Mark Twain famously said, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” I often wonder what Twain might now have said of the pundits who provide political commentary without blushing, or understanding the need to. No one can predict anything, but each pundit has some explanation for why he or she was right all along. We may never have been in greater need of the subversion that humor can bring.
Jeremy McLellan raises a number of important issues in his “Bombing on Stage: Comedy as Political Resistance.” We will discuss several over the next few days, but I wanted to focus on just one for now: comedy as subversion of the current paradigm. My own experience in this came when I was running for Governor of North Carolina in 2008, as a third-party candidate. My wife Donna was a reluctant observer to this process, I should note. Her only condition was that I promise that I would not actually win. With hard work, I was able to keep this promise, falling short of victory by more than 45%. Maybe that should have been my slogan: “Munger: When He Promises to Lose, He Really Loses!”
Given my near-total lack of experience with campaigns and “real” elections, it was comedy that I ran at all. I’m a political scientist, after all; we know very little about politics, and we certainly can’t predict politics. In fact, we mostly predict the past. The immediate past, what happened yesterday, is our specialty, and can be predicted with a high degree of precision. Elections or political events a week from now are deep mysteries to us, as Brexit and Mr. Trump’s election illustrate.
Still, I headed out on the campaign trail, and was eventually invited to four televised debates with the real candidates, Bev Perdue (the Democrat who won in 2008) and Pat McCrory (the Republican who won in 2012). In a way, I’m their worst nightmare: I have a Ph.D. in economics, a certain superficial glibness, and absolutely no chance of winning.
The problem was that I mistakenly thought that in debates one was supposed to answer the questions. I quickly realized that this was not true: you are supposed to bicker. The moderator would ask a question, I would answer it, and the other candidates would bicker. As one observer put it, “Munger should have smiled more.”
I did occasionally score some points, though it was by accident. The high point of my campaign was likely my response to some informal questions after an interview was completed. Bev Perdue, the Democratic frontrunner, was running some odd ads, and the interviewer asked me what I thought. Thinking the mic was turned off, I answered: “She’s running commercials that mostly seem to establish that she was once a child. She was once younger, and at some points in her life, she’s had some unfortunate haircuts.” The mic was not off, and I was famous, if only for a little while.
In retrospect it was my finest moment, probably because it was an honest though unexpected reaction to the absurdity of pretending that any of us were in fact capable of “doing the job” expected of governors. The debates I was participating in were absurd on their face, but all of us had to pretend they meant something. As McLellan puts it:
What’s missing from such debates [he means over politics in general, but this fits for formal debates also!], 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.
Jokes, On Us
McLellan is quite right that many absurd things happen on their own. His contribution is to point out that many of the things that we take as normal or conventional are the most absurd of all, and that comedians are allowed, and possibly obliged, to point this out.
Which raises the question of jokes. According to the OED, the first recorded use of the word “joque” in English is quite recent, occurring in the second half of the 17th century, and certainly by 1691, apparently deriving colloquially from the Latin “jocus,” or jest. The intended meaning is “Something said or done to excite laughter or amusement; a witticism, a jest; jesting, raillery; also, something that causes amusement, a ridiculous circumstance.”
Of course a joke has to work. Which means that it has to be funny. It is interesting that the language of comedians is so morbid, but it may be because their business is so hard. McLellan’s example is apropos: St. Genesius did what many comedians have done on stage - he died. Of course, the fact that he actually died is what makes it funny. But any comedian “dies” when attempts at jokes produce crickets and blank stares. Nick Helms famously described “dying” at The Apollo Theater in Harlem: “ ‘I went out and did my routine, as I’d planned it. And they didn’t laugh. They didn’t laugh at all. It was like being in slow-motion, it was like being trapped under water or something.”
The alternative, of course, is that the audience does find the jokes funny. But in that case the comedian will say he “killed.” The relationship with the audience is partly symbiotic, but also partly adversarial: the performer must kill or die. Those are the only choices.
The reason that the comedian/subversive’s role is so important is that humor by its nature breaks the listener out of his stupor, or the intellectual straitjacket imposed by convention. As McLellan puts it:
[C]omedians 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.
This is not a side effect of humor, but rather its very essence. One definition of humor that rings true to me is Isaac Asimov’s observation that humor lies in the sudden, possibly inappropriate, and (from the point of the view of the listener) unexpected alteration in point of view.
To put it another way, then, political humor has two elements:
- First, a pleasing incongruity
- Second, a misdirection in the way the joke is presented, in the sense that a logical basis for the incongruity is planted but hidden.
The humor then arises out of a logically consistent but unexpected and possibly unsettling reframing. There is twist that forces us into a change in point of view, but the twist is hidden in the setup of the joke and we could have seen it coming if we had been aware of the trick.
For political humor, the “misdirection” is the unquestioned and perhaps even unrecognized assumptions the listener or reader makes about the political world. The “incongruity theory” of humor argues that the human mind, for whatever reason, is attracted to situations where we expect one thing to happen, but what actually happens is something else. That seems a pretty apt description of the political process recently. That’s why I found McLellan’s conclusion so persuasive. As he puts it:
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.
If the misdirection is the listener’s shocked realization that the truths he takes for granted may not be truths at all, the humorist has done his job. It takes courage to lay bare those sorts of criticisms, of course. Before a lot of audiences, you might die.
 In the Oxford English Dictionary, “Joke, n.” The first known written source was from 1670 J. Eachard, “Grounds Contempt of Clergy,” p. 34: “To have the right knack of letting off a Joque, and of pleasing the Humsters.” If it matters, “humster” is “one who expresses approval by humming,” a function today which presumably has been taken over by “retweeting.”