Madi Ho

The Precarious Role of Humor in the 2016 Election

Humor and satire have always played integral roles in the way the public interacts with the political realm. Comedy serves as a vehicle to criticize and present subversive opinions about political figures and policies. As far back as Aristophanes in 400 BCE, people have used comedy to communicate their feelings about the actions of those in power. In the current polarized political atmosphere, humor must take on the complicated task of navigating a political landscape of extremes, which may impose new restrictions on where comedy can come from and where it can go.

In an election cycle that pushes the limits in every sense, the role of humor has become even more complexly interwoven into the present political climate. With every tweet, Donald Trump grows more and more ridiculous, approaching a point at which he becomes almost impossible to satirize. He seems to nearly satirize himself, unironically referring to African-Americans and Latino Americans as “the African-Americans” and “the Latinos” and unapologetically making up words (“bigly”). At this time a few years ago the things Trump says would not have constituted political rhetoric, they would’ve been a parody. The real presidential debates almost seem as if they could be sketches on late night TV, not the actual discourse of our presidential candidates.

In this election, humor has, in some ways, become a coping mechanism to mitigate the harsh reality that the nation could be facing a Trump presidency. It is often easier to laugh at Trump’s antics than to confront his dangerous positions. On an individual level, it can be healthier to laugh at the election than to constantly dwell on it. But on the level of mainstream media, particularly in comedy shows with large audiences, the very real possibility of a Trump presidency is one that poses a genuine threat, and this can mean that political humor can feel inappropriate—trivializing a serious reality.

Humor can be used as a tool to both mock and humanize, and utilizing comedy to make Trump appear more personable has garnered negative attention and even outrage. When Jimmy Kimmel, a late-night television host and comedian, ended a generally light-hearted interview with Trump with a bit in which he ruffled Trump’s iconic (and widely ridiculed) hair, Kimmel was accused of wrongfully using humor to humanize Trump. Viewers were disturbed that Kimmel, instead of using his platform to hold a more serious interview in which he confronted Trump about pertinent issues, used his time with Trump to joke with him. Their exchange made Trump appear more down-to-earth and drew attention away from his racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic statements. Others would argue that because Kimmel also made lighthearted conversation with Clinton when she appeared on his show earlier this year—joking about the concept of “mansplaining”—it would be unfair of him to be harsher on Trump. As author Alison Dagnes puts it— “political comedians aim their guns at everyone—they think that both sides are facacta, that both sides suck.”

However, the current divisive political atmosphere and high-stakes election complicates this idea of hitting both sides equally hard. As a Trump presidency becomes a more substantive threat, he becomes more difficult to laugh about. What makes Kimmel’s bit particularly upsetting to many is that as a wealthy white man, Kimmel is in a position of privilege—a Trump presidency would be less dangerous for him that it would be for others. Samantha Bee, host of another late-night comedy show, Full Frontal, summed up the root of the problem: “Network execs, and a lot of their audience, can ignore how very dangerous Trump is because to them, he isn’t.” Those who aren’t genuinely threatened by Trump’s policies—wealthy, white men—often feel more comfortable making light- hearted jokes about Trump than those whose lives are truly at risk of drastically changing. 

Inherent in the fact that their platforms are TV shows and mainstream media, these comedians have extremely large audiences and are thus capable of making larger-than-average impacts on the way people vote. So should they be more cautious in “taking aim” (or in neglecting to take aim) at both sides, especially considering that, in general, they do not represent the groups of people that will most directly negatively impacted by a Trump presidency?

I think that anyone with a large audience should be extremely careful in what they say and how they present all players in the situation. This doesn’t have to mean refraining from criticizing both sides, but there are points when a candidate has become so extreme that to normalize them is to condone their extremism. As Jo Miller, a late-night comedy executive, put it, “this is not a race between Democrat and Republican — this is a race between Democrat and demagogue. You don’t normalize someone who’s inciting violence.” As the political environment changes, the role of political comedy may need to change and adapt as well.

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