April 2017

Comedy often persuades. How does it do that? Why does it do that? Should it even do that? (Does it have to?)

On this April Fool’s Day, we’re taking a look the role of humor in politics - which we all know is a serious issue these days. When exactly does comedy cross the line? Or is it not funny unless it crosses the line? Humor can and does flourish even under totalitarianism, and it’s often a method serious resistance to oppressive regimes. But it also plays a part in the political culture of essentially all societies. What is that part, and how should we think of it?

This month we’ve invited libertarian comedian Jeremy McLellan to write a lead essay that explores these topics. Responding to him will be another libertarian comedian, Lou Perez. To give the issue a little bit of intellectual heft - but only a little bit - we’ve invited economist Michael Munger, whom you may know from Kids Prefer Cheese, and Nick Gillespie, who used to write at Suck and also at someplace called Reason, I think. 

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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.

Coming Up

Discussion through the end of the month.