Kathy Griffin’s mock beheading of the U.S. President obviously failed the humor test; it was too crude, raw, and violent to be funny. Just as we don’t laugh at injured children, this horrific image could never be seen as a joke except by those who are damaged and devoid of human compassion.
There was, to be sure, an attempt at political protest embedded in that photograph that followed a fairly infantile path of logic: Hate Trump, injure Trump, and laugh at injured Trump. This also fell flat because no one but a psychopath could find anything enlightening or entertaining within an image of such extreme violence. Political protest requires more subtlety and sophistication than a Three Stooges short or snuff film.
There are other recent and notable examples of failed political humor: Bill Maher dropping an N-Bomb during his broadcast, thinking would be good for a few laughs, and Stephen Colbert suggesting on air that President Trump’s mouth was suitable only for performing oral sex on Vladimir Putin. Both of these incidents were in incredibly poor taste—but at least neither was outright violent.
Is there some reason that the comedic sensibilities of those who skewer politics and politicians seem to have landed in a ditch—or perhaps the gutter—in this day and age?
One reality that must first be acknowledged is that a good deal of the political left has been trapped in a world of self-pitying hurt since the election of Donald Trump as President. Why is this important to the state of comedy? This matters because comedians seem to live on the liberal side of the political spectrum, so our drastically altered political climate makes an incalculable difference in the practice of their satirical craft.
Think about it a minute: Do you ever hear of conservative political comedians? This is one of those odd facts of life that perhaps points to some basic wiring issues that might require further study, or it could be that the class clowns of the world spent their youths tormenting anyone who tried to enforce the rules—so they continue to plague those who represent a power structure because it is baked into their psyches. Instead of pestering their parents and teachers, adulthood brings the opportunity for comedians to provoke government officials, industry executives, religious leaders, or anyone else who represents an entrenched order or status quo solution that rubs uncomfortably against their iconoclastic souls. Donald Trump must seem like a nightmare version of every angry dad, mean Gym teacher, or barking Vice-Principal in America to many political comedians—rolled right in with the loutish ex-husband who traded you in for the younger and blonder version to many women—so it is not at all surprising that we can hear the alarm bells ringing in the minds of stand-up comics and Comedy Central jokesters across the nation.
Class clowns of the world unite! The most incredible target in the world has arrived. Although many certainly disagree with President Trump’s policies and philosophies, there seems to be something far more visceral—and vicious—in the comedic air today. This is every kid who got bullied in school now bullying right back in a misbegotten quest for justice, and we are reaping the whirlwind of their rage, but there does seem to be an additional—and larger—question worth considering. Have we reached a point when much of what passes for political humor just doesn’t work anymore because bitter people brimming with bile are rarely all that funny?
Political humor can illuminate the absurdity of certain ideas and provide a relief valve for societal tensions. A full 50 years after the fact, one can still enjoy the amazing satiric musical stylings of Tom Lehrer, and Jon Stewart often did an admirable job highlighting mendacity and sheer stupidity in the contemporary political scene. However, both were doing their best work when they felt the political/cultural winds were blowing their ways, and I wonder if what made their work so successful was that their comedic sensibilities were leavened by optimism. It seems likely to me that each felt that they needed only to point out intolerance, injustice, and incompetence—and innately good government agencies and progressive individuals could then rush to the rescue.
However, now that mainstream Democratic beliefs are being rejected by many voters and traditional liberal institutions—public schools and colleges, the Supreme Court, the Environmental Protection Agency, and United Nations, to name just a few examples—now find their funding, credibility, or core missions facing fundamental changes that few could have foreseen prior to November 8th of last year, a clear sense of siege has descended upon America’s shell-shocked political left. Therefore, it perhaps should not be much of a surprise that our nation’s political humor, which of course largely emanates from the liberal end of the spectrum, has turned sour and sneering. Somehow voters they thought they owned abandoned them, their cultural hegemony is seriously in doubt, and a man they roundly detest is now in the White House. It should not be a surprise that the comfortable smiles have turned into teeth-baring grimaces, and the knowing chuckles have mutated into obscene rants.
We face a number of difficult challenges as a nation and society in the years ahead, so a little political humor could provide some welcome relief—and perhaps even some helpful clarity. I am just not certain it will be possible under our current circumstances. We might be asking for that which can no longer be readily provided, and this is not funny at all.