Tag Archives: Political Humor

Humor in the Age of Trump

Tracy Wuster

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Having been distracted from the study of humor by the spectacle of politics for the past six months to a year, I have yet to put together a cogent response to the question of the role of humor in the age of Trump.  For many, it seems, there is little to laugh at in such a time–at least not the laughter of pleasure or enjoyment.  The humor that comes with satire, yes, but I have not seen much pro-Trump humor.  Maybe I am not looking in the right place.

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Here I want to gather and direct you to a few pieces that I have found interesting on humor and its role now.  Please feel free to direct us toward others in the comments.

LAUGHTER IN THE AGE OF TRUMP 

MAGGIE HENNEFELD / UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

…Comedy, however spiteful, has always possessed a special power to reveal that the emperor has no clothes. Satire defeats fear with laughter. As Jon Stewart put it in a 2010 MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow—about the destructive impact of news entertainment on journalistic standards—what “satire does best…is articulate an intangible feeling that people are having, bring it into focus, say you’re not alone. It’s a real feeling. It’s maybe even a positive feeling, a hopeful feeling.”3 Unlike the smug laughter of cynical disavowal, the stinging laughter of pointed satire can actively participate in transforming our perception of reality. Since reality is a construct—equal parts unknown trauma and Celebrity Apprentice—it is therefore ripe for the molding, and ours for the seizing….

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“Hold on—that’s a trash fire. Over there is Trump’s Inauguration speech.”

LETTER TO AMERICA
BY MICHAEL P. BRANCH

…First of all, America, never forget the immense power of humor to expose misguided values and destructive practices. Satire is as vital and as useful now as it was when Aristophanes ragged on Socrates in The Clouds back in 423 BC. You remember that gut buster, don’t you? Well, we still have plenty to learn from Swift and Johnson, Bierce and Twain, Orwell and Huxley. Satire is not only funny but also enormously forceful and effective—and, human nature being what it is, the comic exposure of vice and folly has the added benefit of offering great job security. America, I know you feel like you’re on the defensive, that even as you try to inspire, persuade, and reform, you secretly fear that you are now a voice crying in the wilderness. The satirist, by contrast, remains on the offensive, challenging established power structures, revealing their absurdity or violence, forcing villains to account for themselves. Orwell was right that “Every joke is a tiny revolution,” because satirical humor is the enemy of established power—especially power that lacks moral leadership. The satirist’s work is the serious business of striking into that troubling gap between what our ideology promises and the often disappointing outcomes our choices actually produce. We don’t call them “punch” lines for nothing….

politicalcorrectness

Political Correctness Isn’t Killing Comedy, It’s Making It Better

Diversity Among Comedians and Audiences Makes Room for More Laughs

BY REBECCA KREFTING

…What’s notable about these new, louder voices is that they aren’t stifling free speech (that bludgeon so often used by incorrectness defenders). They’re creating more. Comics such as Jim Norton may criticize the internet outrage gang for spending too much time railing about matters that are inconsequential, namely jokes told by comics. Upon closer examination, however, a lot of these “petty” conversations speak to issues of great significance in our society like how we portray and treat historically disenfranchised groups.

Does some of the outrage go too far? Yes. Will fear of backlash lead to some performers self-censoring their material? Perhaps. (Though you’ll note that most of these complainers aren’t exactly being silenced.) But it’s a false presumption that being more mindful when it comes to producing humor that punches down will somehow create comedy that’s less funny. If anything, it makes it smarter….

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Comedians in the Age of Trump: Forget Your Stupid Toupee Jokes

But these sorts of jokes about him fail to even begin countering the disastrous impact he’ll have upon the world. Because the problem isn’t that he’s unmockable; it’s that he’s too dangerous to simply mock. The saint of the so-called “alt-right,” the man who “tells it like it is,” supports free speech only so long as he isn’t the butt of it. His rhetoric is grounded in hate. But what’s most dangerous is that his entire identity is grounded in the paranoid idea that he, a millionaire who answers to no one — the very definition of a punch-up comedy target — is somehow the victim, and that making fun of him is in fact punching down. The best comedy imagines new, better worlds by laughing at the old, current one. But how do we laugh at this world when it’s run by a man who not only can’t take a joke but would be giddy at the prospect of taking away our right to make them at all?

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Clinton vs. Trump Debate #1: A Humorous Primer

It’s here.  The event of the century.  The one we’ve all been waiting for with dread.

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

A selection of humor to help you prepare:

Trump Planning To Throw Lie About Immigrant Crime Rate Out There Early In Debate To Gauge How Much He Can Get Away With

HEMPSTEAD, NY—Saying he would probably introduce the falsehood in his opening statement or perhaps during his response to the night’s first question, Republican nominee Donald Trump reported Monday he was planning to throw out a blatant lie about the level of crime committed by immigrants early in the first presidential debate to gauge how much he’d be allowed to get away with.  More…

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

MORE AMERICANS EXPECTED TO SELF-MEDICATE THAN FOR ANY OTHER DEBATE IN HISTORY

With over a hundred million people projected to watch the debate, roughly sixty million of them will be barely sentient after ingesting what they deem to be the necessary dose of intoxicants.  More…

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

Blindfolded Clinton Invites Debate Coaches To Attack Her With Talking Points From All Sides

Standing slightly crouched with her fists raised up in front of her in the middle of her campaign office’s mock stage, a blindfolded Hillary Clinton reportedly implored her high-level staffers to attack her with talking points from all sides Wednesday in preparation for next week’s first presidential debate.  More…

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

TRUMP WARNS THAT CLINTON WILL RIG DEBATE BY USING FACTS

“You just watch, folks,” Trump told supporters in Toledo, Ohio. “Crooked Hillary is going to slip in little facts all night long, and that’s how she’s going to try to rig the thing.”  More…

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

Stay safe out there.

Poll: 89% Of Debate Viewers Tuning In Solely To See Whether Roof Collapses

“Of the 2,000 individuals surveyed, we found that nearly nine in 10 said they would be watching tonight’s debate on the off-chance that they might get to witness the roof of Hofstra University’s Hagedorn Hall suddenly cave in and crush the nominees for president,” said Quinnipiac spokesman Michael Jovan.

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Lester Holt Begins Debate By Reminding Audience These The Candidates They Chose

“So, just as a recap: You had numerous options and a full year to decide on the candidates you wanted to be your next president, and these were the two you picked. These two. Right here. All right, now let’s begin.”

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The Comedy of the Black Republican

While I am currently working on political ideology on entertainment television in the 1970s, I do enjoy watching more contemporary television as well. Often, however, I am struck by how apolitical network television entertainment today is compared to the 1970s. In fact, the 1970s constitute a very peculiar period in network television. Especially comedies reveled in a new politically relevant humor, and the ratings ensured them leeway. But by the 1980s, the proliferation and weight of a wide array of interest groups had hampered the comedic freedom. Modern Family recently spent a story arch on Claire (Julie Bowen), one of the main characters, running for city council. Yet, her partisan alignment was never identified. This tactic is quite common in an industry that strives for as wide an audience as possible. There are few, if any, upsides in offending parts of your audience with partisan identification.

This is why I was so surprised to come across an episode of the ABC sitcom Black-ish revolving entirely around the idea of the Black Republican. The episode starts with Dre (Anthony Anderson) stipulating facts of life, including:

 “Black people aren’t Republicans, we just aren’t. We vote for Democrats. And it’s not just an Obama thing […] black people also overwhelmingly backed this guy [photo of Dukakis in a tank], this guy [photo of Al Gore kissing Hillary Clinton], hell 91% of black people voted for this guy [photo of Walter Mondale holding boxing gloves]. Fact: 91% of Walter Mondale’s family didn’t vote for Walter Mondale. Sure, the other side may trot out a token black face every now and again, but the fact of the matter is being a black Republican is something we just don’t do.”

The show often deals with perceived cultural differences between black Americans and white Americans, Continue reading →

Late-Night Campaigning: Presidential Elections and Late Night Television

Since the days the Toast of the Town and the Texaco Star Theater late-night talk shows have, under the guidance of television legends like Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin, evolved into a humor institution in the United States. Late-night talk shows enjoy a very public and influential position in American life, which is why controversies within the subject have such a significant news value. When Carson, the King of Late Night, quit the choice of replacement caused a rift between Jay Leno and David Letterman that was covered by the press and actually resulted in a HBO film adaptation. Some two decades later, when Leno asked for his show back months after retiring and handing the show over to Conan O’Brien, the fight was again fought out in public. Given their roles as the nation’s public humor institutions, late-night talk shows are also attractive for presidential candidates hoping to form their image in a light setting.

Back in 2012 President Barack Obama joined Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show for an interview and a segment called Slow Jam the News, where he recited news while Fallon provided comedic commentary and his house band The Roots provided a smooth musical soundtrack. The appearance was hailed by the audience but criticized by conservative commentators. Gretchen Carlson on Fox News lamented how the appearance “lowers the status of the office” and called it “nutso”.

Similarly, when Obama recently visited Jimmy Kimmel Live! he participated in one of the show’s most popular comedy segments: Mean Tweets. The bit is very simple, a celebrity reads actual negative messages directed at them on Twitter while Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. plays in the background. While the appearance was incredibly popular, drawing millions of views on YouTube, some found it unworthy of the presidency.

johnnylocke • 7 months ago

When will we get a President who is more like a behind the scenes CEO and not a megalomaniacal elected dictator obsessed with fame and public image?”

Yet late-night television appearances have long been a part of the political sphere. Going back to 1960, both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon visited Jack Paar on the Tonight Show. Ronald Reagan appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the run-up to his campaign to unseat Gerald Ford as the Republican nominee in 1976. When Bill Clinton came on The Arsenio Hall Show and showed off his saxophone talent, political commentators accused him of demeaning the presidency, yet the appearance came to shape his image as a relatable leader. The same quality helped George W. Bush 8 years later, as he showed off his folksy side in late-night chats.

Like it or not late-night television is an appreciated domain for politicians seeking or holding the highest office. This has been especially clear this autumn as the race for the 2016 election is moving into high gear. Since the end of August a presidential contender has appeared on one of the main late-night talk shows a total of 14 times (as of October 28, 2015). The number can be viewed as both high (roughly every third night of late-night, there is a candidate campaigning) and low (when combining the Democratic and Republican fields the candidates, including the ones who have now dropped out, exceed twenty). There is clear patterns visible in these appearances; the bulk of them are on Stephen Colbert’s new Late Show (5) or Comedy Central’s two late-night shows (3). Neither James Corden nor Conan O’Brien have hosted any candidates this fall and Kimmel has only had Bernie Sanders on. It is clear that Colbert is staying with what he knows and is making his domain one far more political than his late-night competition (besides the presidential candidates he has hosted the First Lady, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senators John McCain and Elizabeth Warren, and even Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer). Despite the far broader Republican field they have only one more appearance on late-night thus far this autumn, with five candidates appearing twice; Secretary Hillary Clinton, Governor Martin O’Malley, Senator Bernie Sanders, Governor Chris Christie, and of course Donald Trump.

With the exception of the late-night veteran Trump, the only candidate from the conservative wing who has entered the lion’s den is Senator Ted Cruz. For late-night remains a space that can be uncomfortable for conservatives, and indeed Cruz was booed by the studio audience for his conservative views. Stephen Colbert pleaded with the audience to show Cruz respect as an invited guest and has taken decisive steps for partisan balance among his guests. But it is clear that the arena is far more risky for conservative candidates than moderate or liberal ones.

For more commentary on the 2016 elections, check out the interdisciplinary election podcast Campaign Context at www.campaigncontext.wordpress.com.

“There you go again”: Humor in Presidential Debates

In early August, Fox News and Facebook organized the most watched primary debate ever, in Cleveland, Ohio, where 17 Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in two debates in hope of emerging as the star of the field. The pundits are still out on who exactly ”won” the debate, curiously there seems to be something of a correlation between the ideology of the pundit and whom they declare the winner. Among much post-debate think-pieces, media bickering, and inappropriate comments by Donald Trump, the perhaps best, and certainly funniest, piece was a bit by Funny or Die featuring kids reenacting the debate.

Jimmy Margulies cartoon on the Republican Debate

Jimmy Margulies cartoon on the Republican Debate

Since presidential debates became a staple of the election season following the 1976 debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, they have been the source of much comedy fodder. Saturday Night Live has over the years, since 1976, provided such gems as this Bush-Clinton-Perot debate, focused on Arkansas as backwater, this Gore-Bush sketch, Will Ferrell as Bush became a long-time favorite, and the instant classics of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, like this. The Funny and Die bit, however, highlights the inherent humor in the actual debates. For while it might be more fun to just catch Dave Letterman’s recap of the debates than actually watching hours of political posturing, even the politicians drop some funny lines.

Historically, the presidential debates debuted with the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, but as both Lyndon Johnson and Nixon then avoided debates in their 1964, 1968 and 1972 runs respectively it wasn’t until the 1976 campaign they returned. Since then they have been a crucial part of any election cycle, including the primary cycles. The humor in presidential debates consists mainly of inadvertent gaffes or advertent zingers. The perhaps foremost example of the first category dates back to the 1976 debate where incumbent president Gerald Ford claimed there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Max Frankel of the New York Times, serving on the panel of moderators, can barely conceal his grin as he in disbelief asks if the president is actually saying Eastern Europe is not within the Soviet sphere of influence. The blunder by Ford enhanced the impression of him as somewhat dim, and was used to great extent by the Carter campaign. A more recent example of a humorous debate mistake would be Rick Perry’s inability, in a Republican primary debate in 2012, to remember the third government agency he would do away with if elected to the White House. Falling back on his Texan charm Perry tried to brush it aside with a nonchalant “oops”, which only made the whole exchange sillier. Speaking of silly, Mitt Romney’s attempt at humor when proposing to cut funding to PBS, saying that he likes Big Bird (of Sesame Street fame) but would still axe it, also misfired as it gave more than ample ammunition to editorial cartoonists, meme-ers, and comedians all over the country.

Romney, Debate, PBS, Big Bird, Jim Lehrer, political cartoon

Jeff Danziger cartoon of Mitt Romney proposing to cut funding to PBS.

When the candidates in the debates are consciously humorous it is more often by a joke on the opponents account, a zinger. These certainly seem to have decreased in recent years, and the defining debate zinger remains one from 1988. Irritated of continuing criticism of his inexperience, vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate explained that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy had when he sought the presidency in 1960. His opponent, long-serving Texan Senator Lloyd Bentsen, saw his chance for a put down and clearly took pleasure in delivering the zinger of the century. “I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”, Bentsen replied with a smile hardly hidden. Increasing the comedy, Quayle’s face dropped to the floor and clearly hurt he said the comment was uncalled for. Bentsen’s comment was immediately viewed as bold; if he wasn’t crossing a line he was at least approaching that line. The risk with crossing the line is that you come off as mean, which is a reason most of the best zingers hail from vice presidential debates – the designated hatchet men. Back in 1976 Republican vice presidential candidate Bob Dole showed off a sharp wit, repeatedly making cracks about his opponent Walter Mondale and presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. Viewers found Dole lacking in seriousness and coming off as a wisecracker, making him unappealing.

Ross Perot, debating with Bush and Clinton in 1992, similarly highlighted his comedic chops with repeated jokes and zingers. As a candidate from outside the political establishment the strategy was risky, it was crucial for him to appear presidential, and ultimately a failure. “It’s nice that someone has some humor and lightens things up, but now it seems like every opportunity he had to speak he had a quick one-liner”, was the verdict of one focus group. The risk of not appearing responsible and mature enough for the White House actually led the naturally witty John F. Kennedy to tone down his humor in the 1960 debates. As Kennedy was struggling with the perception of him as too young and his reputation as witty aldready widely appreciated the strategy seemed good. Still, sense of humor remains a key factor for voters in determining the character of a candidate, not to mention likability. Moreover, a well delivered zinger or joke is almost certain to reach a larger audience by making it to post-debate coverage – especially on television and today YouTube. To find a balance is vital, yet difficult.

The only president who ever truly mastered humor in presidential debates was Ronald Reagan. “The Great Communicator” had a good sense of humor and a background in delivering lines and presenting himself appealingly. In 1980, as Jimmy Carter laid out his case against Reagan, he smiled confidently and good-naturedly said “there you go again” before defending himself. The almost laughing Reagan uttering the “there you go again” is as close to iconic as presidential debate moments get. It was a part of Reagan’s debate strategy to throw Carter off with humor and smiles. When facing Mondale four years later, Reagan delivered another classic when he ironically answered a question by promising not to make his opponents age an issue of the campaign – his own age was of course what had been questioned in recent weeks. The joke not only drew large laughs from the crowd but from the moderator and Mondale, again highlighting Reagan’s affable personality. By mixing self-deprecation with irony and a message, Reagan showed off presidential debate humor at its best; if even the opponent is getting a good laugh you know you’re doing something right. Apropos irony, we still have some twenty debates in the 2016 cycle to look forward to!

For more commentary on the 2016 elections, check out the interdisciplinary election podcast Campaign Context at www.campaigncontext.wordpress.com.

Packaging the Presidency, with Laughter

Even though it is still some 16 months to the 2016 presidential elections the campaign is already well under way with most candidates officially declared as candidates. With any presidential campaign comes great humor, something Jon Stewart has brilliantly reminded us of for the last 16 years. One aspect of the campaigns which often provide a few chuckles are election adverts. Most of these laughs seem to be inadvertent, like that of Senator Ted Cruz who claimed to almost have fallen out of his chair laughing when he saw a pro-Hillary ad made by a Super PACs in which an unidentified cowboy sang a country song about standing with Hillary. Or when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released video material online in 2014, apparently for the use of Super PACs, and Jon Stewart pounced on the opportunity to create the trending hashtag “mcconnelling” where the video is set to a humorous choice of music. In her authoritative book on presidential campaign advertising Kathleen Hall Jamieson points out an earlier example where Eisenhower proclaimed that his wife, Mamie, “gets after me about the high cost of living. It’s another reason why I say, it’s time for a change.”

Yet, as long as there has been political television ads, there has also been attempts at deliberatively funny election ads. Among the first is an ad by Adlai Stevenson’s campaign in 1952 where he suggests a bromance between the moderate Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower and defeated conservative candidate Robert A. Taft. The ad is meant to link the former to the latter’s policies by having two syrupy voices infatuated call out the names Ike and Bob to each other.

The most common use of humor in campaign ads are attempts at ridicule. The most notable example, and probably the most effective example as well, is the 1988 ad that showed the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis driving around in a tank while a voice-over details his weak record on defense. The ad, which The Washington Post recently described as “the stuff of legend in campaign circles”, made perfect use of the juxtaposition of the visual material and the message. Dukakis is driving around in circles in a tank in what appears to be an empty field. Most damning, Dukakis, smiling broadly, looks inescapably silly with a funny-looking helmet and an army-green jumpsuit over his, still visible, suit and tie. Attempts to replicate the successful ad include one from 2004 featuring Democratic candidate John Kerry windsurfing while the narration portrays him as a flip-flopper. Since at least the days of Abraham Lincoln the issue of changing positions and thus poor credibility has been politically dangerous and with the advent of television the issue has been the source of many humorous ads. One of the best known is visually simple, putting the face of Republican candidate Richard Nixon on a weathervane while a narrator lists his changing positions. Four years later, Nixon returned the favor by putting a poster of Democratic candidate George McGovern on both sides of a pole and turning it around after every changing position the voice-over details. The same idea was driven home in an ad by the George H. W. Bush team in 1992 that explains the contradictory positions of two undisclosed candidates before revealing that both are Bill Clinton. Making the ad extra funny is a zinger at the end of the ad, Clinton commenting that “there is a simple explanation for why this happened.”

Another prevalent theme in humorous campaign ads, especially during the last two decades, is to present statements by the opponent and then question them in a style reminiscent of the popular SNL sketch “Really with Seth and Amy”. The best example is an ad from the 2000 election that features a snippet of Al Gore stating “I took the initiative, in creating the internet.” The female voice-over comments “Yeah, and I invented the remote control, too.” The line “Oh, really?” returns in a curious 2004 ad produced in the visual style of the spy comedy Austin Powers, with the film’s star Mike Myers providing a narration questioning John Kerry’s comments. A Kerry ad from the same election features the “Oh Really?” in bold letters in response to George W. Bush’s claims about the turning the corner.

As with editorial cartoons the humorous ads work best in cases where they only need to remind voters of worries they already have about a certain candidate, instead of actually planting new ideas. I will try to illustrate this last point with two ads. In 1956 the democrats aired an ad with a picture of Vice-president Nixon and a narrator asking “nervous about Nixon? President Nixon?”. The ad is short and to the point but neither humorous nor very persuasive. Making the same point, an ad from 1968 features a man laughing while a pan-out of a television screen reveals the question “Agnew for Vice-President?”. In the end the man’s laughter turns into violent coughing and the text “this would be funny if it weren’t so serious” appears. By adopting laughter the ad illustrates the silliness of the idea of the inexperienced Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew a heartbeat away from the presidency in a way far more convincing than the Nixon ad from 12 years earlier. This shows how and why humor, while hard to wield, can indeed be a useful political tool.

Nerd Prom and Presidential Humor

Last Saturday the Washington glitterati gathered at the Washington Hilton for what has become a major political event; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The draw has over the years become the president doing a stand-up bit followed by a professional comedian roasting more or less everybody in the room. This year’s invited host was Cecily Strong, a Saturday Night Live cast member known for playing The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With. Strong, only the second female to host in the last 20 years, did not go soft on those attending, pun intended. In twenty minutes she made sure to joke both left and right. My personal favorite was when she went after Obama: commenting on criticism that Senator Elizabeth Warren is “too idealistic and her proposed policies are too liberal,” she told people to look at President Obama “people thought the same about US-POLITICS-OBAMAhim and he didn’t end up doing any of that stuff.” Obama’s jokes also hit home, especially his jab at Hillary Clinton: “I have one friend, just a few weeks ago she was making millions of dollars a year and she’s now living out of a van in Iowa”. Indeed, the White House Correspondent’s Dinner has become something of a comedic highlight of the year for those interested in politics, giving it the nickname “Nerd Prom”.

The modern classic of the annual dinners is from 2006 when Stephen Colbert appeared as his signature parody of a conservative media pundit and brutally criticized George W. Bush and the media’s failure to confront his administration. Among the zingers was when he tried to reassure Bush not to pay attention to approval ratings; “we know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias”. Reports after the dinner claimed that Bush was furious over Colbert’s jokes and especially conservative media pundits agreed that Colbert had gone too far. However, seeing the comedian take on the president as close to mano a mano as you can get is something the audience longs for. In medieval times it was said that the only one who could speak the truth without fear of repercussions was the court jester. Today the court jester is often invisible, even if Jon Stewart is still on the air a couple of months, Larry Wilmore has done an excellent job with the former Colbert Report, and cartoonists like Ann Telnaes of the Washington Post is fighting the good fight. At the White House Correspondent’s Dinner the court jester speaking truth to power should be the main attraction.

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Risk vs. Reward: When are Jokes too Risky?

The “reward” for humor is obvious—the payback for the humorist is when the audience laughs. The payback for the audience is also the laugh—it brightens an otherwise difficult day, relaxes as the laughter happens, and lets an audience leave the show, piece, or joke a bit happier than they were before. However, being the humorist is not without risk. What induces laughter in one person can offend another—this has been the legacy of humor since ancient times. Thus, those to whom humor is a profession must walk a fine line between taking a risk and reaping a reward.

Mark Twain found this out during his Whittier Birthday speech, delivered on 17 December 1877. In the speech, he told a story about four drunken miners whom he described such that without doubt, the characters referred to Whittier, the guest of honor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—often described as the “Boston Brahmins.” The joke fell through, and Twain was embarrassed by the reactions of the audience and the public when the speeches were published in the Boston Globe the following day. The Cincinnati Commercial asserted that Twain “lacked the instincts of a gentleman,” and even in the less conservative West the Rocky Mountain News called the speech “offensive to every intelligent reader.” Twain published an abject apology a week later, and even after 25 years the criticism still stung. Sometimes parodying a cultural icon is just too risky.

Twain’s 1877 faux pas illustrates just how difficult it is to gauge an audience’s reaction to material that the artist considers humorous. At this year’s Modern Language Association in Vancouver, three fine presenters delivered papers on the topic of “Comic Dimensions and Variety of Risk.” Jennifer Santos read her paper on Holocaust jokes in Epstein’s King of the Jews, Roberta Wolfson presented on the Canadian television show, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and John Lowe read his essay on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Each presenter focused the talk on reception of the humor and the acceptable amount of risk a comedian or humorist can take and still reap the “reward” of laughter. Aside from hearing three wonderful examinations on a variety of humorous subjects, this panel generated discussion of the broader issue of risk versus reward every purveyor of humor must determine for any written or spoken performance. Who is allowed to joke about possibly sensitive events? From whom are we willing to accept a joke that takes a risk of offending?

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The Changing Nature of Political Satire

By Larry Bush

On the NPR radio show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” they discussed the origin of the folk rhyme, “Georgie Porgie.”  Since WWDTM is a humorous news wrap-up, they gave the origin of the rhyme the most licentious interpretation they could find.  Their conclusion about the rhyme is that it is about the sexual relationship between George Villiers and King Charles I.  Although this interpretation is reinforced by some researchers and disputed by others, there is a strong likelihood that the subject of the rhyme is George Villiers and that it originated in the late 16th or early 17th centuries In England.  The verse has appeal to children because the subject is named with a forced rhyme in the same manner as the term “heebie jeebies” has an appeal because of the forced rhyme.  But, if there were a 21st century U. S. president who was a closeted gay man, would that person be subject to ridicule or are we beyond that?  I think any ridicule in the 21st century would be directed at those who criticize a gay person’s sexual orientation.

A similar occurrence is in U. S. history.  In 1802, James T. Callender revealed to the world that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’s children.  Callender made jokes about the little slaves at Monticello that looked like miniature versions of the President.  That joke and similar stories went viral, or as viral as could be in the early 19th century.  While Jefferson denied the relationship and Hemings was mute on the issue, DNA testing has shown that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Hemings’s children.  Again, jokes about inter-racial relationships have gone on the wane over the last few decades, but jokes about unequal relationships have not.  Should Jefferson have taken the heat because Hemings was younger and black or because he, literally, owned her?  Jefferson was a widower when he was alleged to have had the relationship with Hemings, but it was illegal for a white person to marry a black person in Virginia in the early 1800s.  If they had wanted to pursue their relationship on more equal grounds, they could not have legally done that.

This month, another sensitive situation has turned into fodder for humorists.  Liz Cheney is running for the Senate in Wyoming, and one of the planks in her platform is her steadfast opposition to same-sex marriage.  Well, it would be steadfast if she had not attended the same-sex wedding of her sister Mary and wished them well.  Since Liz has dissed same-sex marriage, Mary Cheney has gone on a campaign of her own—to point out the hypocrisy of her sister’s campaign.  It has caused some very public tension.  The fact of Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation also haunted her father, Dick Cheney, while he was Vice President, but the Veep was able to change the subject merely by shooting his hunting partner in the face.  Actually, like Jefferson, Dick Cheney refuses to talk about family, and to this point, he has refused to say much about the controversy in his daughter’s electoral campaign, but that has not stopped the humorists.  Apparently this is fair game.  I have seen no editorials chastising humorists about their treatment of the Cheney feud.  Perhaps, if it were happening in a less prominent family, it would seem more tragic, but the former second family is going to take it from the outside as they slam one another on the inside.

Following are two of my favorite Cheney sisters political cartoons:

Cheney sisters 2

Cheney Sisters

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Wendy Davis: Humorous responses in a time of passionate political debate

Tracy Wuster

Over the past few weeks here in Austin, Texas, the issue of women’s health and abortion restrictions has been front and center, becoming a national story with the dramatic filibuster of SB5 by Wendy Davis (along with Kirk Watson, Judith Zaffrini, Leticia Van De Putte, Sylvester Turner, and others).  Thousands of protesters filled the capital building, hundreds of thousands of people watched online (while CNN discussed blueberry muffins), and Wendy Davis became a national celebrity.  Witnessing these events from both inside the capital and online, I was struck by the intense passion on both sides of the issue and by the ways in which humor might both express and relieve the tension that passionate political debate creates.

wendy davis filibuster cartoon comic

Source

I understand that the issue of abortion is sensitive, so I will stick with the humorous responses to the issue.  What struck me, as an observer, was the swift creation of humorous memes, the jokes on twitter, and the use of humor within the filibuster itself.

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