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POLITICS AND COMEDY / Vol. 79, No. 1 (Spring 2012)

Arien Mack, Editor

This special issue seeks to explore the many ways in which comedy figures into political life, where it can serve as a safety valve and a way of maintaining the status quo, and how it can subvert, persuade, educate, reconcile and, at times, make survival more bearable.

This essay addresses historically and comparatively the ‘efficacy’ of political satire, first with an analysis of a highly political comedy by Aristophanes, and then with two modern examples from American comedy: Lenny Bruce and Jon Stewart. This comparison will reveal just how continuous across time and genre the theoretical conundra are, and suggests how difficult, if not impossible, it is to assess the efficacy of satire in light of the fact that the genre itself resists such attempts at assessment, often emptying of meaning through comedy the very meaning it claims to offer.

The political satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are largely celebrated for their nightly television programs, which use humor to offer useful political information, provide important forums for deliberation and debate, and serve as sites for alternative interpretations of political reality. Yet, when the two satirists more directly intervene in the field of politics—which they increasingly do—they are often met by a chorus of criticism that suggests they have improperly crossed normative boundaries. This article explores Stewart and Colbert's "out of the box" political performances, which include, among others, the 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity, Colbert's testimony before Congress in the same year, and his on-going efforts to run an actual Super PAC that raises and spends money to influence (and critique) the political process. Examining these and other examples of non-traditional and border-crossing political satire, we consider the ways in which such multi-modal performances—in and off the television screen—work together to provide information, critique, and commentary, as well as a significant form of moral voice and ethical imperative. In turn, we examine the responses from the political and journalistic establishment, which more often than not constitutes a form of boundary maintenance that seeks to delegitimize such alternative modes of political engagement. Finally, we discuss the significance of the developing relationship between television entertainment and political performance for our understanding of contemporary political practice.

Comedy takes liberties. Hence, it depends on liberty to survive. Sometimes it is divine, others farcical, sometimes operatic, others poetic, and still others shamelessly vulgar. As it moves from sauciness and scandal to sacrilege and sedition, comedy mocks everything in its sardonic path. Over the ages, comedy has been tapped to punch out the likes of the mighty or make swift shrift of their imperatives. Such actions point to the role of the First Amendment in all of this. Conceptually, the two intersect whenever comedy is offensive, that is, when it mocks, scorns, derides, ridicules, or pokes fun at a person, creed, or cause. In this regard, no figure stands out more in American history than the always offensive and often funny Lenny Bruce. How a society protects or prosecutes the likes of Lenny Bruce is a barometer of how much it values freedom of speech.

Political satire—the mocking of every aspect of the political process—is offensive, acerbic, disrespectful. Its practitioners take particular relish in aiming their fire at the politically powerful. Some of those targeted are not amused and try to censor the satire and its authors. This is especially the case in authoritarian systems, but censorship of political satire also exists in democracies. In this essay I compare the constraints on political satire in authoritarian and democratic systems in the 20th and 21st centuries, an era when new mass media and institutional changes brought a vast expansion of political satire as well as increased efforts to suppress it.

Lately, scientists have been suggesting that our common-sense universe may be only one of an infinite "multiverse" of intersecting alternative realities, albeit the only one we can know anything about. I would like to propose that the ever-abundant productions of imagination—art, poetry, music and the like—are our real means of experiencing those other possible or impossible worlds. Imagination easily transcends time and space. Sometimes it yields material results—an idea for a space rocket leads to men landing on the moon, for example. More often, the outcome is mere amusement, though it's hard to say what's so "mere" about that.

Writing from the personal experience of having to flee his home country due to death threats received after the publication of a political cartoon, Kowsar explores the not-so-funny consequences of satire in Iran throughout history. The development of satirical cartoons and political backlash in Iran is traced from the early 20th century, through the 1979 Islamic Revolution, to the international success of Persepolis in the present.

Political satire and irony flourish especially when other forms of political critique are curtailed, or when conventional political categories, modes of expression, and organization seem inadequate—an apt description, many would argue, of early 21st century America. This article explores how satirical political activists who call themselves the Billionaires, along with Comedy Central's "fake news" stars Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, engage two of the most delicate issues in American cultural politics: surging wealth inequality and the role of big money in politics. In contrast to Occupy Wall Street protesters, the Billionaires follow a strictly elegant dress code, say precisely the opposite of what they mean, and carefully craft a brand image designed to appeal to corporate news media.

While German dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is well known for his biting satires, grotesque parodies, and sharp irony, his use of the comic goes far beyond notions of comedy in the technical sense of plays with happy endings that express a utopian desire for social harmony. For him, the comic is a structural principle underlying the conflict between desire and reality. Constructing these situations became his method for demonstrating the incongruities of capitalist society, and in that sense the comic might even be equated with contradiction of the dialectic as such. Brecht's point of departure assumes that any representation of reality is always a construction of reality, and the goal of constructing a particular reality is to gain knowledge about it in order to undertake actions that can change it. That reality can be transparent and comprehended grounds his very notion of the comic, and yet Brecht's optimism has nothing to do with a utopian view of the coming revolution but rather evolves from his belief that one can understand reality and even change it through dialectical thinking. This article discusses some of the seminal influences on Brecht's ideas about the comic and offers an overview of the many ways he implemented comic strategies, especially in his dramas and staging practices.

Following closely the public debates about the nature and purpose of distinctively Soviet laughter and comedy in the 1920s-1950s, this essay distills rationales used by producers of Stalinist culture for determining a socially acceptable discursive place for the comic in Soviet Russia. As the essay demonstrates, these debates reveal a complicated argumentative strategy devised by the Soviet political and cultural authorities in order to reclaim, appropriate and adapt for the needs of the socialist state previously ignored comic genres.

Despite the perception that feminists lack a sense of humor, women have long used ridicule and other comic tactics to subvert conventional norms. In fact, post-structuralist perspectives on power and knowledge give us reason to suspect that forms of humor or irony might be a more appropriate means of philosophical suasion than fact or argument alone. Given that social norms shape cognitive habits, the disrupting of social norms through ridicule might free our thinking as well. In this interdisciplinary essay, we seek to untangle the oft-hidden history of feminism and humor, revealing aspects of the history and influence of feminist humor on knowledge and power, and glimpses into where humor has played a key role in the success of social movements. In Part One, we provide a brief history of the impact of comedy in second and third wave feminism. Part Two provides an elaboration of key philosophical elements towards a genealogy of feminist humor. There we discuss the aim, figures, conception of power, and the cathartic effects of an erotic politics of laughter. We call on future waves of feminism to recall the use of humor in past feminist movements and to incorporate humor into their core.

Philip Roth's 1969 novel Portnoy's Complaint made an important contribution to the genuine inclusion of Jews in mainstream American society. Through its comic structure and content it presented a pathway for Jewish and non-Jewish Americans alike to gain needed perspective on the psychological impact of stigmatized Jewishness, which had peaked in America in the first half of the twentieth century. In this respect, Portnoy's Complaint shows how comedy can contribute to processes of social inclusion.


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