“Dear America, did you get my poke?” Obama said with a grin. “Is it appearing on your wall? I’m not sure I’m using this right. Love, Aunt Hillary.”
Comparing Hillary Clinton’s campaign to your relative who can’t seem to grasp social media (you know the one), the aforementioned joke was delivered Saturday night at the 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, or “The one night a year where actors get to pretend they’re smart,” as comedian and TV host Billy Eichner put it. The event itself, known for its laid back atmosphere, humorous punchlines, and unique audience, amplifies the not-so-expected marriage of comedy and politics. And a successful marriage at that.
Spend any amount of time in Washington D.C and “humor” probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind—unless you find Washington Monument selfies amusing. You wouldn’t think that being the leader of the free world would be funny, either. It’s not—it’s hilarious. While comedy’s penetration into the political sphere has increased exponentially as of late, it has always had a place in politics.
We can look back at Greek scriptwriters and tragedians who often used humor and satire to mock those in power and influence leaders during times of turmoil. And the hieroglyphs in Egypt? I hope Pharaohs weren’t sensitive. As Egyptian history lecturer Carol Andrews notes, Egyptians were “amused” by political satire. They may have created the original political cartoon. Fast forward and we find brilliant minds such as Mark Twain captivating readers, using wit to evoke thought and explain societal implications.
“The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.” – Mark Twain
Now comedy is being utilized even more as a tool to effectively communicate messaging. Quite frankly, it’s hard to turn on the TV without coming across some form of political comedy. This presence is only intensified through social media and online television access. From SNL’s coverage of the presidential election to shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, many media platforms today partake in exploring the intersection of comedy and policy. And many of them do it well.
For one, while humor is subjective, the act of laughing is universal. It’s something we feel and can relate to. Humor also helps deconstruct complex issues—not necessarily dumbing down, but clarifying in a way only comedy can. Furthermore, it’s thought-provoking. Unlike politics, there are few rules, if any. Comedians use humor to push the envelope, to color outside the lines—to be honest, authentic and unapologetic—a mindset that’s largely opposed to the one that dictates politics, where PR is everything (I’ve watched House of Cards). Take this recent Amy Schumer sketch on gun control, for example. It only makes sense that humor and politics attract one another in a sort of (absurd) balancing tightrope act. Let’s also not overlook the positive physical benefits of laughter. Studies show that laughter decreases stress, burns calories and makes us feel happier. Juxtaposed with the feeling of wanting to rip your hair out when engaging in policy-related matters, it’s a match made in heaven.
It’s not only the media that harnesses the power of comedy. It’s also politicians themselves. Perhaps most notable is Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who made the…logical transition from SNL star to policy leader. President Obama is also well known for his use of comedy when engaging the public. Do you remember this episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee? His comedic delivery and innate knack for humor has been written about many times. Hell, there’s even a video entitled, “Barack Obama tells jokes that are actually funny.” It almost has 800,000 views.
Similarly, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has also jumped on the comedy bandwagon. Check out her appearances on Broad City and SNL. Explore the buzz she has created through her use of social media—using emojis, gifs, and tweets to connect with voters. Bernie Sanders also showed up on SNL. And The Donald? Well, he’s funny in his own way. I guess.
I spoke with New York Times Social Media Editor Talya Minsberg about how the link between comedy and politics has become more visible. As someone who lives and breathes media and current events, Talya has experienced this blend first hand as candidates and political institutions alike flock to digital platforms as a way to connect with younger audiences. She explained, “Everyone wants to stay relevant and, effective or not, playing off of pop culture and humor is an easy way to do so. You see it with brands and we see it with politicians.”
This year more than ever it seems pop culture and politics are one in the same.
If your perspective of Washington D.C. involves decision-makers, suits, long work hours, and political talk in bars, well, you’re partially right. But it goes much deeper than that. To stay sane there has to be some humor sprinkled in.
I had the pleasure of attending the latest Politico Playbook lunch, hosted by White House Correspondent Mike Allen. The event consisted of an impressive panel which included comedian Billy Eichner, Mike Farah (President of Production at Funny or Die), David Litt (President Obama’s former jokewriter) and Joanna Rosholm (Press Secretary to the First Lady). They answered questions regarding the use of humor as a way to engage audiences—specifically in relation to the presidential election.
They stressed the need for candidates and other public figures to humanize themselves, and in an authentic way. Joanna walked the room through how she got Michelle Obama to agree to dance with Big Bird in this video (Spoiler: FLOTUS didn’t need much convincing). Mike and David talked about President Obama’s performance and natural comedic ability in this viral Funny or Die video, which they produced with actor Zach Galifianakis.
The takeaway here is balance. You can have a great message and not be able to effectively convey it, and you can have a great delivery with no substance. Humor helps create a bridge to the world of politics, but it can’t be the destination. As David Litt put it:
But this is what David and others involved in political comedy do so well.
Whether it’s a candidate using humor to build connections or the media using political comedy to help consumers read between the lines and deconstruct complexities, one thing is certain: Humor has found a comfortable place in politics and it’s not going away any time soon. While “Nerd Prom” only comes once a year, there’s no question that, as the policy focal point, DC is finding a way to be funny. Keep an eye out for Obama at your local comedy club come 2017.
Writer and comedian Jonathan Savitt has been featured on MTV News, Funny or Die, Huffington Post, College Humor and more. Follow him on Twitter @savittj.