Verbum Ultimum: Yossarian Lives

Political humor is the essential, necessary balm of a trying era.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 2/17/17 12:40am

Vice President Mike Pence was apparently among the last people to learn that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had lied to him about his contacts with Russian operatives. Pence read about Flynn’s deceptions while reading the newspaper. “That’s comforting: at least our next president reads the newspaper,” Seth Meyers quipped.

Meyers, one of a slew of politically savvy late night talk show hosts, exemplifies both the trend toward in-depth comedy and the increased necessity of political humor as our country endures a period of polarization and what some see as a slide toward autocracy.

Political humor has been an essential component of American democracy from its inception. It started with newspaper cartoons and later came to include books, television, films and songs. From Joseph Heller’s iconic satire of American defense policy, “Catch-22,” to the Capitol Steps’ songs mocking both left and right, we depend on comedians not just to poke fun at a variety of political figures and ideas but also to impart uncomfortable truths that may otherwise find difficulty entering the national dialogue. Heller’s novel, now over 55 years old, remains not only shockingly funny but also endures as one of the foremost critiques of the American military, its treatment of soldiers and the way it wages war. Like Heller’s protagonist, bombardier Capt. John Yossarian, political humor remains alive and well, ever dodging out of the sticky situations that would end its reign.

Today, we have numerous political comedians who are both widely watched and remarkably influential. Largely led by veterans of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” today’s host of late night comedians embrace a style of humor that relies upon research, fact and actual reporting. While John Oliver of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is correct in saying that he and his peers are not journalists, their function can be remarkably similar. They use fact and wit to create arguments, dissect the news and, often, reach people who might not frequent conventional news media. More than that, however, political comedians help to provide solace and laughter to those increasingly upset by an administration that seems all too willing to engage with its most corrupt, authoritarian and discriminatory tendencies.

President Donald Trump seems willing to exact vengeance upon his opponents with the same zeal Heller’s Lt. Scheisskopf utilizes in pursuing “people with minds.” To Trump, the case against his critics is “open and shut. The only thing missing [is] something to charge [them] with.” It is an unfortunate comparison, but an apt one. When Trump and his cronies gripe ad infinitum about “fake news,” it falls to comedians — outside the mainstream media and Trump’s sphere of influence — to call him on his absurdities.

But mainstream political comedy is hardly above reproach. While there is a great deal of diversity in viewpoints — from Stephen Colbert’s leftist Christianity to Meyers’ analytical liberalism to Samantha Bee’s progressive feminism — that diversity is primarily left-of-center. No major late night comedians are center-right, though some — most notably, Jimmy Fallon — are aggressively apolitical. But comedy typically serves to react to the government of the day. Former President Barack Obama met harsh criticism during his White House tenure, as did George W. Bush before him. Bill Clinton, 16 years out of the presidency, remains the butt of frequent jokes. And in this day and age, politically critical comedy is more essential than ever; few, if any, great political comedians have ever made an impact through wanton praise of the powerful.

Well-researched mockery is deserved by our present administration. Much like Major Major Major Major in “Catch-22,” Trump has come into office “too late and too mediocre” — the former in that he has come to power in an age in which myriad forms of media exist to criticize his worst impulses, the latter in that almost all of his impulses contend for the title of worst. And, again like Major Major, “people who [meet] him [are] always impressed by how unimpressive he [is].” He is ripe for mockery, and — with data-driven, fact-based, very non-“fake news” techniques — many comedians have leapt to hold Trump and his administration accountable.

So let’s laud our political comedians. They give us cause to laugh, but also to think, and that is essential.

The editorial board consists of the opinion staff, the opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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