Bombing on Stage: Comedy as Political Resistance

Several years ago, in 303 AD, a pagan comedian named Genesius began his career in Rome under the viciously anti-Christian Emperor Diocletian. Desperate to ingratiate himself with the powers that be, G-Dawg, as his friends called him, wrote a play mocking Christianity and performed it before the Emperor. In the middle of the show, while receiving a mock baptism, Genesius had a vision of the risen Christ, stopped the show, converted to Christianity, and denounced the Emperor. He was immediately tortured and executed. For this act of resistance, Genesius of Rome is venerated as the patron saint of comedy by the notoriously good-humored Catholic Church, not least because, if there’s one thing comedians fear, it’s being murdered for insulting the room.

Since then, the relationship between comedy and political power has been fraught with controversy, with no signs of letting up. As a political comedian, I’m often asked the same questions: What’s the role of comedy in effecting social and political change? Should comedians be activists or unbiased? Are certain topics off-limits, or is the whole point of comedy to be offensive? Should comics give their real opinions, or should they “stick to being funny” and leave policy to the experts?

These questions are not limited to comedy, of course, but strike at the very heart of the culture wars. Today, debates about offensiveness, free speech, social justice, safe spaces, marginalization, privilege, and the oft-touted rule of “punching up” dominate the discourse, and not a day goes by without a viral video of “Comedian DESTROYS Trump” or a “problematic” comic being called out for an offensive tweet and forced to apologize.

What’s missing from such debates, and what I hope to provide in this essay, is an account of comedy as inherently subversive to any incarnation of human conceit. Our attempt to render the world intelligible through language, social rules, moral codes, and the organization of human activity is both necessary and inherently unstable and provisional. Our best attempts to do so routinely crash against reality. Our plans get ruined. We misunderstand each other. Arrogant people make fools of themselves. We use bad logic. We have thoughts we know are wrong. Our bodies fall apart. Moral busybodies are exposed as hypocrites. Weird things happen during sex. Bosses take themselves too seriously and then fart in board meetings. Children snatch the hats off popes and interrupt BBC Skype interviews about geopolitics. 

(In fact, while writing this essay in the airport, I lost track of time, missed my flight, and ended up on a different plane sitting next to a guy who spent two hours vomiting into a bag. That’s reality.)

Comedians are the champions of that reality. We are the ambassadors of absurdity, a monastic Order of St. Genesius hell-bent on undermining human arrogance. We are experts, not in any academic field, but at recognizing the absurdities that lie within all of them. As an art form, comedy is inherently anti-authoritarian. As Stanley Hauerwas once said, “If you desire to rule the world, the incomprehensibility of the world must be denied or tamed. What cannot be tolerated are forms of humor that might make the attempt to control a dangerous world absurd.” In short: You are not God, and it’s the job of the comic to remind you of that.

Heavy stuff, but the subversive nature of comedy is evident in even the most innocuous of genres, such as puns. The first pun I ever wrote was “I started a charity for middle aged white women. It’s called the You’re Applying Too Much Foundation.” Puns are funny (and/or painful) because words like “foundation” can mean more than one thing. The human conceit that language is stable and reliably conveys meaning is upset by such jokes. The result is laughter, or groans, depending on whether you’re a dad.

It’s the same reason social rules and moral codes are such a limitless source of material. Our attempts to create guidelines to navigate the world will never be able to fit perfectly or anticipate every possible event or interaction. The chasm between our expectation of how humans should behave and how they actually do will always be hilarious. We can (and should) update our rules to more closely match our level of awareness of the complexity of the world, but the juxtaposition will always be there.

What is true of language, social rules, and moral codes is even more true of politics, where the fatal conceit of organizing humans like pieces on a chessboard is doomed to fail. It doesn’t matter who is in charge or which ideology prevails, the cracks, contradictions, paradoxes, and inevitable failures of state control are plain to see. And the more authoritarian the system, the more absurd it is. Whether it’s propping up drug cartels by banning drugs, bombing innocent civilians to fight terrorism, regulating sectors of the economy that politicians know little about, or designing a health care system for a country that doesn’t seem to care about its health, there is no possible political activity that can process and control the messy reality of the world without something left over to make us laugh.

This is not to say that comedians need to become anarchists (although that’d be nice) but that comedy itself is anarchist insofar as it celebrates and bears witness to a world that the state must deny in order to wield power. While Leviathan is busy imposing standardized laws and regulations, creating dutiful citizens through state-controlled education, managing labor to serve as cogs in the corporate machine, and demanding ultimate loyalty above all else, comedy celebrates a world of mess. Comedy celebrates transcending boundaries and borders, complicated people, mixed motivations, and ambiguous morality. As ambassadors for the provisional and transient nature of cultures, ethnicities, moralities, nations, and societies, our commitments necessarily put us at odds with authoritarians who want that change to stop. Or, as the philosophers on Twitter put it, we’re cucks. Treason is baked into the job description.

But if the very nature of reality makes political comedy inevitable, what form should it take? Too many arguments in favor of the political relevance of comedy myopically cast it as performing a specific function within the two party system. But as Jason Brennan has shown in Against Democracy, politics turns regular people into hooligans. They become vicious, ignorant team players, with many comedians all too willing to play the role of the mascot whose job it is to entertain the crowd while they root against the other side. 

It’s not entirely our fault. Fans demand it. During the election, whenever I made fun of Trump, people complained that I was pro-Hillary. When I made fun of Hillary, people complained that I was pro-Trump. And when I made fun of Johnson, no one cared because everything is funny when you’re high and he wasn’t going to win anyway.

This omnipresence of absurdity in politics is why comedians must point it out no matter who is in charge. Sadly, this is rarely the case. Comics who found their voice as rebels during the Bush administration swiftly became apologists for unlimited state power once Obama took office. The Daily Show lost its edge and started pulling its punches, even while the president deported more immigrants than Bush, terrorized Pakistanis with flying death robots, waged war on whistleblowers, and violated civil liberties with impunity. Of course, now that Trump is in charge, these same comedians are suddenly suspicious of attempts to organize the world by fiat and are back speaking truth to power. Hey friends. Glad to have you back. Hope you stick around.

But even behind Leviathan’s back, the danger is the same. History is full of rebellions that turn authoritarian. Today’s free thinkers are tomorrow’s dictators, and comedians who find themselves allied with activist causes must be aware of their causes’ corrupting influence. Activists make for fair-weather fans, as art is praised as helpful propaganda or else condemned as “problematic.” Once an artist finds their success relies on appealing to a specific audience’s prejudices and goals, the temptation to become a team mascot is hard to resist. Fans who loved you for speaking truth to power will suddenly turn on you when they wish to wield power without scrutiny. As George Carlin said, “Everyone appreciates your honesty…until you’re honest with them. Then you’re an asshole.” Which is not to say that being an asshole is always good or that problematic art is always valuable, but rather, that all art is necessarily problematic insofar as it bears witness to a reality that resists being solved.

Take, for example, my most popular bit about the wage gap.

I inevitably get the same question after the show: Is the joke against the idea of the wage gap or for it? What do you really think? These questions are fine to ask, and it’s always nice to start debates. In fact, there’s a great show called Unsafe Space run by Lou Perez and Toby Muresianu where comedians perform material on a controversial topic, followed by a panel discussion of actual experts on said topic. And yes, I’m specifically mentioning it so Toby feels obligated to book me.

But the point of the 77 cent joke is not to push an agenda. I don’t care whether you agree with the wage gap or not. The point is to make women mad, then happy, then mad, then happy, to knock you off kilter and surprise you with absurd logic. That’s it. Of course, authoritarians of all stripes will never stop demanding that jokes be translated into unequivocal prose so they can be judged as supporting or against their worldview. You can spot these tiresome bores because they begin every sentence with “so you’re saying that” followed by something you never said. But again, if such translation were possible, comedy wouldn’t exist.

Demanding that comedy serve a specific function within the state also crowds out more interesting moral questions, like what does it mean to do comedy in a way that gives people hope? That humbles them? That makes them feel less lonely? That fills them with compassion and understanding toward their fellow man? These questions are left unexplored; meanwhile, the same old debate about whether a joke is offensive rages on.

Take, for example, the recent furor over whether Dave Chapelle’s Netflix specials were homophobic and transphobic. Homophobia and transphobia, are, like all ideas and systems, poorly fit onto the reality of the gay and trans experience, as well as the reality of straight cis men attempting to come to terms with what is to them a new, unexpected reality. The mismatch between the two has long been fodder for comedians eager to dismantle those systems by celebrating the reality such bigotries attempt to deny. The story of social progress has meant replacing those outdated tropes with a new system of ideas, language, moral codes, and social rules. When a comedian takes the side of an old dominant paradigm against that messy reality, it offends the inhabitants of that reality.

But as much as we’d like to think otherwise, every system is a poor fit. There is no escaping absurdity. The new regime of political correctness will suffer the same fate. Contradictions and absurdities will arise (and already have) and an emerging paradigm that cannot tolerate jokes being made at its expense is not one that will survive for long. The rules of PC culture may have been created to more closely match the reality of human experience (or maybe not), but there is always a remainder.

To answer their calling, comedians must assert their independence and resist becoming either soothing court jesters to the powerful or propagandists for activist causes. As artists, the temptations of Leviathan are hard to resist, as are those of its opponents. But Leviathan is not a specific regime, a set of people, or even an ideology. It is the physical embodiment of the human conceit that we can understand the world perfectly, that domination can ever be successful, that rebellions can be put down forever, that an artist can truly fulfill his purpose by performing for an emperor and against his victims.

For this reason, comedians must join with civil libertarians against encroachments on freedom of speech, particularly on college campuses. This is not because all speech is good, but because speech codes and censorship are authoritarian attempts to arrest and render permanent the current paradigm. The conceit is always the same: “We have now figured out the best rules of speech and personal conduct. Let’s make them permanent and force others to conform.” They may be right about their ideas being the best so far (I tend to think they are) but as we’ve seen, attempts to codify them into hard and fast rules are doomed to fail and be replaced with new ones.

Trying to make art safe and predictable is an assault on the idea of art itself. In fact, we have a word for inoffensive art produced to soothe an audience and render it undisturbed and unsurprised. That word is kitsch, and we should respect it as much as we respect the mass-produced dolphin statues they sell in gas stations. You can shut down as many speakers or artists as you want to make the words people hear soothing and safe, but there is no way of controlling speech or art that does not give rise to a new set of contradictions, paradoxes, and ironies. In other words, we’ll always have comedy.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Jeremy McLellan explains why we’ll always have comedy, and why it will always make people uncomfortable. In politics, comedy tends to expose the cracks in the system, the people, practices, and situations that even autocrats can’t control. The social rules that we set for ourselves are never complete; our control of the world is never perfect. Comedians are ambassadors from a world of chaos. That is… they are ambassadors from reality.

Response Essays

  • Lou Perez describes a different problem that comedians can face: the audience who agrees with them too much. When comedy gets political, which sometimes it will, there’s a great danger of coasting on shared assumptions and beliefs, and not actually being funny. That danger is just as real when libertarians take the stage as when anyone else does. Comedy might be a mirror held up to the powerful, but that mirror needs to be turned on the audience sometimes too.

  • Michael Munger discusses his experiences running for governor of North Carolina, including an incident with a hot mic that he describes as his finest moment. Candidates, he suggests, are not supposed answer questions or talk policy; they are there to bicker. Too-frank talk about policy or the difficult choices needed to govern will have a result for them that’s similar to what bad comedians suffer on stage. Misdirection, cunning, and courage are sometimes needed to get people to see what’s all around them.

  • Nick Gillespie dismisses the idea that comedy - or any art form, really - exists with the higher purpose of doing anything socially subversive and therefore redeeming. This, he says, is a romantic myth. In reality, comedy is shot through with in-group virtue signaling. This is much like all art, and most of the rest of what we do besides. Comedy usually just shows that you’re the right sort of person, and that you fit in with the right sort of group. Once we let go of our idealism on that score, we can perhaps get down to the work of changing how people think, using both comedy and other forms of expression. But let’s not have any illusions about it.