For anyone who has been laughing too much today this NY Times analysis of political comedy by Jason Zinoman should bring the clouds right back into your life. Why, he wonders, is political comedy not moving the needle of public opinion?
At the Rally to Restore Sanity in 2010, Jon Stewart delivered a funny political speech to a crowd of his fans on the mall in Washington, D.C. He praised reasonableness, compromise and the virtue of working together with our opponents. Insanity however proved resilient. Last month, he told an audience that it was an error to mistake cultural power for real power, adding: “I, being a part of that machine and mechanism, do feel oddly culpable.”
For Mr. Stewart, who more than anyone elevated the political stature of the late-night talk show, to make such a concession is jarring. But it fits the mood right now, one defined not by the army of his television successors but by the Australian stand-up Hannah Gadsby. Her ferocious special “Nanette” tapped into a growing cultural anxiety about the limits of comedy. She skewered the nature of jokes, arguing that because they inevitably lead to incomplete stories, they evade difficult truths.
And in the Age of Trump:
In the past year or so, there has been a backlash to the growing role of comedy, and as with nearly every cultural trend these days, Donald J. Trump has something to do with it. He became famous in part because of comedy institutions; he was a fixture on roasts, late-night talk shows and Howard Stern. But once he ran for president, comedians obsessed about him as much as cable-news hosts did. Despite the endless internet headlines trumpeting how this host eviscerated him or that comic destroyed Mr. Trump, none did. This clarified what comedy could accomplish.
On her new Netflix series, Michelle Wolf, a veteran of “The Daily Show,” brilliantly satirized the self-importance of current comedy, skewering the entire genre of righteous political humor that Mr. Stewart gave birth to, mocking its ineffectuality while breaking down the hack conventions of a bit that always ends with the same Trump insult. “Writing jokes is hard. It’s really hard,” she said. “You know what’s easier? An earnest plea.”
Where Ms. Gadsby suggests that jokes obscure a comedian’s ability to tell the full truth, Ms. Wolf argues that the imperative to go viral with a sincere insult has gotten in the way of being funny.
I love a mystery - what's going ? A suggested explanation - blame MeToo! (That is as close as he comes to making a joke but I think he is serious):
Then there were the many comedians accused of sexual misconduct. Their private behavior was often at odds with their public profile, and since audiences put more stock in the authenticity of a comic’s constructed stage persona than, say, a fictional character in a play, attitudes toward comedy grew darker.
OK, blaming MeToo is bold, so points for that.
And on to the deeper 'explanation', or at least the start:
But the best way to understand this new skepticism about comedy is as a corrective to the wildly romantic and expansive view that has been ascendant for decades but is, historically, an anomaly. A dominant theory of jokes for most of Western civilization, superiority theory, as it’s now called in academia, rests on the idea that laughter has an abusive core, that ridiculing something else makes us feel better about ourselves. This is why Aristotle wondered if certain kinds of jokes (or “jesting” as he called it) should be banned.
But starting perhaps with Norman Cousins’s 1979 memoir, “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by a Patient,” which described how a steady diet of the Marx Brothers and “Candid Camera” helped cure himself of a possibly fatal disease, a new optimism about humor emerged. Studies about the benefits of comedy proliferated. You can find articles claiming laughter lowers your blood pressure, reduces stress and anxiety, burns calories, boosts your immune system and even diminishes your chance of heart disease and dementia.
I know that I am just a troglodyte knuckle-dragging old white guy but I am not seeing a contradiction between lower blood pressure and reduced stress on the one hand and feeling better about yourself on the other. Nor would it occur to me that most of the late-night assaults on Republicans are about something other than inducing a feeling of superiority in the audience. C'mon, the Desolation of Smug has been a liberal shouting point for a while. And yes, its funny to think that comics, some of who once prided themselves on being transgressive, might now simply be functioning as outriders for the PC Police.
Well. Might it be that two decades of comedy with a 'conservatives suck' punchline still amuses the choir (and helps keep them in line, as do the Twitter mobs) but no longer changes minds? Unexplored territory! Although to be fair, Mr. Zinoman does link to Michele Wolf (Yes, of White House Correspondents Dinner infamy) and her bit about the stale, formulaic Trump-bashing that is the life blood of late night comedy. She won't get there but right now it is conservatism that's transgressive.