People are divided on whether political humor benefits the public, noting either that comedy helps us to see the truth, or that it makes us cynical. Culture specialist Iain Ellis observes that while politicians fabricate positive self-images, comedy unveils politicians’ flaws, thus encouraging the public to engage in political issues. But Ph.D. student Ramon Lopez points out that political satire, such as Jon Stewart’s the Daily Show, uses the straw man method to simplify politicians’ views. Columnist Stephen Marche furthers that, besides using the straw man approach, satire “delights in tearing down institutions” (Marche 165). Through highlighting politicians’ bad qualities, comedy escalates people’s distrust toward the government. However, while most satire manifests this adverse effect by attacking politicians, some political comedy creatively makes fun of people’s hilarious reaction to politicians’ flaws. This type of humor, identified by philosopher Simon Critchley, “liberates the will and the desire” (Cricthley 126) of audiences, showing them their own mistakes. Through challenging audiences’ perceptions about political satire, such humor, despite calling attention to politicians’ flaws, also encourages the public to reflect on their own behaviors. For instance, Aziz Ansari’s SNL routine counters discrimination by joking about people who are too excited about Trump’s racism, and Samantha Bee’s Full-Frontal ridicules women who march only because they like the knitted hats, inspiring women to reflect on their marching. Even if these routines use straw men to make their points, true political humor not only unmasks politicians’ flaws, but also unveils the public’s flaws, thereby fortifying the public to pursue political change.
Political humor, as its name suggests, delves into civic affairs. It seeks to investigate and reveal the concealed truth of politicians through joking about them. While the realm of politics always entails complicated relationships, American culture specialist Iain Ellis discerns a network among politicians, media, and the public. He recognizes that politicians connive with mainstream media to make themselves appear likeable (Ellis 154). By showcasing their appealing qualities, politicians achieve a comical profile that the public can endorse. On the other hand, Ellis claims that political comedy seeks to discover the hidden flaws behind politicians’ endeavors to craft perfect self-images. As comedy “unmasks, parades, and ridicules those efforts,” (Ellis 154) a different, and often ugly face of politicians is revealed. Through this revelation, political comedy offers the public information that politicians and mainstream media sometimes overlook. “In representing the interests of the common man, in speaking truth to power, these comic vigilantes provide us with an important – and otherwise absent and/or neglected – political service” (Ellis 155). Political humor, targeting politicians, bravely discloses their flaws. By serving audiences with a mix of laughter and truth, political comedy attracts the public, arming them with information to powerfully respond to politicians’ flaws.
However, despite its role in empowering the public with respect to politicians, political satire often uses the straw man method, which weakens and attacks opponents’ points to shape its arguments. Indeed, political humor gives the public fascinating jokes to illustrate politicians’ stupidity, and the straw man method is an inevitable part of its joking. But Ph.D. student of political theory Ramon Lopez notes that “Comedic straw men … degrade the opposition not only by twisting and misrepresenting their arguments, but also by ridiculing them” (Lopez 159). By using the straw man, political humor can oversimplify politicians’ refined ideas. Even one of America’s most popular comedians Jon Stewart possesses this problem. In his Daily Show “Chaos in Bulls**t Mountain,” Stewart argues that Mitt Romney, a 2012 presidential candidate, does not care for the economic realities of poor people. In a segment of his show, Stewart ridicules a tape in which Romney complains the poor’s distrust toward his policies (Stewart 03:17-03:44). However, Stewart only plays a tiny slice of the tape (Stewart 03:45-03:48) showing nothing of Romney’s complete thoughts but his complaint. While Romney’s rant is questionable, he should have reasoning for his complaint, and that arbitrary cut of the tape blocks the audiences’ access to that reasoning. As a result, comedy such as the Daily Show fails to give the public the comprehensive thought system behind politicians’ flaws.
Furthermore, most political satire like Jon Stewart’s leads the public to distrust government by simply denying politicians. Columnist Stephen Marche claims that “Satire was a mirror in which viewers discovered everybody’s face but their own; its pleasure is the pleasure of othering” (Marche 165). Such satire creates narcissism among audiences, and those listeners, while delighted to see the awful sides of others, cannot reflect on themselves. Accompanied with the straw man method, political satire will pose dramatic damage to the public. “Chaos in Bulls**t Mountain” proves this idea further. Besides his unethical representation of Romney’s flaws, Jon Stewart also criticizes entitlement policy for being ineffective. However, this criticism does not encourage the public to contemplate how that policy can be improved. While in Crossfire interview, Stewart claims that he “holds [his idea] to be much more important … as a citizen” (Crossfire 06:56-07:00), he deeply affects the public by the disparaging words he imposes on political acts. Through claiming its absurdity, Stewart drains people’s belief toward government.
While most satire, such as the Daily Show, damages politics by simply deriding politicians, some political comedy benefits the public by also pointing out the public’s mistakes. This comedy, or true comedy, does more than just revealing politicians’ flaws. As philosopher Simon Critchley notes, “a true joke … has to do more than release tension … it has to change the situation” (Critchley 125), true political comedy changes the situation by broadcasting the public’s irrational reactions toward politicians’ flaws. This humor lets the public reexamine themselves, correcting their mistaken behaviors through its pungent comic bits. Aziz Ansari’s SNL stand-up is a prime example of true humor. In this show, Ansari speaks against president Trump’s racism, but he specifically pokes fun at people who only voted for Trump to enable their racism. His contemptuous parody of racists – who seem to feel that “we don’t have to pretend like we’re not racist anymore!” (Ansari 02:40-02:50) – subverts racists’ privilege. Accounted for by Critchley’s incongruity theory, humor, by surprising audiences, can not only change their thoughts, but also their actions. While audiences expect Ansari to explicitly mock Trump, Ansari’s sudden assault on public expectation provokes profound introspection. “The incongruities of humor both speak out of a massive congruence between joke structure and social structure, and speak against those structures by showing that they have no necessity” (Critchley 126). By mocking racists’ flaws, Ansari effectively attacks discrimination, motivating the public to contemplate their reactions to Trump’s presidency. Thus, in eviscerating the public’s inappropriate responses to politicians’ problems, true comedy can hold a mirror up to the public, thereby engaging them to adjust their behaviors.
Taking everything into consideration, true political humor’s ability to change how the public understands themselves circumvents the straw man fallacy. Indeed, Ansari’s SNL show portrays racists as brainless people, ridiculing them without looking for why they developed such racism. But since Ansari encourages the public to reflect on themselves by challenging their views about racism, the straw man here is quite benign. Samantha Bee, in her show Full-Frontal, has a worse straw man problem than Ansari, as she shows multiple shortened clips to support her arguments. Bee points out that Trump is frustrated by the women’s march after his inauguration. Then, as she plays cut version of Kellyanne Conway’s comment on the march, Bee oversimplifies Conway’s discourse. By ridiculing her remark that Trump is “uplifting and unifying” (Bee 02:03-02:09), Bee depicts Trump as “uplifting” a woman’s skirt. While this joke has obvious straw man fallacy, she also deals with white women’s flaws during the march, joking that, “All you have to do to get white women to show up to a protest is to give them a craft” (Bee 01:35-01:40). By poking fun at these women, Bee engages the public in legitimately fighting for their rights rather than treating the march as a trendy event. As a result, though the straw man poses a pitfall for true political comedy such as Full Frontal, it can be neutralized by the humor’s power to inspire public reflection.
The above arguments about political humor apply to American culture, but we may consider whether they can also be addressed throughout the world. Serbia’s “laughtivism” (McGraw & Warner 148) seems to disagree with the point that exclusively deriding politicians harms the public. This movement thoroughly aimed at the long-disliked president, terminating Serbia’s autocracy followed by his resignation. On the other hand, during the Egyptian uprising, Bassem Youssef’s show proves that mocking politicians can be effective in the short term. But he did not promote the public to reflect on themselves, only inciting their distrust toward the president. As people were satisfied with their new leader, the show was shut down. What if Youssef sparked public introspection? This is the question worth thinking about when we try to answer if political comedy benefits the public from other parts of the world by mirroring their behaviors.
“Aziz Ansari Stand-Up Monologue – SNL.” YouTube, uploaded by Saturday Night Live, 22 Jan. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Whde50AacZs.
“Chaos on Bulls**t Mountain – The Entitlement Society.” Comedy Central, uploaded by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 19 Sept. 2012, http://www.cc.com/video-playlists/vwstqp/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-bullshit-mountain/ymemxt.
Critchley, Simon. “Did You Hear the One About the Philosopher Writing a Book on Humour?” Think, vol. 1, no. 2, Autumn 2002, pp. 103-112, doi.org/10.1017/S147717560000035X. Rpt. in The Essential Guide to Analytical Writing with Humor Readings. UC San Diego Bookstore, 2017, pp. 122-131.
Ellis, Iain. “Political Humor and Its Diss Contents.” Pop Matters, 14 Oct. 2012, www. popmatters.com/column/163983-political-humor-and-its-diss-contents/P1/. Rpt. in The Essential Guide to Analytical Writing with Humor Readings. UC San Diego Bookstore, 2017, pp. 150-155.
Lopez, Ramon. “Why Jon Stewart is Bad for America.” The Federalist, 5 Dec. 2014, www. thefederalist.com/2014/12/05/why-jon-stewart-is-bad-for-america/. Rpt. in The Essential Guide to Analytical Writing with Humor Readings. UC San Diego Bookstore, 2017, pp. 156-162.
Marche, Stephen. “The Left Has a Post-Truth Problem, Too. It’s Called Comedy.” LA Times, 6 Jan. 2017, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-marche-left-fake-news-problem-comedy-20170106-story.html. Rpt. in The Essential Guide to Analytical Writing with Humor Readings. UC San Diego Bookstore, 2017, pp. 164-165.
McGraw, Peter and Joel Warner. “Humor Code Entry 6: Can Comedy Bring About Real Political Change?” Slate, 30 Mar. 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/features/2014/the_humor_code/daily_show_colbert_report_can_political_comedy_affect_real_political_change.html. Rpt. in The Essential Guide to Analytical Writing with Humor Readings. UC San Diego Bookstore, 2017, pp. 146-148.
“Who March the World? Girls.” YouTube, uploaded by Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, 25 Jan. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pEcvteQo9g.