It’s only with great pain, and after long consideration, that I would write something like this. But I’m coming to the conclusion that comedy, which I once saw as a force for good in the world, and which has been literally life-saving for me in the past, might in fact be a huge contributor to the political horror-show we see in the United States right now. The misuse of comedy is without a doubt a problem, but it is such a pervasive smokescreen for genuine bad behavior that I really have to wonder.
The Heady Days of Jon Stewart
When Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show, it was a revolution. Before that, fake news comedy shows were almost unheard-of. He created a whole new major genre in entertainment and news. Millions of people tuned in two watch The Daily Show for years, and for many of us, it was our primary source of news. I can’t count how many times I learned about something going on in the country, or in the wider world, that I would have never known about without The Daily Show. Probably hundreds of times. And I laughed every time I watched, and it made me not want to die the way normal news made me want to die.
The Daily Show felt like something was happening. Something Important. Maybe the Fool could truly rein in the False King! Huzzah!
The Rise of Colbert
The Colbert Report was not like anything else. Nothing I’d ever seen, anyway. The guy got parts of the international space station named after him. He became a cultural phenomenon – for educated liberal types, anyway. He was like Jon Stewart 2.0, simply eviscerating conservative hypocrisy night after night. The problem was, the conservative hypocrisy only got stronger. They only grew in power. At the height of Colbert’s popularity, the GOP took over 3/4 of state legislatures and a majority of the governor-ships as well. 2010 happened, they got to gerrymander district lines, and we’ve been suffering ever since.
See, the problem is we thought that conservatives were capable of shame. We have since learned better.
Now Nazis are Comedians
This is one of the most common defenses I see deployed on behalf of white nationalist and professional trolls in places like YouTube and specifically the Joe Rogan Experience – they’re just being funny. It’s comedy. It’s irony. Why is everyone so upset? What about free speech? Blah blah blah Nazis. “I was just being funny” is a classic attempt at justifying awful behavior – that’s nothing new. What seems to be relatively new is that it is being used to excuse public behavior that is bigoted bullshit.
Milo Yiannapoulos is not a fucking comedian. Alex Jones is not a fucking comedian. Trump is not a fucking comedian. The alt-right is not a comedic movement, it is white supremacy and Fascism. They aren’t joking, and we should never treat them as if they were joking.
Dammit John Oliver
One of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen in a while happened on Last Week Tonight a few months ago. First off, in case it wasn’t clear, I don’t find Trump the slightest bit entertaining. He was a boring piece of trash as a reality TV “star”, and a boring piece of trash making his cameo appearance in Home Alone 2, and a boring piece of trash on Howard Stern. He is boring and stupid and crass and a towering, self-satisfied ignoramus – the very worst kind of ignoramus.
As a result, I genuinely don’t understand people who otherwise seem quite intelligent, like John Oliver, who find him entertaining. But John Oliver recently had a bit where he talked about how Trump consistent gets us by being funny, mostly unintentionally, in the midst of all of his ignorant and bigoted rambling. At the end, a banner comes down, and balloons, and the banner reads “You Got Us.” Because, according to John Oliver, Trump does get us, again and again, by getting us to laugh at him while he says and does horrific things.
But by just presenting this as a fact, John Oliver is doing more harm. No matter how funny someone’s abusive spouse is, you don’t point that out while the abuse is ongoing. Even if a hijacker cracks jokes, it doesn’t matter until you escape. Trump is a monster, not a comedian. He’s taking hostages, not taking a bow.
It Happened Again Just Now
As this draft has been languishing, Trump had yet another racist tirade, and this sycophantic commentary came from Dear Leader State TV:
Trump is the “comedian in chief.” Ha ha ha white supremacy and death threats. Comedy gold.
Another Coda: Chappelle’s Sticks and Stones
We get distracted by treating monsters like comedians, and we also get distracted by treating comedians like monsters. Where do we focus our energy? Because the time and attention we have isn’t infinite. So do we focus on Dave Chappelle once again making jokes about trans folks? Or focus on the increasingly genocidal concentration camps in which we are now indefinitely detaining people? Do we work to cancel Chappelle, or do we work to cancel Trump? And the dozens of white supremacists he’s put in power? And the dozens of others he’s put in charge of needed programs solely to destroy them? Sure, take a moment to vent on Twitter about what you think is Chappelle’s bullshit – but remember that he’s not a Nazi. The real Nazis are rising to power, and many of the people comedians make fun of, Nazis just want to exterminate.