My formative years were mostly the early ‘00s, during the Bush era. I remember my parents’ stricken faces after the 11 September attacks. I remember their puzzlement and anger over the decision to invade Iraq. And through all this frustration about the world around them, they would cue up the nightly comedy shows. I would argue that Jon Stewart, in some ways, was my generation’s Cronkite. I remember seeing them melt into the couch after a long and draining day. These shows were entertaining, yes, but they were something more than that. They allowed us to critically engage with the world while feeling like we had brothers in arms. It makes us feel less alone, but it also makes the problems feel a little less gargantuan. That release, those jabs, large and small, helped us survive.
The political satire genre found its feet and flourished as I grew up. Not only were these entertainers funny, they came to be known, more and more, as newsmen. The mainstream media latched onto this new phenomenon, covering study after study about 18- to 24-year-olds who got most of their news on the late night shows.
The genre, sometimes called comedic journalism, has burgeoned. Comedians like John Oliver will take an issue and parse it in a twenty-minute segment. The jokes land, but we also learn something. This genre could almost be called informative comedy. It is satirising, but it exposes us to a deeper truth about the world.
Because of the public’s faith and trust in this comedic journalism, almost rivaling that of broadcast news, these entertainers have a responsibility to the public as well. During his late-night reign, Stewart would weasel out of criticism, especially from conservatives, by reminding them that he was merely a comedian. But he was more than that. In 2011, Stewart and fellow comedic journalist Stephen Colbert announced that they would be starting a political action committee (PAC) together. This ended up being a running gag to show how corporate sponsorship fills politicians’ election coffers. This joke was written to amuse, but also to inform viewers about the Supreme Court decision, Citizens United. This case held that corporations have the right of free speech and thus can spend an unlimited amount of money on political advertising.
Now, when the dangers are ever-present, when so many of us are stricken with anxiety and uncertainty about the world, when the problems feel insurmountable as everything we hold dear is under threat, humour matters. It is momentary shelter from the whipping winds. I felt a vindicated amusement watching Melissa McCarthy play press secretary Sean Spicer. She slammed her Styrofoam podium into a White House journalist and I felt like she understood what I saw when I watched a real press conference. The humour and absurdity of the situation is highlighted, and we can forget our fear and anger for a moment.
Sometimes, I wish this feeling could last forever. If we could just see the humour even in the darkest things, if we could read books and let the sun kiss our skin and plant seeds in the earth and enjoy each other’s company forever, maybe we wouldn’t have to deal with everything around us.
But it necessarily cannot. Too much satire, too much culture, too much self-care, can lull us into a false sense of security. Look, the world is still spinning! We have nothing to worry about, we think. But there are too many lives at stake to disengage from the political world like this.
Let it galvanise us. Let us take a long-form humorous segment, study it, and use it strengthen our resolve to attend that local meeting. Let it inform our understanding of the world and the things we need to do to make it better.
We must also consume comedic journalism as critically as we consume other media. Stewart’s skewering of George W Bush veered into liberal elitism when he chose to make fun of Bush’s southern accent. We must remember that it’s not the accent that makes him worth laughing at. We must not uphold the tropes that threaten to alienate people who are hurting and suffering under the same thumb. Let’s hit them where it counts. Let’s laugh about his smallness, the thinness of his facade and the obviousness of his tremendous insecurities. Let’s laugh when Kellyanne Conway becomes a snake oil saleswoman on a home shopping network when she shills for Ivanka Trump’s fashion line. This reminds us that the situation is abnormal for a reason. It’s time to lob all the attacks at the government, corporations, and the other entities that oppress people.
Humour definitely has its place in resistance, but we must remember that humour and culture do not replace organising. Humour shelters us from the world for a period of time, but eventually we must reemerge, rejuvenated and ready to fight.
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Updated Date: Feb 25, 2017 11:40:10 IST