Comedy Isn't (Inherently) Activism


What kind of both-sidesism is okay?

I've never been one of the types who rage-splutters that, "Late-night hosts shouldn't do POLITICS! rabble rabble ALIENATE HALF YOUR AUDIENCE rabble rabble!" Some "political" stands are worth taking, like Edward R. Murrow famously standing up to Joe McCarthy. Anyone who'd say Jimmy Kimmel advocating for government health care on behalf of his infant son is inappropriate simply has no soul. And in general, I think we all agree with the premise -- if not the execution -- that comedy should be able to laugh at anything, and certainly anyone in power.

At least we used to. In high school, when we'd all watch Saturday Night Live, my conservative friends laughed just as hard at Dana Carvey's George Bush as I did. Hell, Bush himself ultimately laughed at it. Perhaps one can argue that it's too toothless if the impressionist and subject become friends, but I never thought Saturday Night Live was setting out to upend the status quo. Like Mad magazine, it was there to make people laugh at everyday foibles. In Living Color, on the other hand, could be brutally mean to its subjects, with celebrity impressions designed to draw blood -- calling Snow and impostor, saying Crystal Waters should be homeless, or implying that Tracy Chapman can only sing about stuff that happens outside her window. I'm not sure a network show could get away with anything similar today.

Bill Maher's show, under any name, used to be the one where liberal and conservative guests were regularly on together, and some level of debate was had. It still sort-of is, except Bill has now become a cranky, old, one-track minded scold, whose sole track is, "Why can't I say anything I want without consequences or criticism?" He tends to now either select guests who agree with that viewpoint, or are at least willing to sit through him lecturing on that. That's why a lot of people still vent their disappointment with Maher -- he was always an arrogant prick, but he used to have a much wider range of discussion on his show. Still, it's his show, and if he only wants to be a haven for transphobic Boomers who insist they're still liberal, that's his right. If you don't want it to keep succeeding, stop engaging or even mentioning it, as I mostly have until right now.

"The left left me" is such a stupid thing for old people to say, by the way, or "I've been a liberal for forty years and never changed!" The left, by nature of the term "progressive," always can and must progress, i.e. change. There's a word for people who don't change, and it starts with a "c."

But just as conservative comedy generally sucks and puts agenda over humor, I don't agree that mainstream comedy shows are obligated to always be on the right side. Yes, I think Netflix should stop cutting Dave Chappelle huge checks to do trans jokes. Yes, I also think Rush Limbaugh's jokes about homeless people were awful punching down. And I do wholeheartedly agree that "both-sidesism" (look it up if that's an unfamiliar term) inherently favors the more evil side. It often takes the form of something like, "Sure, Republicans are anti-abortion and want gay people outlawed, but liberals want PRONOUNS in your BIO! They're BOTH too extreme!"

However, being anti both-sidesism shouldn't mean there can't be jokes for both sides. I thought Nikki Haley was reasonably funny and self-effacing on Saturday Night Live, and knew for a fact that Leftist (not liberal) Twitter would immediately accuse SNL of cowering under to fascism, and offending every minority in its cast by having a conservative female politician on. It might be one thing if this were new for SNL, but in my lifetime, they've had on Steve Forbes, Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, John McCain, Lamar Alexander, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Bob Dole, Sarah Palin...all usually to good-naturedly make themselves the butt of a joke.

It used to be normal for candidates, at least for President, to do the late night talk and comedy shows and prove they could react like actual human beings to jokes and such. It was considered an important test to go before Oprah. As with so many other norms, Trump shattered it. He did the circuit when he still seemed like a joke candidate and hosts kept things light, but no longer does it for fear of ego-bruising. I don't recall people accusing Oprah of fascism or homophobia because she interviewed George W. Bush as well as Al Gore, on separate occasions. In 1992, the year of Rock the Vote, MTV invited Bush I and Clinton on. Clinton, who famously played the sax on Arsenio Hall's show earlier, got a full special for saying yes; Bush refused, saying he wasn't an MTV kinda guy, until relenting at the last minute for a very quick and tense interview. Clinton's win persuaded subsequent candidates that doing that media circuit mattered.

It's funny that the same voices that were mad at SNL for not taking sides in inviting Nikki Haley on have also been defending John Stewart for both-sidesing, mostly by attacking Joe Biden's age and slowness. The difference here is that folks to the left of Stewart and Biden are fine with attacks against anyone to their right, but not any kind of humanizing of same. If you agree that all American politics is terrible because it's not left enough (a fair criticism), it's not much farther to suggest that jokes attacking anyone not left enough are good, but jokes that make anyone on the right look human is supporting the corrupt faux-duality and WILL NOT STAND.

The Cult of Trump has leaned into polarization and made things a whole lot worse -- we used to have our politicians at least pretend to be respectful of everyone, and separate political from personal. Perhaps that was an illusion -- discrimination will always be personal, for example. But does shunning the right in all comedy forums work, I wonder?

I grew up in the '80s, in Ireland, with Spitting Image and Steve Bell's IF comics as my primary forms of political satire. Margaret Thatcher was routinely depicted as a tyrannical Hitler figure, and Ronald Reagan an idiot playing cowboys and Indians with nukes. To the extent that liberals appeared, Thatcher's main opponent Neil Kinnock was portrayed as ineffectual and grotesque (he was), while I don't recall Mondale or Ted Kennedy or Tip O'Neill ever appearing. Did that hurt Thatcher? She got three terms before self-destructing, and is to this day the reason I support presidential term limits. There was no pro-Thatcher comedy, as far as I can tell. And even SNL nailed Reagan harder than most, with that Phil Hartman sketch of him pretending to be a genial fool while becoming ruthless the moment nobody was looking.

Spitting Image or the Comic Strip might have thought they weren't doing their job well enough if, say, Norman Tebbit had asked to be a guest for a skit. But would having to face an audience of regular humans, and displaying a personality been terrible for them?

I don't know that comedy has much power to change things on a grand scale, at least not in any mainstream network format. Plenty of people made fun of Hitler while they could. But then you do have examples of brilliant, cutting satire like Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, or Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which did have noticeable effects.

All comedy, however, is not obligated to be that. Comedy isn't politics. Political humor will always be with us, but it's not mandatory to advocate for your side. At best, it should shine a light on foibles wherever it finds them. 

Then comes another issue: what if we vote for the people with the foibles because we see our humanity in them? George W. Bush's voters thought that way. And comedy lazily punched down in that instance, mocking Bush's fratboy background and mangled syntax, rather than the fact that he was a spoiled heir who crashed all the businesses he was handed by privilege.

If I were writing this article for money, I'd be obliged to come up with a pithy conclusion here.