Comedy and Politics

Today’s discussion is less about a meme and more about a phenomenon. Recently, humor and politics have become hopelessly intertwined, through memes, late night TV, and the politicians themselves. This post is about that intertwining, specifically narrowing in on late night host Jimmy Kimmel’s segment on the vehicular homicide in Charlottesville, Virginia during a protest supporting white supremacy.

In this clip, Kimmel uses humor to  ease the audience into a disturbing and distressing topic — the killing at Charlottesville and the president’s lackluster response. And it works.

There are a few main reasons why this humor works. First of all, it presents the news in a different light. Recently, people who don’t support President Trump have talked about how difficult it is to listen to the news lately because of how hopeless the world feels. It’s hard to hear about how a white supremacist used their car to kill a peaceful protester, especially when that’s only one of many egregious things that happened in the week. Humor allows for that discussion and consideration to take place in a safe space that doesn’t feel as hopeless. If we have the ability to laugh, we have the ability to hope.

Another reason is the sheer entertainment. If you’re like me, reading or listening to the news might not be at the top list in terms of entertainment. By introducing humor in the mix, you are presenting news to a now rapt and interested audience. Late night shows are witty, quick, and funny, and they present the news.

Beyond that, there’s an idea of juxtaposition. This concept goes back to the first idea, where the hopelessness of the news is juxtaposed with the humor of the host. This idea, as an article from The University of California in Santa Barbara suggests, leads to an increased memory of the situation: “This transition between humor and seriousness more effectively drives home the feelings of anger and frustration that arise; as a result, these feelings successfully stay with viewers after the show.”

In other words, we’ll remember the contrast between America’s and Germany’s reactions to the Charlottesville incident well because of the joke that Germany hates Nazis more than America hates Nazis. Jokes make us laugh, and the content of the jokes make us think.

Lastly, it works because we feel like we have a connection with these hosts. If you are laughing with someone, you are connecting with them. Humor creates the illusion of relationship. Because people have laughed at Kimmel in the past, they’re more willing to laugh with him again and listen to what he says. If he can make us laugh, he’s down to earth.

Which is exactly the idea that one NPR article touches on. Just like Kimmel is seen as down to earth because he can make us laugh, this article says that politicians are trying to do the same. They are trying to connect and show that they’re just like us. We want a president that we could grab a beer with, and humor is a way to showcase that.

Humor in politics is here to stay, in various different formats. What format (memes, talk shows, political campaigns) do you think is the most effective?

Feature image from the Obama White House archives at 

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