Laughter in the Age of Trump
Maggie Hennefeld / University of Minnesota


“It is frankly hard to believe there ever was a time when people thought a Trump candidacy would be funny, but there was such a time.”
–-John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, 11/7/2016.

In response to news reports that the reality TV star Donald Trump is considering a run for the White House: “Do it! Do it! Look at me! Do it!”
–John Oliver, The Daily Show, 6/10/2013. ((VideoFads, “Careful What You Wish For (John Oliver in 2013 on The Daily Show),” Filmed [2013], YouTube video, 00:28, Posted [October 2013].

John Oliver’s satirical mea culpa on the eve of the 2016 elections has raised many urgent questions about laughter and its effects on American electoral politics. To what extent are comedy and laughter responsible for enabling Trump’s rise amid a pathologically entertaining political media landscape? From the incisive satire of programs like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, to the sensationalist ridicule fueling Internet “fake news” click-bait and 24-hour cable news talking heads, cultural economies of laughter have become inextricably entangled with the very civic processes that will soon install a self-caricaturing clown and ludicrously unabashed huckster profiteer into the Oval Office.

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There is nothing wrong with using humor to lighten our burden—it’s going to be a long four years (at least). But now we need it to do more than that: we need to find a way to harness the edge of satire to repoliticize civic discourse in American society. For example, did you hear the one about the Western liberal democracy that democratically elected an unqualified, predatory, authoritarian demagogue and then potentially offered him unimpeded free reign over its eroded institutions and slanted checks and balances?

While liberal democracies enshrine the rights and freedoms of individual citizens, social democracies emphasize the power of collective institutions to protect the people from the ravenous excesses of individualist capitalism—to uphold the public services and civil liberties that we have come to associate with the social safety net. We know that these basic rights and programs are in massive jeopardy, and we do not kid ourselves by denying that this process has been underway for quite a long time. American culture in recent years has suffered from rampant depoliticization. Party politics have become spectator sports, exemplified by the “Super Bowl-sized ratings” ((Tom Huddleston, Jr., “Trump-Clinton Debate Could Get Super Bowl-Sized Ratings,” Fortune, September 25, 2016. of the 2016 Presidential Debates.

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Why then, given our national addiction to political spectacle, did so many of us experience the outcome of the election as visceral shock—beyond the rational surprise due to bad polling data or to cultural incomprehension? There is no doubt that the news industry’s sprawling laughter machine helped pave the way for this feeling of collective liberal trauma. Trump’s election was less implausible than vividly unimaginable and unthinkable. This is the function of disavowal: when I say “I know, but all the same…” what I really mean is that I cannot imagine living with the burden of this thing that I profess to know. Laughter is a flourishing mechanism of disavowal. Our shock at the results of the election came not from a lack of belief, but from an excess of disbelief—a disavowal of something plausible but deeply unwanted that took shape through a media landscape fueled by incessant laughter and compulsive mockery.

Comedy, however spiteful, has always possessed a special power to reveal that the emperor has no clothes. Satire defeats fear with laughter. As Jon Stewart put it in a 2010 MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow—about the destructive impact of news entertainment on journalistic standards—what “satire does best…is articulate an intangible feeling that people are having, bring it into focus, say you’re not alone. It’s a real feeling. It’s maybe even a positive feeling, a hopeful feeling.” ((Will Femia, “The Maddow/Stewart Interview, Uncut,” MSNBC, November 12, 2010. Unlike the smug laughter of cynical disavowal, the stinging laughter of pointed satire can actively participate in transforming our perception of reality. Since reality is a construct—equal parts unknown trauma and Celebrity Apprentice—it is therefore ripe for the molding, and ours for the seizing.

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What, then, is the place of laughter in an era of Trump—a notoriously thin-skinned authoritarian personality who litigiously cannot take a joke: who’s threatened to sue comedians including Bill Maher and Rosie O’Donnell for defamation of character? From his allegations of false reporting against The Onion, to his absurd Twitters wars as President-elect with the writers of Saturday Night Live and the cast of Hamilton, Trump literalizes the powers of satire. He cannot take a joke precisely because he is a joke.

But rather than purify our culture of the ubiquity of jokes (from “fake news,” to late-night satire, to cynical infotainment), let’s be rigorous about how we understand these jokes. It is a truism that humor is serious business: now it is more serious than ever. The Reichstag Fire of 2017 might very well come in the form of a preposterous Tweet or a reality television stunt.


Beyond paying scrupulous attention to the politics of comedy, how else can we take back the edge of satire? As Samantha Bee once lampooned the G.O.P. obstructionism against diaper subsidies for poor working-class mothers, “Like it or not, there are a lot of poor babies. And it sounds like all you’ve [G.O.P. congressmen] got for them is the same useless advice you’re giving their mothers: Keep your legs crossed.” ((Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, “Poor Babies Don’t Deserve Diapers | Full Frontal with Samantha Bee | TBS,” Filmed [April 2016], YouTube video, 05:48, Posted [April 2016]. Sometimes a pithy joke is the most expedient language for articulating the complex realities of systemic injustice—and for exposing the crude and self-serving political games that perpetuate such inequalities.

The Trump era heralds a new frontier in the dialectic between subversive humor and authoritarian oppression. Despite Trump’s threats to “open up those libel laws,” satire will remain protected as free speech by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (at least for now). In contrast, the official censorship and forceful monitoring of oppositional laughter is a hallmark of totalitarianism. Serbian grassroots humorist, Srdja Popovic, whose Otpor (i.e. “resistance”) movement helped spur the downfall of the brutal dictator Slobodan Milosevic, described his tactical use of illicit laughter to defeat terror and to incite popular resistance. He wrote in 2015: “Everyone agrees that funny trumps fearsome.” ((Srdja Popovic, Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).)) Popovic made use of a “smiling barrel,” a rusted tin barrel with Milosevic’s head painted across the front, which he allowed passersby in Belgrade to beat senseless for only 1 dinar per whack.

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Having survived a very different system of institutionalized oppression, Ralph Ellison recounts the American legacy of the “laughing barrel”: both a physical barrel into which Black people unleashed their abjected laughs, and a repository for the history of African-American humor under slavery and Jim Crow. The “laughing barrel” was often placed at the center of the town square in the rural South, and offered one such space for laughing against racial tyranny and systemic injustice. As Ellison writes in “An Extravagance of Laughter,” “For by allowing us to laugh at that which is normally unlaughable, comedy…calms the clammy trembling that ensues when we pierce the veil of conventions that guard us from the basic absurdity of the human condition.” ((Ralph Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison: Revised and Updated, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Random House, 1994): 618.))

We need laughter now more than ever, but we need it to do more work than ever. Laughter pokes holes in the stilted orthodoxies, unquestioned dogmas, and overly earnest convictions that can permeate any ideological position—no matter how justified, authentic, or moral its claims. For example, since the election, there has been a troubling tendency to separate cultural issues from economic realities. This was the bait and switch that enabled a corporatist tycoon like Trump to appropriate the very real class anger of the 99% by pinning it on divisive cultural issues of identity, lifestyle and geography. He effectively stirred up the old bigotries to protect the excesses of ruthless capital.

oliver bee

While “class politics” have inexplicably become shorthand for centering the rural or exurban white working-class, allusions to “identity politics” have been rampantly depoliticized. What exactly are the politics of identity politics? The problem is not with identity as such, but with its gradual depoliticization through the neoliberal language of diversity, multiculturalism, and personal responsibility (on the affirmative side) and of exclusion, intolerance, and injury (on the negative side). The urgent rhetoric of identity enfranchisement has effectively lost its grip on the political: the basis of social oppression and cultural discrimination in the erosion of civic rights and the unbridled escalation of class inequality.

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A bad joke come true, a jester-turned-sovereign, and now a clown without laughter, Donald Trump has also revealed a remarkable lack of facility with the language play necessary for wit and humor. Think of his volley of botched one-liners at the Al Smith dinner, which include “Here [Hillary] is tonight pretending not to hate Catholics”; “Hillary has believed that it takes a village…[especially] in places like Haiti where she has taken a number of them”; and “Hillary is so corrupt she got kicked off the Watergate commission.” (Womp womp womp.) As SNL vet and now Senator Al Franken (D-MN) has noted, “Donald Trump never laughs.” ((Mark Leibovich, “Al Franken Faces Donald Trump and the Next Four Years,” New York Times, Dec. 13, 2016. Lack of laughter notwithstanding, Trump does having a remarkable propensity for discrediting his political enemies as “laughable,” “a laughing stock” and “ridiculous,” on topics ranging from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, to Russian election interference, to the status of critical news journalism.

Against Trump’s authoritarian laugh-less laughter, there now remain two possibilities for our counter-laughter: the cynical disavowal that displaces reality (until it comes back to smite us) and the transformative satire that changes the rules of reality. Humor thrives in the realm of ambiguity, multiple meaning, and radical improvisation. Whatever revolution we wage on the ground, in the classroom, through our social media networks, and towards the voting booths, it cannot—it must not—exclude the critical analysis and imaginative practice of comedy.

Image Credits
1. The Daily Beast
2. The Washington Post
3. The English Blog
4. Orlando Sentinel
5. TVLine
6. CNN
7. Vice
8. World Future Fund
9. So Let’s Talk About
10. Slate
11. Black Then
12. Author’s screenshot
13. Author’s screenshot
14. Occupy Democrats
15. Forward

Irony Irony: The Mission (Accomplished) of The Daily Show

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

“For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon–laughter…. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
— Mark Twain, The Chronicle of Young Satan, Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts

Over forty years ago American novelist Philip Roth observed (in “Writing American Fiction” [1960]) that “American reality” “stupefies, …sickens, …infuriates, …and finally…is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” Even the “daily newspapers,” he writes, “fill us with wonder and awe (is it possible, is it happening?), also with sickness and despair.”

Now, in the 21st Century, postmodern American unreality has inspired the proliferation of “fake news,” parody journalism. In venues like the online journal The Onion, the website The Borowitz Report, the NPR news quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, and especially Comedy Central’s Emmy and Peabody award-winning The Daily Show, anything-but-meager imagination battles an increasingly stupefying, sickening, and infuriating political and cultural scene, and fake news, exhibiting perhaps more “truthiness” (as they call it on The Colbert Report) than that offered by legitimate journalism, has become an important component in our cultural discourse, an antidote, however temporary, to sickness and despair. As America’s greatest humorist once reminded us, laughter is our secret weapon. It’s a quote that often comes to mind when I watch my ultra-Republican, immune-to-irony next door neighbor stare in puzzlement at my “Republicans for Voldemort” bumper sticker.

On October 17th, 2005, the night Comedy Central would debut its “grippy” Daily Show spin-off The Colbert Report (pronounced “The Col-bear Ra-poor“), Jon Stewart’s guest on the mother ship was Fox’s bullying blowhard Bill O’Reilly, an especially appropriate booking since the network’s new “all spin zone” (Havrilesky) was intended to be a parody of celebrity pundit shows like The O’Reilly Factor. In their colloquy, which included O’Reilly’s perhaps clueless protest against that program “with some French guy making fun of me,” Stewart’s guest would call him a “pinhead” and accuse him of a lack of seriousness — of laughing, “playing it for giggles,” at everything. Laughing heartily, Stewart would accept the charge that he (and The Daily Show) do “add insult to injury.” “But,” he would add, a finger pointing at O’Reilly, “you add injury.”

Reviewing The Daily Show in PopMatters early in the Jon Stewart era (1999- ), Dan French would, like O’Reilly, find it pointless, frivolous: “masturbatory, nearly apolitical, only barely satirical, and without larger purpose.” Since I was not watching back then, I cannot judge the accuracy of his harsh indictment — similar charges, after all, have been leveled against satirists throughout history, including Jonathan Swift — but I will suggest that The Daily Show in the Bush Era has become an absolutely essential source of sanity, a comic healing of our injuries.

The Daily Show is never better than when engaged in decidedly postmodern metacommentary on its own method. After playing a clip of the ever-scowling Condoleezza Rice (seeking to rationalize the faulty intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq), insisting that “When you’re dealing with secret regimes that want to deceive you’re never going to be able to be positive,” Stewart would observe:

“‘Secret regimes that want to deceive’ — if she’s not going to see the irony in that statement, I’m sorry. I’m not going to point it out to her. That’s not my job here. Oh, but there’s irony in that statement, and not the fly in your Chardonnay kind. The real kind. Not the rain on your wedding day kind. This is irony irony.”

Irony is, of course, the very essence of Stewart’s job. The Daily Show is all about “irony irony.” When Colbert (on the night in question “Senior Nuclear & Biochemical Weapons Analyst”), examining the “nonsmoking gun” of the Kay Report (on Iraq’s WMD), wonders “What kind of madman refuses to produce evidence that he doesn’t have what he said he didn’t? Saddam had to be taken out or who knows what else he might not have done. It’s imaginable” — that’s irony irony at work. In Colbert’s patalogic we discern a kind of discourse capable of challenging the proliferating absurdity of world events in a way the paradox-free language of network and 24-hour cable news cannot possibly match.

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

In November of 2003, President Bush would make a surprise visit to the troops in Iraq. The major television newscasts covered his dramatic arrival with exactly the credulity Bush’s handlers had no doubt envisioned, playing up W’s generosity in giving up his own Thanksgiving, stressing the soldiers’ happiness in breaking bread with their commander-in-chief. The Daily Show, of course, would cover it a bit differently. Colbert, that night Senior White House Correspondent, pretending to have accompanied Bush on his trip, would report that “this [the secrecy of Bush’s trip] just proves that we journalists shouldn’t even try, and we don’t.” Still, he would go on to report, the success of the mission did suggest some important, if ironic, lessons for the White House:

“When it comes to planning, do some. This Thanksgiving trip has shown the President that a lot of the best preparation is done in advance. Unfortunately with regard to our occupation of Iraq we did all of our preparation afterward, and now it’s a seething cauldron of death and rage….”

A second ironic insight was likewise apparent, this time concerning exit strategy: “Have one. What we saw last Thursday was a President with a clear idea of when and how to leave Iraq, specifically at noon and full of giblets.”

When “Media Analyst” Rob Corddry, investigating negative coverage of the Iraq war, insisted that “Facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda,” that, too, is irony irony at work, deconstructing White House spin. When Corddry, this time “Senior Foreign Affairs Analyst,” heeded the President’s insistence that the incidents at Abu Ghraib did not represent “the America I know,” suddenly realizing “We invaded Iraq with the wrong America” and insisting that “Just because torturing prisoners is something we did doesn’t mean it’s something we would do”–his irony irony, delivered by one of a host of Daily Show correspondents seemingly oblivious to their own non-sequiturs, succeeded once again in identifying the Catch-22 mess we find ourselves in.

When, in March 2004, it was discovered that the White House had been coercing local television affiliates to run its planted, self-produced, pro-Bush policy pieces as if they were real journalism, “Senior Media Ethicist” Corddry would be appalled, not by the egregious duplicity of such postmodern manipulation but because he is jealous of the high caliber (better production values, better guests) of the “infoganda” in question. “They are kicking our ass,” Corddry lamented to Stewart in a moment of irony irony irony. “As a fake, we are a sham.”

In October 2005, in the wake of the unplanned revelation of the fakery behind a scripted conversation between Bush and American soldiers in Iraq, Corddry would treat the story of the Bush White House as if it actually were an episodic television series. As an avid, “living and dying with the show” fanboy, a “Whitey” (so to speak), he would take the airing of the rehearsal as a “gesture to the fans” (like a behind-the-scenes video on a DVD), denounce ABC’s Commander in Chief as a “total rip-off” of his own favorite show, wonder if that preposterous social security “B story” (in which the President weekly “stumbled onto a community of androids”) might be an indication that The Bush Years: The Series could be about to “jump the shark,” and question what happened to the never-wrapped-up Bin Laden story line (“that’s just bad writing”). And what, Corddry wanted to know, were the writers thinking when they turned that Dick Cheney character from “plausibly evil to cartooney evil.” That’s irony irony irony irony.

Sham or not, The Daily Show remains deeply committed to its mission. Covering in 2004 a make-believe, and hence meaningless, peace agreement in the Middle East signed by prominent out-of-power figures on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli clash, in the hope of showing the way to a cessation of hostilities, Stewart made a solemn, this time sincere, promise: “And I vow, that as long as there are imaginary treaties signed by pretend delegates to create hypothetical peace this fake news show will be there to cover it.”

French, Dan. “And Your Point Is…?” PopMatters.

Havrilesky, Heather. “The All Spin Zone.”

Roth, Philip. “Writing American Fiction.” Reading Myself and Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Stewart, Jon, Ben Karlin, and David Javerbaum. America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. New York: Warner Books, 2004.

Twain, Mark. “The Chronicle of Young Satan.” Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts. Ed. William M. Gibson. Berkeley: U California P, 1969.

Related Websites
Daily Show Website
The Colbert Report Website
Colbert Nation Website
The Borowitz Report
Jump the Shark Website
The Onion
Wait…Wait! Don’t Tell Me Website

Image Credits:

1. Mark Twain

2. Stephen Colbert

Please feel free to comment.

Awkward Conversations About Uncomfortable Laughter

Mary Douglas\' Implicit meanings

Mary Douglas’ “Implicit Meanings”

In her book, Implicit Meanings, the anthropologist Mary Douglas explores the roles jokes play in mapping points of tension or transition within a culture. Only a thin line separates jokes and insults. The joke gives expressive form to an emergent perspective within a culture — something which is widely felt but rarely said. When a joke expresses a view already widely accepted, it becomes banal and unfunny. When a joke says something the culture is not ready to hear, it gets read as an insult or an obscenity. The job of the clown is thus to continually map the borders between what can and can not be said. This is why a good comedy routine is accompanied as often by gasps as by laughter.

I was reminded of Douglas’s perspective on jokes when I recently participated in a screening and discussion of Sarah Silverman’s new film, Jesus is Magic. For those of you who have not heard of her yet, Silverman is a former Saturday Night Live writer who sparked national controversy in 2001 when she told a joke about “chinks” on Conan and when she defended the joke on Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect. The Silverman controversy has resurfaced in recent months both because of a rather memorable appearance in The Aristocrats and because of the release of a film documenting her standup comedy show. She has recently been profiled in The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly and is currently shooting a pilot for her own series on Comedy Central.

To understand the controversy, we have to return to the now infamous joke she told on Conan in 2001. She was explaining that her various efforts to escape jury duty and her friend’s suggestion that she could try to come across as prejudiced on the questionnaire by writing “I hate chinks.” Silverman pauses, suggesting that she would consider being embarrassed to make such a comment, even in jest, and so instead she wrote, “I LOOOVE Chinks — and who wouldn’t.”

Greg Aoki, the president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, argued that the network showed a double standard in allowing the word, “chink”, to air when it would almost certainly have bleeped “nigger.” The network and host later apologized for the decision to air the joke but Silverman refused to apologize, contending “it’s not a racist joke. It’s a joke about racism.” The controversy is one which looks differently depending on whether our focus is on the words used (Aoki rightly sees “chink” as a word deeply entwined in the history of racism in America) or the meaning behind them (Silverman is right that her comedy ultimately raises uncomfortable questions about how white people “play the race card.”)

Writing in Asian Week, columnist Emil Guillermo argues that rather than seeing Silverman’s joke as “fighting words,” they should use it as “talking words,” as the starting point for discussing the current state of American racism. This is not what Aoki experienced when he tried to challenge the appropriateness of Silverman’s joke during their mutual appearance on Politically Incorrect, where the host and guests questioned his sincerity, made fun of his name, called him names, and cut him off when he tried to link the jokes to recent incidents of racial violence. And it is not what Silverman experienced when her critics simply label her a “racist” without exploring what she was trying to say.

How can we distinguish between racist jokes and jokes about racism, especially with the deadpan irony that is Silverman’s hallmark? Most of us have no trouble thinking of cases where jokes have been directed against minorities as a racist exercise of power. Yet we should also keep in mind the many different ways that comedy has been used to challenge racism — think about the first generation of African-American comics who went into black, white, and multiracial clubs and confronted their audiences with words and concepts that were designed to create discomfort; think about the ways that underground comics like R. Crumb sought to “exorcise” the history of racial stereotypes in his medium by pushing them to their outer limits; think about shows like All in the Family which exposed the ways that previous generations of sitcoms had remained silent about the bigotry which was often at the heart of American domestic life. And then there are jokes which are funny simply because they are “politically incorrect,” that is, because they thumb their nose at anyone who would set any limits on speech whatsoever. Perhaps most strikingly, there are jokes which deny the reality of both race and racism simply by refusing to talk about it at all. When was the last time that you heard a joke on a late-night talk show (Okay — outside the Daily Show) that you remembered the next morning, let alone one which provoked debate four years later.

Critics have read Silverman’s comedy as simply “politically incorrect.” There are plenty of times when Silverman’s jokes are, to use Douglas’s definition of obscenity, “gratuitous intrusions.” Yet, at its best, her comedy reflects on the problems of living in a culture where old racial logics are breaking down and new relationships have not yet taken any kind of definitive shape and where there seems to be no established language for speaking to each other across racial lines. Her most consistent target is a white America which is so busy trying to watch its step that it falls on its own face. Several deal with the challenges of negotiating mixed race or multi-ethnic relationships. For example, she gets upset when her half black boyfriend objects to her “innocent compliment” that he would have made “an expensive slave” because he has “self-esteem issues,” smugly insisting, “He has to learn to love himself before I can stop hating his people.” This is after she has suggested it would be more “optimistic” to say that he was “half white” rather than “half black.” At another point, she describes a particular audience as “black,” then corrects herself to say that it was “African-American,” then decides it was “half and half.” Or again, she talks about how she and her Christian boyfriend will explain their religious beliefs to any future offspring: “Mother is one of the chosen people and Dad believes Jesus is magic.”

Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman

Silverman’s jokes do not in any simple or direct way represent her personal views; rather, she has adopted a comic persona (perhaps multiple personas) through which she reflects confusions and contradictions in the ways that white America thinks about race and racism, much the way some hip hop performers have argued that the views about race, criminality, and sexual violence they express through their songs are attempts to make visible some of the issues confronting their community. In both cases, critics have tended to read such personas literally. There are no words to describe whiteness which have the same sting as “chink” or “nigger” and so she has to perform whiteness, against a backdrop of other racial identities, so that it can recognize itself in all of its insensitivity and self-centeredness.

Consider, for example, a Silverman routine about her lust for a jewel which is formed by de-boning and grinding own the spines of starving Ethiopian babies. There is a level to the joke which is simply funny because of the cruel and insensitive way she is speaking about human suffering; there is another level, however, which works not unlike the way that Jonathon Swift’s similarly-themed, “A Modest Proposal,” works, exposing the infinite flexibility with which we can rationalize and justify the exploitation of the third world. Silverman delivers the joke with what New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear calls “quiet depravity”: “The expression that lingers on her face is usually one of tentative confusion or chipper self-satisfaction, as if she had finished her homework and cleaned up her room, and were waiting for a gold star.” She doesn’t smirk; she honestly thinks she has no real prejudice or animosity even as she bases her everyday decisions on gross stereotypes. Hers is the face of what cultural critics have called “enlightened racism,” the smug satisfaction with which white Americans excuse ourselves for our own lapses in taste and judgment as long as they do not become too overt or openly confrontational. As she describes this jewel, she hits a moment of conscience, realizing that they probably exploit the “unions” which mine the babies’ spines, but then concedes, “you have to pick your battles.”

Early in the jewel routine, she describes her acquisitiveness as “so JAP,” then pausing to explain that she doesn’t mean “Jewish American Princess” (a stereotype which she has self-consciously embodied throughout the routine) but rather “Japanese.” Instantly, she moves from a stereotype which is more socially acceptable (if only because she would be making fun of her own group) and into one which is totally unacceptable (and the joke only works if we recognize the offensiveness of the word). Indeed, she plays often on the ambiguities of her own status as white and Jewish — sometimes speaking as a member of an oppressed minority, other times blending into a white majority, and often making this desire of Jews to escape their minority status a central theme in her work. It crops up for example when she makes bitter comments about contemporary Jews who drive German-made cars or when she tells a joke about Jews who want to escape racist charges of having killed Christ by blaming the Romans (and then pushing this historical scapegoating one step further by suggesting that personally she blames the blacks.)

Silverman’s comedy depends upon the instability created as we move from thinking of race in black and white terms towards a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. A previous generation of comics would not have made jokes about Asian-Americans or Hispanics because they simply were not part of the way they envisioned America. Much contemporary race theory has sought ways to move us beyond simple black/white binaries in the ways we think about racial diversity. As recent demographic trends suggest, America is rapidly moving towards a time when Caucasians will be in the minority but they are not being replaced by a new majority culture: rather, America will be more ethnically diverse — some would say “fragmented,” “balkanized,” or “disunified” — than ever before and there has been few successful attempts to build coalitions across those diverse populations.

A musical number in Jesus is Magic self-consciously maps the fault lines in this new cultural diversity: dressed like a refugee from an Up With People concert, strumming a guitar, looking her most wide-eyed and innocent, she wanders from space to space, gleefully singing about how much Jews love money, how little blacks like to tip, how well Asians do at math, and ends with a particularly choice lyric about blacks calling each other “niggers.” Then, the little white woman looks over and sees two angry looking black men who glare at her for a long period of silence; then they start to laugh and she tries laughing with them; then they stop laughing and glare at her even more intensely and for an agonizingly long period of time. It is hard to imagine a comedian who is more reflexive about the nature of their own comic practices or more insistent that the audience stop laughing and think about the politics of their own laughter.

Much of the Silverman controversy centers around what anthropologists often call joking relations: in any given culture, there are rules, sometimes implicit, often explicit, about which people can joke with each other, about what content is appropriate for joking in specific contents. During times of social anxiety, these rules are closely policed and transgressions of these boundaries are severely punished. Yet, in times of greater security, cultures may suspend or extend the rules to broaden the community which is allowed inside a particular set of joking relationships. But who determines which jokes are safe and permissible? She openly courts such questions by appearing on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, doing verbatim versions of Dave Chappel skits. Can a white woman make the same jokes as a black man or does changing the race of the performer change everything?

Comedy in the 1990s seemed often about securing boundaries as comedians emerged who could articulate the self perceptions and frustrations of different identity politics groups: Asians made Asian jokes, Blacks made black jokes (and sometimes about white people), Jews made Jewish jokes, and white comedians mostly avoided the topic of race altogether. This places an enormous burden on minority performers not simply to speak on behalf of their race but to bear the weight of any discussion about racism. And of course, when black comedians made jokes about black people, they often did so in front of white or mixed audiences. Just as white comedians were uncertain whether they could joke about race and under what circumstances, white audiences were uncertain whether they could laugh about race and under what circumstances. Silverman has thrust herself out there, saying it is time for white comics to joke about race, and has faced the inevitable push-back for trying to change the rules of discourse.

Contemporary cultural theorists have been urging a move away from identity politics towards one based on coalition building: race will not go away simply because we refuse to talk about it and we cannot meaningfully change how we think about race as a society by remaining within our own enclaves. Consider, for example, Frank H. Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. Wu is an Asian-American professor who has chosen to teach at Howard University Law School, a historically black institution, because he wanted to create a context where Asian-Americans and African-Americans can learn to communicate across their racial and ethnic differences. Wu argues that for such coalitions to work, one has to put everything on the table, confront past stereotypes, examine historic misunderstandings, give expression to fears and anxieties. We can’t work through the things that separate us until we feel comfortable discussing them together. This isn’t simply something that has to take place between different minority groups: there has to be a way where whites can express their own uncertainties about the future without being prejudged.

Jokes may fuel such social transformations because they force us to confront the contradictions in our own thinking. They are valuable precisely because the same joke will be heard differently in different contexts and thus can help us to talk through our different experiences of being raced. As Wu writes, “Race is meaningless in the abstract; it acquires its meanings as it operates on its surroundings. With race, the truism is all the more apt that the same words can take on different meanings depending on the speaker, the audience, the tone, the intention and the usage.” Mary Douglas similarly suggests that the reason our culture has such trouble drawing a fixed line between jokes and obscenity is that unlike traditional cultures, we do not occupy “a single moral order” and there are no agreed-upon boundaries.

And that brings us back to Guillermo’s appeal that Silverman’s “chink” joke might be used as “talking words.” From my perspective as a white southern-born male, Silverman is raising important questions about race and racism which white audiences need to hear if they are going to come to grips with a multicultural society. From Aoki’s perspective, the same joke evokes a painful history, using words that many Asian-Americans hear too often. At the risk of sounding naive and idealistic, maybe that’s something we should be talking about, however awkward the conversation is apt to be.

Rotten Tomatoes
The New Yorker on Sarah Silverman

Image Credits:

1. Mary Douglas’ “Implicit Meanings”

2. Sarah Silverman

Please feel free to comment.

The “Popular Culture and Philosophy” Books and Philosophy: Philosophy, You’ve Officially Been Pimped

The D’Oh! of Homer

The D’Oh! of Homer

Introduction: Ridiculously Obvious Observations

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past four years, you’ve no doubt seen or heard of the Popular Culture and Philosophy books published by Open Court. Titles such as The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, and The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All litter the shelves of local bookstores, where they can apparently be purchased in bulk. Turns out that popular culture is — well, “popular” — with young people. Philosophy? Not so much. But the Popular Culture and Philosophy books have managed to bridge this gap by exploiting the commercial success of recent cultural artifacts and releasing a new title dedicated to that artifact every couple of weeks.

Indeed, one might compellingly argue that the books themselves have become a popular cultural phenomenon. In the unselfish interest of bringing philosophy to even more young people, this book examines the philosophical importance of the Popular Culture and Philosophy books. Specifically, it suggests that their importance is “not much.” Like the fleeting character of the texts to which they pay tribute, these books will not have a lasting influence on philosophy. But in the meantime, there’s profit to be made. So, without further delay, let us examine these books before they, too, become passe.

Chapter 1: Plato: Philosophical Whore or Does This Guy Really Just Apply to Everything?
By Richard Fish, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, McBeal State University

Plato was a hip-cat who lived a long, long time ago. In his writings, which mainly took the form of dialogues, he pursued the notion of “the good,” which was rooted in his theory of forms. This theory proposed the existence of ideal, moral forms that were absolute and eternal. They were also conveniently accessible only to Philosopher-Kings, who were especially knowledgeable. Everyone else essentially lived their lives in a cave, albeit an allegorical cave. In perhaps his most famous work, The Republic, Plato suggests that most people are chained deep in the cave, where they see mere shadows of the “real” world projected onto the walls by the sunlight of the true world outside. This allegory is useful for thinking about the Popular Culture and Philosophy books, which feature shadow philosophy (i.e., poor approximations of real philosophy). So, yes, if you ascribe to perfect forms, Plato can apply to everything.

Maybe Logic Academy

Maybe Logic Academy

Chapter 2: You Want Kant to Do What?! That’ll Be $16.95

By Victor Ehrlich, Professor and Chair of Philosophy, St. Eligius College

With his famous claim that the “Mind is the law-giver to nature,” Immanuel Kant married empiricist and rationalist views of knowledge, suggesting that knowledge was a composite of both sensory experience and the structures of the rational mind. Simply put, indeed overly simply put, the object is, according to Kant, inevitably created to some extent by the subject. Thus, if we take as the object of our investigation the Popular Culture and Philosophy books, sensorily we are dealing with printed text on paper. But this printed text is meaningful only to the extent that the faculty of the human mind supplies it with form. This chapter argues that that form is perhaps best labeled, “philosophy as entertainment.” By severely bastardizing Kantian philosophy, we can rationally conclude that Popular Culture and Philosophy books are “pure fun” and that fans of popular culture will buy anything that mentions what they’re fans of.

Chapter 3: Philosophy as Cash Cow: A Marxist Primer
By Beverly Crusher, Visiting Professor, The University at Farpoint

Adopting the perspective of historical materialism, Karl Marx argued that the underlying conditions, forces, and relations of production shape the superstructure of ideas in society. In other words, the economic base or foundation in any given society conditions the realm of culture. To understand specific elements of culture, then, such as the Popular Culture and Philosophy books, we must examine the modes of production. These books — with their flashy covers and populist promotions, targeting of mass tastes, standardized, formulaic content, and relentless release — reflect a capitalistic profit-motive. As such, these books reproduce the economic interests of the ruling class, thereby exploiting and enslaving the working class of readers. Fortunately, according to Marx, the oppressed class will at some point rise up, stop buying these books, and will determine their own modes of production and thus forms of thought.

Chapter 4: Taking the “Pop” Out of Popular Culture: Philosophy Without Fun-House Mirrors
By Cordell Walker, Assistant Professor of English, Texas Ranger University

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty critiques the tradition of foundationalist, metaphysical philosophy, arguing that far from being absolute and universal, knowledge is local, constructed, and contingent. For Rorty, a philosophy without mirrors begins with the recognition that philosophers possess no special method for accurately representing reality. In this chapter, I contend that the authors of the Popular Culture and Philosophy books posses no special method for accurately representing the reality of popular cultural representations of reality. What they do possess is a shared disinterest in the communication technologies they analyze. Apparently, the fact that television shows are actually televised has no bearing on their philosophical messages. This chapter infuses the books in this series with deep philosophical meanings, while ignoring their status as literature targeted to a mass audience.

Chapter 5: Habermas Reads Popular Culture and Philosophy Books and Confirms Disintegration of the Public Sphere
By Jessica Lovejoy, Lecturer in Theology, Springfield University

While many scholars have declared the failure of Enlightenment reason, others such as J. Habermas have defended the project of modernity, claiming that intersubjective recognition and mutual understanding through communication can still lead to emancipation (i.e., egalitarian politics). For this to happen, however, the systematic impediments to understanding must be demolished. Informed by the Frankfurt critique of the “culture industry,” Habermas argues that the mass media is chief among these impediments, for it leads to passivity. Thus, mass media or popular culture such as the Popular Culture and Philosophy books impedes the development of an alternative, progressive public sphere by making readers the passive recipients of commercial philosophical messages. This chapter contends that Habermas would urge serious political and philosophical conversation outside of popular culture.

Chapter 6: Pop Philosophy and Postmodernism: Lyotard Asks, “Tenure Case or Just Language Game?”
By William Truman, Professor Emeritus, College of Connecticut, Metro Campus

Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard is perhaps best known for his definition of the postmodern as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” A metanarrative, according to Lyotard, is simply a story that provides a credible purpose for action. In the postmodern condition, however, such stories and the grand narratives they legitimate have lost credulity because of the recognition that they lack any universal basis for grounding their claims. Social institutions, then, are constructed on little more than language games or self-legitimating discourses that follow internal rules. Drawing on Lyotard, this chapter examines the language game of tenure, and explores how the rules of this language game have been rewritten by philosophers to legitimate chapters in the Popular Culture and Philosophy book series as serious scholarship.

Forthcoming Titles in the Popular Culture and Philosophy Series from Open Court:

  • Volume 845

Maxim and Philosophy: Being and Toplessness

  • Volume 846

Paris Hilton and Philosophy: “Existentialism, That’s Hot!”

  • Volume 847

T-Shirts with Pithy Sayings and Philosophy: Hemlock Is So Last Season

  • Volume 848

Edible Underwear and Philosophy: Mmmmm, Tastes Like Neo-Pragmatism

  • Volume 849

Brad and Jen’s Breakup and Philosophy: Mr. & Mrs. Ubermench

Image Credits:
1. The D’Oh! of Homer

2. Maybe Logic Academy

Please feel free to comment.

Interview: Jason Reich, writer on The Daily Show

by: Chris Lucas / FLOW Staff

The Daily Show

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Why do you think The Daily Show has achieved such widespread success? And more importantly, how do you think it is that a comedic commentary on the news could persuade so many to believe that what is said is the truth?

I think The Daily Show owes its success to that fact that we fill a rather unique niche in the media and comedy landscape. Nobody else out there is doing exactly what we do. While other comedy shows might touch on current events or poke fun at the news media, I can’t think of another show that combines parody and analysis in quite the same way. Of course, it’s taken the show a long time to find this exact voice, and I think the way the show’s popularity has exploded in the past couple of years is a testament to the fact that, particularly during that time, we’ve really been doing something all our own. As for “persuasion,” we’re not trying to persuade anybody to think anything. We’re merely offering our own commentary on the news. Read the papers and decide for yourself what the truth is. At the end of the day, we’re just telling jokes.

Can you describe the process of putting together a show? How many writers are there? How much creative freedom do writers have and how much is directed by the show’s producers? What role does the on-screen talent (Stewart, et al) play in the writing of the show? Are certain topics taboo and, if so, why?

Our day begins at 9:30 am when our team of ten writers meets with our head writer and several researchers. We skim the papers, review the footage we’ve received, and decide which stories are dominating the news ? those become our “Headlines.” The meeting is also a chance for any writers to pitch ideas for correspondent standups or other segments (“This Week In God,” etc.). The day’s assignments are divided up among the writing staff, and we all go back to our offices and write, usually alone or in pairs, for most of the morning. Mid-afternoon, the material we’ve written goes to head writer DJ Javerbaum, executive producer Ben Karlin, and of course, Jon Stewart. Together they select the best material for the show and edit any correspondent pieces that have been submitted. The rest of the day is devoted to re-writing or working ahead for shows later in the week. At 5:15 we rehearse, and then the audience comes in and we tape the show.

The correspondents, when they’re in the office and not on a field shoot, do contribute a lot to the writing. We’ll frequently sit down and work with them on pieces. And we get a lot of freedom in terms of the ideas and jokes we can submit. We are certainly encouraged to be creative and experiment ? better to pitch a crazy idea that doesn’t work than keep a great idea to yourself. We’re not too concerned about taboos, either. We try to avoid death and tragedy, but beyond that, if it’s happening, it’s pretty much fair game.

Do TDS producers/writers/talent organize or write material based on a presumed target audience? Are guest bookings similarly scheduled with a demographic appeal in mind? Guests seem to vary from celebs hocking their latest product to Senators and ex-presidents discussing the political climate, how is this disparity managed?

We’re writing and producing a show for a relatively young audience, so that does play a role in how we approach the material, but we’ve got an extremely smart viewership, too, so we never feel we have to dumb anything down. I think that’s also why we can get a tremendous variety of guests. Jon and our guest producer Hilary Kun are well aware of what’s happening in the worlds of both politics and entertainment, so when booking interviews they try to cover a wide range of interests. I don’t see it so much as a “disparity” as merely an attempt to keep the show fresh, interesting and topical.

Regarding you and/or the rest of the staff: what writing jobs have you had before TDS? Does the staff mostly come from late-night comedy? What is the average age of the writing team? How long have most of you been with the show?

Our writing staff, which ranges in age from mid-20s to 40-ish, comes from a fairly wide range of backgrounds. We have several people with experience in comedy, be it television writing or standup. Quite a few of our writers have journalism backgrounds, and others have done time in fields like advertising or graphic design, but have always had a talent and ambition for writing TV comedy. All of the ten writers currently on staff have been with the show for at least a year; most have two to five years experience with the show, and one has been around since the very first Daily Show ever aired. I, personally, did a lot of writing with comedy groups both in college and after graduating in New York, and I got television experience as a production assistant for an NBC sitcom and then as the writers’ assistant on The Daily Show, but getting staffed on the show was the first paying writing gig of my career.

What do you think about a large portion of today’s opinion being based off satire rather than traditional means of journalism? Is this a concern or inspiration when you write?

I think satire is a much more effective way to make a point than than just hitting your audience over the head with heavy-handed opinion. First of all, it’s more artful. Instead of coming out directly and saying, “such-and-such is a problem,” we have more leeway in finding creative ways to get our point across. I think even if a joke has serious undertones to it, comedy is a lot less preachy and lot more accessible than finger pointing and lecturing. And of course, we’re also giving our viewers something to laugh at. Our show certainly has a point of view, but you can also watch it without having to worry about what its “message” is. Hopefully, The Daily Show works on both levels for our audience.

Do you think there could ever be a political satire program with a conservative bend? Or are conservatives??just not funny?

Sure, I think conservative political satire can exist. I think that part of the reason what we do is so frequently perceived as “liberal” is because we’re talking about the news, and these days, the people making the news are, by and large, conservatives. When one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, they’re going to be the target of the lion’s share of our punchlines, but that doesn’t mean the left isn’t deserving of scorn, either. Conservatives are definitely funny. Have you read anything by Ann Coulter lately? Hysterical. Seriously, she’s hysterical.

I remember a joke on the show after the Emmy about the writers’ “diversity” (while showing a picture of a staff of white male writers). How much is this still (or was it ever really) the case? How does this relate to issues of target audience? Does the demographic makeup of the writing crew matter as far as writing for a specific audience?

We get asked questions like this a lot, and I firmly believe that the demographic makeup of our writing staff plays little to no part in issues of target audience. Yes, there may be a bunch of white men on our writing staff, but it doesn’t follow at all to say that that’s also the target audience we’re going for. Similar to the way we don’t book guests targeted for a specific audience segment, I don’t think there’s a specific “target demographic” in our mind when we’re writing the show’s material. We’re just trying to put together the funniest, most interesting, most insightful show possible, hopefully one that appeals to a wide range of people.

I’m an avid watcher of The Daily Show and enjoy almost everything Jon Stewart and his minions do. It does seem that the writers rely on gay jokes for many of your pieces. Why is that?

I wouldn’t necessarily say we “rely on” gay jokes for a lot of pieces, but I do think that jokes about sexuality or other “dangerous” topics are a good way to ease the tension when talking about already delicate topics. While we do like our material to have something to say, we’re not above mixing things up a little bit by approaching something from a sillier angle. We can only do so many weighty jokes about how bad things are in Iraq until we feel the need to toss in a poop joke and lighten things up a bit.

In an NPR interview on Sunday, Art Spiegelman claimed that comic writers and satirists (including himself and The Daily Show) are only permitted to speak because they are “castrated,” like medieval fools. How far is the TDS enabled or diminished by disclaimers like, “We only do fake news”?

I don’t think we’re hindered by that at all. After all, we’re not the news. I think it’s great that people see us as a valuable source of commentary, but watching The Daily Show should be a supplement to whatever other news sources you use, not a substitute. We’ve never claimed to be anything other than a comedy show, and I think if we were to claim some sort of legitimacy as a “real news” outlet, it would diminish what we’re able to get away with ? we wouldn’t be able to comment on the news media, which we do almost as often as we comment on current events. I’m glad that people respond to us, and I’m glad that Jon is taken seriously when he does speak on topics that are important to him, but we’d never claim to be more than “the fake news.” We just don’t want that kind of actual responsibility.

Are conservative media groups trying to get TDS off the air? Do you receive hate mail? Intimidating letters? Threats to boycott sponsors? In other words, how do conservative media groups respond to The Daily Show and how seriously are they taken?

As far as I know, there are no crusades being mounted to get us off the air. I think even staunch conservatives see the folly in trying to portray a basic cable comedy show as some sort of enemy of the people. We’re the little guy. Sure, every so often we’ll get a letter from someone who was upset by something we said, but no more often than any other comedy program or TV show gets those same kind of letters. We’ve had plenty of conservative guests on, and I think for the most part, they understand what we’re doing and they appreciate the humor. We’re really not out to make anybody mad. We just want to keep quietly doing our thing, albeit on the higher end of your cable dial.

Bear Left Link Library
The Daily Show Site
Warner Books
Footnotes for The Daily Show Feature: The Daily Show
PopMatters Review: The Daily Show
The Daily Show Forum
The Online Gadfly
Ann Coulter’s Website

Image Credits:

The Daily Show

Please feel free to comment.

Funny Politics

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University

It is commonplace to observe that television, like everything else, is increasingly global these days. What is happening on the other side of the world is shown and commented upon instantaneously in news programming. There is also a considerable international trade in programmes as well as channels with a world-wide reach and co-productions between countries. The USA, of course, stands at the apex of global television in addition to cinema and much else besides. We are all tutored to some degree in US issues and events seen from an American perspective in addition to its hegemonic entertainment culture. Yet, there is still a great deal of US material that just does not sell abroad. Political satire on television is such an example, although The Simpsons may be, to an extent, a great exception to the general rule. This preamble allows me to move from the American context of Flow to mention an important British television programme that only Britons see, Bremner, Bird and Fortune.

Bremner, Bird and Fortune is the latest manifestation of a great tradition in British television going back to the early sixties with the BBC’s That Was The Week That Was (TW3), political satire. TW3 castigated the Conservative government of the day in comic sketches, parodied news items and cabaret-style routines. It was taken off the air a few months before the 1964 general election so as not to influence the result. Labour won anyway. There were only two TV channels at the time so TW3 had access to a huge audience. This legendary programme may well have contributed to the climate of opinion that voted out the Tories after thirteen years in office. In the 1980s, the puppet caricatures show, ITV’s Spitting Image, poured scorn on Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Labour did not come off lightly either and the Liberal leader, David Steel, amongst other leading politicians and celebrity personalities, was mocked mercilessly. At its height, Spitting Image commanded an audience of over ten million. Channel Four’s Bremner, Bird and Fortune attracts around two million viewers, which in the present multi-channel environment is actually quite good for such a programme.

It would be surprising if Prime Minister Tony Blair likes it, yet Bremner, Bird and Fortune has met with no political censorship, unlike TW3 forty years ago. The show has had trouble over copyright, however, particularly regarding new lyrics for old songs, though Tom Lehrer has been particularly generous in allowing Rory Bremner and his pals to rewrite his work (‘the Sunnis hate the Shias’, etc.). There is enough American material, especially with such obvious targets as George Bush, US economic and military imperialism, voracious corporations and oil-driven policy. When the company that makes Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Vera, put together a compilation of the American material a couple of years back, there were no takers in the USA.

John Bird and John Fortune performed in TW3 all those years ago. When they teamed up with young impressionist Bremner in the late eighties a direct connection was made between the old and the new in British television satire. Bird and Fortune write and perform an interview sketch, as two typically British ruling-class buffoons, for every episode (these are available on disc). The interview is with a character called George Parr, who is played by Bird, on occasion, as a British army general; and, when Fortune plays Parr and Bird takes his turn to do the interviewing, he is usually a governmental or corporate official. Parr gives convoluted and contradictory accounts of policy and practicalities. Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bird as General Parr admitted that the British were not well equipped for encountering the enemy since its tanks, for instance, were designed for combat with the Russians in Northern Europe. They didn’t work so well in the sands of the Middle East. Also, British army boots tend to melt in hot climes. In the most recent series (October 2004), Fortune, playing Parr as a minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, explains how relaxing legal restrictions on gambling for American and South African operators of casinos will bring about cultural renewal and urban regeneration in British towns and cities. Bird and Fortune have also played civil servants in the War Office when Britain invaded and occupied Iraq during the 1920s. Under the direction of Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary at the time, Britain used mustard gas against ‘insurgents’ and set up a constitutional monarchy, which was overthrown in the 1950s when the British were finally kicked out. Shortly afterwards, the CIA hired a youthful thug, one Saddam Hussein, to assassinate the new Iraqi Prime Minister. He failed but was looked after in order to return to the fray later on. Saddam’s subsequent association as friend and then foe with the USA (and, indeed, Britain) is also traced in Bremner, Bird and Fortune. Parallels between the British and the American imperial adventures in Iraq are also drawn with chilling humour and to dispel historical amnesia, a striking feature of both American and British politics. Furthermore, all the questions about weapons of mass destruction, regime change, lucrative contracts for rebuilding Iraq, the ignorance of another culture and effect of Americanism on an Islamic nation, torture and the rest of it are treated with comedy and — as is the case with the best satire — deep seriousness.

The producer and co-writer of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Geoff Atkinson, pointed out to me recently that the comedic impulse comes first; moreover, he believes it must do so. If it’s not funny it simply doesn’t work. Comedy is not to be reduced to a sweetener for otherwise side-lined political information. Bremner’s early work was not especially political at all. He was a remarkably talented impressionist, normally making fun of TV personalities, such as the sports presenter, Des Lynham. Atkinson himself started out writing for The Two Ronnies, which was hardly a satire show. But, as politics became more and more bizarre, the temptation to laugh at it, perhaps in order to avoid crying about it, was to become unavoidably compelling for them.

As well as his portrayal of the creepy fantasist Tony Blair, Bremner does a brilliant impression of George Dubya Bush. Before the invasion of Iraq, there was a special edition of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, entitled Between Iraq and a Hard Place. Shortly after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the official though not actual cessation of hostilities, another special was put out in May 2003, Beyond Iraq and a Hard Place. These editions of the programme represented a significant cultural intervention in the public sphere where issues concerning the reasons for invading Iraq and its consequences were hotly debated; and still are nearly two years later. There was always greater scepticism in Britain than in the USA about the linking of Al Qaeda to the Ba’athist regime, disquiet at belligerent strategy in the Middle East and horror at the British government’s craven support for US policy. Blair’s own reputation will never recover from this historical error in his own country. In Beyond Iraq and a Hard Place, Rory Bremner as himself remarks, ‘The war may be over but the battle for hearts and minds is harder. Let’s face it, it’s a bit difficult to win Iraqi hearts and minds when you leave their hearts in one place and their minds in another’. Then Bush (Bremner) speaks on a television programme beamed into a devastated Iraq, Towards Freedom. He begins, ‘My fellow Iraqis…’ Dubya’s talking head is accompanied on screen by: lists of sponsors (Haliburton, Bechtel, etc); news reports such as George Clooney being signed up to play Saddam Hussein in a forthcoming movie; and a count of ‘Oil Barrels This Hour’. He praises Iraq as, in Condoleezza Rice’s words, ‘the cradle of civilization’ and corrects his praise of the ‘many’ to ‘some historical artefacts’. Apparently, there is no intention to exploit Iraq’s oil reserves ‘any more than is strictly necessary under the normal rules of international trade and shareholder value’. As a Coca-Cola sign revolves beside his head, the President of the United States reassures the Iraqi people: ‘Be assured of one thing. We will not walk away from your country, as others have done before. We will not stay in your country, as others have done before. We will do both…’

The audience figures shot up for these specials on Iraq, reflecting a thirst for the expression of more critical perspectives on the state of the world than those routinely purveyed on mainstream television. Whether right or wrong, the well-founded views articulated by Bremner, Bird and Fortune are usually present only in marginal publications addressing relatively small and strongly left-wing constituencies; and are hardly ever present on television where a much wider audience can be addressed. Nowadays, the place where they are most likely to crop up on television is in satirical comedy shows. Perhaps that is because comedy is not supposed to be serious and, therefore, doesn’t have to be taken seriously. Historically, license has been given to the court jester to say the naughty things for casual and ineffectual entertainment. Bremner, Bird and Fortune is not, however, merely a safety valve. It is extremely funny and politically astute in its carefully researched material. Rory Bremner, the two Johns — Bird and Fortune — and the programme’s producer, Geoff Atkinson, have published a book of their stuff recently, You Are Here – A Dossier. It provides a good idea of how and why Bremner, Bird and Fortune is such a nodal point of the cultural public sphere in Britain.

BBC – Comedy Guide to Bremner, Bird and Fortune

Please feel free to comment.