Why is Political Humor So Difficult?
NextGen America is a progressive non-profit organization founded by former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer. On Tuesday, the organization's Twitter account tried to meme its way to internet fame when it posted a thread of GOP senators side-by-side a picture of a garbage can that the senator supposedly resembled.
Others included in the thread were Thom Tillis, Martha McSally, Lindsay Graham, Joni Ernst (whose garbage can equivalent included a cow eating out of a dumpster), and Mitch McConnell.
The obvious angle to this thread is that if a conservative organization tweeted out pictures of Democratic senators — especially female senators — comparing them trash cans, it would be demanded that every Republican on Capitol Hill denounce it. Journalists, commentators, and Democratic politicians would say the this “raises questions” about the GOP’s anti-woman nature.
But a more interesting question is why political humor is so difficult? So, as someone who writes about politics and has a unrelated layman’s interest in answering the question what makes things funny, I decided this would be a good excuse to write such an article to combine these two areas of interest.
Because politics is adversarial, a lot of the humor related to it is as well. Unlike puns, pranks, or non-political jokes, a political joke serves as another way to make an argument. Instead of presenting the audience (i.e. the voters) with a boring series of charts and graphs, you can tell a joke.
These jokes almost always fall into what is known as the Superiority Theory. This theory of comedy states things are funny because we realize how much better we are than others. Political jokes are often told by members of a certain persuasion for fellow members of the same persuasion and are about how stupid, evil, or — in this case — ugly members of the other persuasion are. You are not laughing with people on the other side, you are laughing at them.
This is why conservatives do not like the late night show hosts or the professional political comedians such as Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, or — even before he left for CBS — Stephen Colbert. If you’re calling Trump stupid, are you calling me stupid for voting for the stupid man? It is why liberals do not like President Trump’s name calling. It’s not funny when the President of the United States is mocking you like a middle schooler, only this time the whole world can see him do it on Twitter or TV.
Sometimes no ill-will is done by political comedy, but the recipient still interrupts it that way.
Remember CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin’s interpretation of sports radio host Clay Travis’ infamous “First Amendment and Boobs” comment in 2017? Or when a professor made the mistake of telling a lingerie joke to a women and gender studies professor on an elevator?
Why people, especially men, would consider female breasts to be the innocent kind of funny could take whole other article. But, the short answer is the Freudian urge to talk about that which shall not be talked, about especially in the realm of sex (the Relief Theory) and the Incongruity Theory that states we find humor in things that are unexpected or different, such as the male and female bodies.
Both men did not intend be say “I’m a misogynist,” they just wanted to break the tension. The first was someone trying to lighten up a mundane elevator ride a with stranger and in Travis’ case, to lighten the mood in a discussion on a controversial political topic.
They may have shown poor judgement, but there was no malice involved.
But, this just proves humor is ultimately subjective. The joke recipient did not appreciate the joke, therefore it wasn’t funny. To them the societal taboos,(they would refer to them as standards of basic moral decency), should remain. The men’s Relief Theory-oriented jokes, were really just Superiority Theory-oriented.
By these measures, it looks like political comedy is just one big psuedo-humorous way of saying “I’m better than you” or one big misunderstanding. It’s just a joke. Lighten up, you humorless scold. But the Incongruity Theory, briefly mentioned above gives us hope.
For one, it can be ideologically neutral. Consider a play on the word “politics.” Poli means multiple, a tick is a blood sucking creature, therefore politics is multiple blood sucking creatures.
Unlike the Superiority Theory, the Incongruity Theory can be more self-deprecating.
Consider the fact that when I was in college for two summers I worked for the grounds crew. As I liked to say my job at a liberal college in a liberal city in a liberal state was subsidized by the taxpayers. Now square that with my free market instincts. It was funnier, because I was able to give my Bernie Sanders-supporting fellow student employee a hard time about loving Chick-fil-A and speaking fondly of the South. We were able to find these contradictions funny and give each other a hard time about them because politics didn’t dominate our discussions and when it did come up, we weren’t jerks about it.
And maybe that’s the key to political humor. Being able to laugh at politicians on your own side’s gaffes (I mean, come on, “covfefe” is still funny), recognizing the incongruities in your own political life, having friends on the other side, and have a healthy portion of your life that is apolitical. And if you are going to go for the Freudian or stereotypical joke, make sure the person you are telling it to is okay with such jokes. In other words, probably not a stranger.