Political Humor and Its Diss Contents

by Iain Ellis

14 October 2012

Jon Stewart on set. 

Comedians in Office

Today, a comedian running for public office is not necessarily an act of ironic humor. Furthermore, within the hard news divisions of media outlets like CNN, it has become just as common to have a comedian like Maher as a guest commentator on political developments as it is to have a politician or conventional “expert”.  With comedians steering public debate and/or running for public office, as politicians showcase their well-crafted quips on the talk show circuit, one could be forgiven for asking of today’s participants in political comedy: Who’s dancing with whom? 

Besides bringing levity to our everyday discourse, political humor also serves concrete purposes in the hands of our three dancers. For politicians, the primary purpose is to spin, and we can be assured that the material has been craftily scripted by a well-paid team of professional humor writers. Sometimes, as noted, the goal is to correct a perceived negative trait in the politician’s past or personality. George W. Bush, long tainted by tales of his wild “party” past, sent out his wife, Laura, at the 2005 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, where she wowed the audience by performing a political pirouette, mocking her husband for being quite the opposite of his once assumed caricature. Her portrayal of W as a stay-at-home, TV-watching, domestic husband and father—or “Mr. Excitement” as she put it—not only thrust her into the higher ranks of witty first ladies but, more importantly, helped sever her husband from the still irritating “hangover” image from his tawdry past.  By playing the media in order to manipulate the public’s perceptions, all agreed that Mrs. Bush’s performance constituted “mission accomplished”.

Obfuscation is another reason why politicians employ political humor, and the master of this means to an end was undoubtedly Ronald Reagan. His diversionary quips allowed him to elude innumerable attempted inquiries into both his personal vulnerabilities and extreme policy positions. When debating Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential elections, Reagan famously let his opponent stir himself up into an angry froth of oppositional fury, only to then retort with the succinct put-down, “there you go again” (a line he reprised four years later when debating Walter Mondale). The effect was to spotlight Carter as a flustered, bitter blowhard, and Reagan as a calm, cool, and collected customer—but with a sting in his tail.  Strategically, it also allowed Reagan to avoid responding to Carter’s hailstorm of criticisms, as the audience and hosts were otherwise too occupied enjoying Reagan’s quick wit. 

Both public and media clearly appreciate wit in their politicians for it suggests an every(wo)man quality, and, as Bob Dole once said, it “keeps the presidential candidate from developing messianic delusions” (qtd. in Gerald Gardner. The Mocking of the President: A History of Campaign Humor From Ike to Ronnie. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. p.13).  Although a balance must obviously be established between the humor of the candidate and the dignity of the office, it’s equally clear that the days of gruff, overly serious candidates like Eisenhower and Nixon are probably over, for our personality-driven modern media demands our presidents to oblige in at least making an effort to present themselves as having a sense of humor. For the humor-challenged, like Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and Mitt Romney, such efforts are inevitably excruciating to witness.

cover art

The Mocking of the President: A History of Campaign Humor From Ike to Ronnie

Gerald Gardner

(Wayne State University Press)
US: Jan 1988

Whereas politicians wield humor in efforts to manipulate and spin, critical comedians, contrarily, seek to unmask, parade, and ridicule those efforts. Here, the dance can look more like a wrestling bout, as politicians pull towards their talking points and comedians counter with their own moves. Robinson sees such responses as “often… where the serious work of democracy is done”, for they show a refusal to be spun around without rebuttal (p.7).  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. 

Political humor, in the hands of our finest satirists, involves delving and questioning, thereby unveiling truths and alternative perspectives the political establishment would prefer kept hidden and unspoken. Without such contributions, we all become trapped within a rigged system that provides few options for real debate and even fewer for change. Thanks to the work of Maher, Stewart, and Colbert, we are made keenly aware of the Wizard of Oz-like forces that maintain the political hegemony, including a media system that, unwittingly or not, delimits the scope of political voices, masks the potential of democratic participation, and perpetuates the prevailing status quo.

It’s hard to imagine that there have been times in our history when humor and politics were regarded as unsuitable bed-fellows, when citizens and comedians were so fearful of offending their leaders (and the public) that any political humor they uttered had always to be polite, sensitive, and innocuous. Even Vaughn Meader’s harmless impersonations of John F. Kennedy during his presidency were seen by many as inappropriate, and then later as unacceptable with JFK’s assassination in 1963.  Politicians, too, have sometimes been concerned that their use of humor might diminish their eminence and stature, that it might make them appear as buffoons undeserving of public respect. During the 1952 presidential elections, Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower openly criticized his Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson for, he argued, denigrating the dignity of the office by resorting to humor in his stump speeches. Such censorious rebukes are unthinkable today, and, in the midst of our current humor-saturated environment, would no doubt be met with their own outbursts of mocking laughter. 

As I write (one month prior to election day), the 2012 presidential polls show a virtual dead heat; however, with regards to “likeability”, challenger Romney trails by unprecedented double digit numbers. Here is where one’s sense of humor registers, and where Romney’s perceived humor-deficiency is correlated.  Indeed, the candidate’s campaign team appears to be conceding on this front, as shown by Romney’s conspicuous absence on the comedy talk show circuit at the same time as President Obama bares wit-ness day (on The View) and night (on Late Night With David Letterman). Staffers appear to have concluded that Romney is vulnerable to being more laughed “at” than “with”m because he is so often perceived as Henri Bergson’s “mechanical” man, a laughable robotic type incapable of the kind of human flexibility that a sense of humor can foster.  Of course, whether the calculations of the Romney camp will serve them well or ill has yet to be determined, though if the final results are as close as predicted but in the end favor Obama, we may well look back on the 2012 race as the one that was ultimately decided by the role that humor played in it.

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//Mixed media