By Jackie Cole ’21
“Supporting Trump is like joining a gym, only it’s democracy that isn’t working out,'' joked late-night TV host Stephen Colbert in August of 2016. Colbert, who has dominated the industry of late-night political satire on his show The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, turns serious political events into a chain of punchlines, relieving a predominantly liberal audience from the confusion and instability that is the Trump presidency.
“It’s so confusing today, and that confusion leads to anxiety, and the anxiety makes the audience want the jokes,” Colbert once said, exposing the roots of political satire. Audiences laugh at political satire, not because the jokes are intrinsically funny, but because humor gives them relief from anxiety.
Colbert is not the only public figure to have figured out the power of these jokes. John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and the writers of Saturday Night Live are fellow leaders in the hierarchy of political satire. Even Rachel Maddow, whose show is not generally categorized as a comedy, has developed a satirical tone in much of what she says about President Donald Trump, often chuckling at her own factual accounts of Trump’s political chess moves.
Political satire is diffusing into more and more niches of the entertainment industry. Entertainers may have different showtimes and punchlines, but one thing remains true for most: they are unapologetically liberal.
It would be wrong to explore satire in the age of Trump without acknowledging the overbearing presence of liberal, Trump-hating comedians. Of course, Stephen Colbert’s conservative counterpart does exist. Stephen Crowder fills the role of a conservative political comedian on his show Louder with Crowder, but Crowder and his fellow conservative counterparts’ popularity is incomparable to Colbert’s kind: they are the Magnolia Bible College to Oliver’s Harvard.
The liberal-leaning political satire industry is not particular to the Trump era. Although Donald Trump seems to provide a buffet of material for these entertainers, comedians delighted in poking fun at Obama’s presidency, too.
“I’m a little sick of seeing photos of President Obama on vacation with Richard Branson,” John Oliver once said, “Just… tone it down with the kitesurfing pictures. I’m glad he’s having a nice time, [but] America is on fire.” The field is dominated by liberal people, not necessarily using punchlines only about conservatives.
Alison Dagnes, an expert on the topic, wrote in her book A Conservative Walks Into a Bar that personality traits that form someone’s liberal politics are the same ones that inform their choice of profession. Mainstream journalism, writing, comedy, and performing are liberal-dominated fields and are also the primary ways we, in our best attempts to remain politically informed, get our news.
In many ways, blurring the line between political reporting and comedy is strengthening civic engagement in America. When big, mean, scary politics are sprinkled among light-hearted humor, new groups of people are becoming knowledgeable on issues they would not have previously spent a moment considering.
The growth of the relationship between politics and humor has definitely appealed to Generation Z, who, maybe unknowingly, are extremely informed on current politics because of political humor. There are, of course, the Greta Thunburgs of the generation, who exited the womb with ideas for healthcare reform. The Gretas watch C-SPAN for hours and frown upon their fellow Snapchat-obsessed members of Gen Z. Satire, however, has allowed for the non-Greta's, the average social media using teenagers, to remain informed in their own, slightly less demanding ways—memes and Tik Toks, to name a few.
As a member of Gen Z, I can speak first hand about the experience of scrolling through Tik Tok, the video-sharing social media platform that seems to have young girls learning oversexualized dances and young boys reacting to said dances. However, if you squeeze your esophagus really tight and hold in your vomit long enough to keep scrolling, there are some very politically charged videos on the viral Tik Tok page. For some members of Gen Z, the humor and politics cocktail might be saving them from complete ignorance.
Thanks to political satire, members of Gen Z are not the only people vulnerable to constant political exposure. Anyone who watches Saturday Night Live will not laugh at many of the jokes unless they are somewhat politically informed. New TV political comedies such as VEEP and The Politician are well known among TV bingers like myself. Overall, satire plus politics equals a more politically involved nation.
By this logic, creating a blurry line between political reporting and standup comedy is all fun and games. The detriments of hearing all of your political insights in the context of humor may outweigh the benefits. The other side of the coin becomes impossible to empathize with. Part of what makes comedians so funny are their dramatic depictions of untheatrical stories.
Politics synthesized through comedy marginalizes the opposing viewpoint, furthering our already painfully polarized political environment. When mildly Republican policies become outrageous jokes from liberal satirists, and Democrats are categorized as “libtards” by the right, it is terribly difficult to try to understand the other perspective. When you make political commentary through satire, there is no space to consider the alternative view, or to form a personal opinion. Satire is loud and vociferous and sucks any oxygen for debate out of the room. It is not presented in a balanced way, nor does it invite you to see the alternative. It screams at you: “This is funny. Don’t f--- with it”.
I live just a few blocks away from Dangerfield’s Comedy Club, a dim-lit cluster of couches and vintage garden lanterns, where the same Russian Jewish man has worked since the eighties, and Manhattan’s most successful comedians practice their sets. I took my friend there on a Sunday night, so the place was empty. The waiter welcomed us in and sat us down at the table directly in front of the semicircular stage, where sat a lonely grande piano whose ivory teeth were yellow and chipped. The comedians at Dangerfields, like most comedy clubs in New York City, change every show, so each time I bring a friend, it’s comic roulette. This time, we got shot in the head.
My friend and I were erupting with laughter during the first comedian’s set, a black man who teased the disproportionate whiteness in the audience and mimicked Blue Lives Matter protesters. Next up was a shorter, stockier, much whiter man, with a sense of humor so dry I could taste metal. His opening line: “A liberal walks into a bar…”, and he proceeded to denigrate a plethora of liberal movements.
Both of us, educated at a predominantly liberal all-girls school and born and raised in a liberal city, were paralyzed. We sat for the rest of his set, directly below his feet, unable to make eye contact with him, exchanging fatal glances. It’s clear that we are involved and care deeply about the political world we are being raised in, and the importance of that fact cannot be undermined. However, it was at this moment that I realized that the gridlocked polarization I have grown up in repealed most of my ability to listen to others. My immediate instinct was disinterest, disregard, and even to take offense. But to repulse conservative satire is to reject conservatism altogether, and fuel today’s extreme political polarization. We were so sated with liberal satire that we were unable to consume even one kernel of conservative satire.
Despite the knowledge I gained upon reflection of this comedy show, knowing now about some of the determinants of political satire and the importance of an open-minded approach to political discourse, I still have not been able to overcome the fact that, to me, conservative satire is simply not funny—it is downright offensive.
I don’t think I will ever teach myself to laugh at a joke that challenges my fundamental beliefs, and with respect to comedy, I think that’s okay.
Where I need to challenge myself, and what I think a lot of active satire-consumers should reflect on, is what this inability to laugh at jokes that you disagree with says about your ability to have productive discourse, to enter a conversation and be challenged and changed by it. Hopefully, the rise of political satire does not lead to irreversible polarization in politics.