When Humor Isn’t Meant to be Funny
Ever since Alec Baldwin created his Saturday Night Live caricature of Donald Trump and even a bit before that, the late night comedy shows have had a field day making satire out of the political landscape. Of course late night comedy has always gotten laughs through satirical commentary so why should things be any different now? I vaguely remember Dana Carvey’s caricatures of George Bush in the early 90s which rumor has it President Bush himself made it a point to watch so that he could take a moment to laugh at himself.
There is something honestly refreshing about our ability to look at serious issues with a bit of humour. It’s healthy too. Dr. Avner Ziv, chair of the educational sciences department at Tel Aviv University has written extensively on the psychology of humor as an aid to education. His 1984 book “Personality and a Sense of Humor” is his most cited scholarly work on the subject and contains a large section on the purpose of humor in public discourse.
Less serious and self-involved people have held that things might be changed by a less tedious approach – that is, by means of humor. Humor exposes ugly human phenomena (those that render the world almost unbearable) to mockery, in the hope of thereby eliminating them. Man makes a mockery of man. In his efforts at changing and improving mankind, man turns matters he thinks grave into absurdities. He does this sometimes with delicate casualness, sometimes with disrespect, and sometimes with ferocity. The laughter that derives from the perception of absurdity reforms the world. [Avner Ziv – Personality and a Sense of Humor]
For this type of humor to work it must be delivered as broadly as possible. Originally theatre was the means to deliver humorous political commentary today we have the late night comedy show.
The English playwright, Ben Jonson described comedy as an educational instrument its goal is not to make us laugh but to arouse in us a form of moral outrage that leads us to improvement. The French novelist Stendhal concluded that the main aim of comedy is to expose people to mockery. The person who is the object of ridicule may be able to accept a reasoned rebuke without making significant changes, “thanks for the input but that’s just your opinion”, they may say. But that same person may not bear to be laughed at. Just before he died Charlie Chaplin said in an interview that the function of comedy is to sharpen our sensitivities to the perversion of justice.
We are entering a time when politicians seem hyper sensitive to this type of humor. Why, in contrast to former president Bush does Donald Trump refer to Saturday Night Live as “over-rated”, “unfair” and “biased”? Why did a prominent Texas republican senator who once likened president Obama to a Nazi recently say that we need to show more respect to the new president?
Mockery and satire are the final frontier of political debate. As government becomes more totalitarian descent must become more direct and mean spirited.
Comedy is generally received in a friendly spirit. Satire is not. Its victims fear it as a threat to their power and position. Thus in totalitarian countries satire directed against the ruling powers is banned, and any manifestation of satire earns harsh punishment. [Avner Ziv – Personality and a Sense of Humor]
While most western democracies are a long way from a curtailing freedom of speech it is clear that there is a large contingent of politicians and citizens across the political spectrum who either feel that their only recourse is mockery or that they are being unfairly attacked. As we stand on the threshold of the Trump administration we would all do well to remember that governments do themselves a disservice by prevent or complaining about humor against themselves. Laughter is a safety value for the release of tension and one that should point the ruling party toward what the masses are really thinking. When they ignore it, seek to oppress it or complain too loudly about it they do so at their own peril.
I’m not laughing at any of this political satire anymore. I don’t find it funny in that way, it is very serious and the reaction that Mr. Trump has had to it is downright horrifying. Satire is not meant to illicit laughs it is meant to spark debate in a society where reasoned discourse has been oppressed. When president Trump consistently complains that his detractors are “over-rated” and “sad” he is doing nothing to advance his agenda or enhance his image, he is fanning the flame. By attempting to discredit his detractors in this way the feelings of hostility will likely continue to increase. As these feelings build up they will create a kind of “pressure cooker” which will explode in time. Without satire and the laughter it invokes this hostility might be demonstrated in far more violent ways.
During the Obama administration we saw the advent of the Occupy Movement, a largely peaceful protest directed at the banks and other large institutional elites. Obama met the concerns of the masses with reasoned discourse and eventually helped temper their fears through the democratic process. I fear that unless the politicians start listening to each other again and learn to laugh at the satirists rather than seek to oppress and discredit them, the next time won’t be so peaceful.
Lauren C. Sheil is a serial entrepreneur who has been in business for over 25 years. He has operated farming operations, a recording studio and a music manufacturing plant, has written 3 books on Economics and Christian Ethics and presented his ideas to business owners and ministry leaders from all over the world. His latest book “Meekoethics: What Happens When Life Gets Messy and the Rules Aren’t Enough” is available on Amazon.com.
Mr. Sheil is currently a Financial Security Advisor and Business Planning Specialist with one of Canada’s premier financial planning organizations. He is passionate about helping entrepreneurs to live life to the fullest while Eliminating Debt, Building Wealth and Leaving a Legacy.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 613-295-4141.