Monday night, Donald Trump’s wife Melania spoke at the Republican National Convention. By the time I woke up early Tuesday morning, reports were posted everywhere that she had plagiarized a portion of her speech from a Michelle Obama speech. By the time I arrived at work, I had already seen countless posts across social media making fun of Melania and the situation. When I checked social media at lunch, the flood of jokes had not even slowed, nor had they when I checked social media again in the early evening. The jokes were coming from all levels: from regular folks to major publications and shows.

Not even 24 hours removed from Melania’s speech, I already thought, “Okay, the jokes have been absolutely beaten to death.”

Just to be clear, I have no allegiance or affiliation to either political party or candidate, and my example is not a veiled defense of Melania or the situation. I am all for anyone and everyone calling out any politician or any of their associates who do or say anything wrong, and I want people to be able to have productive dialogue about important issues. And that’s really a major part of my concern with the excess of humor.

Political humor, when done well and delivered in the right doses, inspires productive dialogue. But the well done doses are now surrounded by floods of other material, much of which is unfunny, and some of which can even be insulting and inflammatory, which just serves to shut down dialogue, not inspire it.

Partly, the poor material is a product of the “writers”; there is obviously a world of difference between John Q. Facebook trying to be witty and the professional writers developing material on shows like SNL, The Tonight Show, and The Daily Show.

Plus, on social media, many of the posts are just playing to the lowest common denominator to get attention and more ‘Likes’ while having zero concern for promoting thoughtfulness and dialogue.

Ultimately, the comedic congestion can turn important issues into white noise, meaning the inspired political humor that is aiming to be informative and transformative is getting partially (or completely) lost in the buzz. And if the flood of voices “kill the joke” so quickly, are people burning out on subjects before ever taking time to give the subject some proper thought and conversation?

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