How political humor has paved the way to political hell
No more Daily Show; no more Last Week Tonight; no more Full Frontal; no more Real Time. I’m off them all. It will be hard, and it will feel like a loss, but I’m solidly done. “Why?” you might well ask, and I’ll tell you: It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s fault.
I’ve read pretty much everything Gladwell has written, and when it somehow got by me, a friend told me about his podcast, Revisionist History. I heartily and unreservedly recommend RevHist and, indeed all of Gladwell’s work¹—he’s made a career of questioning conventional wisdom and digging into poorly understood and overlooked topics.
In one RevHist episode, “The Satire Paradox”, he covered political humor, focusing on whether or not it was effective in terms of changing opinions or achieving actual change. It resonated with some events that were current when I was listening to it, but that’s was as far as it went—I agreed with Gladwell that we shouldn’t let politicians off the hook by ignoring their political issues and instead treating them with humor.
But Gladwell does his homework, and he shares that homework with us. For every episode of his RevHist, he supplies a section of Reference Docs, and reading, watching, and listening to this additional information is a great way to get some of the depth that his 45-minute format doesn’t permit.
For this particular episode, one of the Reference Docs was an article in the London Review of Books called “Sinking Giggling into the Sea”, written by Jonathan Coe and discussing Harry Mount’s The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson. And this piece gives the topic both barrels. Or maybe every possible barrel.
The article begins by discussing the rise of anti-establishment political humor in the UK. Coe traces the lineage of the genre from Beyond the Fringe to Monty Python, Have I got News for You, and That Was the Week That Was. He points out that the creators of this brand of comedy are essentially those “trained to lead” the establishment they criticize, engaging in some good-natured rebellion during or after attending Oxford or Cambridge. He also points out that being anti is a vague and not necessarily pointful position.
Then he gets mean. He cites Steve Fielding, introduced only as “an academic”:
[I]n accepting this view of politicians as uniformly corrupt and useless, the public are embracing a dangerous new stereotype, since it ‘can only further reinforce mistrust in the public realm, a mistrust that some political forces seek to exploit’.
The Fielding thread goes on:
The idea that politicians are morally inferior to the rest of us is ‘a convenient view, for it means we, the audience, the voters, are not to blame for anything: we are not to blame because we are the victims of a politics gone wrong’.
Indeed, the amazing depths to which the tone of political discourse has fallen can easily be seen to reflect this. The “low standards” to which we hold egomaniacal charlatans are the standards we have created and accepted. The fact that it’s become difficult to distinguish news from satire has been so often remarked on that #NotTheOnion has become a thing, but this is neither weird nor eerie; it’s a causal relationship.
Turning to the comedians themselves, Peter Cook, a widely acknowledged “comic genius” and perhaps one of the greatest practitioners of this form of humor seems to have grown to understand it limits:
Famously, when opening his club, The Establishment, in Soho in 1961, Cook remarked that he was modelling it on ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War’.
Michael Frayn, a critic, takes even squarer aim:
[T]he middle classes felt some vague guilt accumulating for the discrepancy between their prosperous security and the continuing misery of those who persisted in failing to conform, by being black, or queer, or mad, or old. Conceivably they felt the need to disclaim with laughter any responsibility for this situation, and so relieve their consciences without actually voting for anything which might have reduced their privileges.
The piece returns to Boris Johnson, whom the book reviewed is ultimately about, and who has been able to cleverly take advantage of this climate to rise to political power, even satirizing himself in order to render himself “safe” to the public through laughter. This bullying xenophobic demagogue, with clear echoes this side of the pond, is the type of political leader that we have come to deserve.
So goodbye Trevor, adieu John, adios Sam, and auf wiederschauen Bill.
- Things have changed since the writing of this article.