Comedy has always had a unique ability to comment on sensitive issues. Throughout history, comedians have used humor and satire to subtly critique societal injustices. For example, Shakespeare’s fools and jesters could jokingly address problems that his main characters never could outright say. Later on, one of the greatest and most famous works of satire ever written, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, mocked British societal attitudes towards the Irish and the poor by proposing that the rich purchase and eat babies from impoverished families. Throughout American history, political cartoons inspired people to take action and fight for social reforms.
Today, comedians carry on that legacy, sharing their opinions on controversial topics. And while we may enjoy a far greater freedom of speech and expression today, comedy still has an edge over standard news and opinion reporting.
In Trump’s America, comedy is more successful than ever. Lately, many Americans have looked towards the genre for political commentary. Late-night comedians, such as Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Seth Meyers, have capitalized on this and seen their ratings spike. They consistently make headlines about their bold statements and top Youtube’s trending section. Meanwhile, the late-night NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live has done particularly well. In fact, because of its political satire during the election and of President Trump, SNL has seen its best ratings in over 20 years.
And not only are ratings skyrocketing, but comedy is becoming an increasingly more important medium for political conversation. In the past, comedians had to subtly imply their statements on controversial topics. They used elaborate satire to address issues that other public figures could never openly discuss. However, criticizing the establishment is far more socially acceptable today. At times, mocking the government is not only okay, but even encouraged. In this 21st century anti-government atmosphere, comedians have had a major role in shaping public opinion.
So why is comedy so popular now? Well, simply put, it makes politics far more interesting to the average American. Random statements from Senators or Congressmen will rarely make headlines- after all, not that many people are interested in that content. On the other hand, bold statements by comedians often go viral. When done correctly, comedy evokes both laughter and anger. These strong emotions not only make shows more memorable, but also bring people to share them with others. This further boosts ratings and revenue, creating an environment where famous comedians can flourish.
Limits of Comedy
Despite these apparent successes, comedy has defined limitations. Many forms of expression are certainly not socially acceptable today. For example, comic Kathy Griffin recently posed with a bloody, decapitated Trump head prop. Despite the daily hate and backlash Trump receives, this was still considered way too far, and Griffin was promptly fired from her job at CNN.
In today’s political climate, comedy also lacks the ability to bring people together. As a comedian, it is virtually impossible to universally appeal to Americans.
Instead, comedy alienates moderates that believe comedians’ hyperbole is too extreme. The nature of comedy is to exaggerate an issue to bring attention to it. Ultimately, the comedian implies a need for direct change or reform. However, comedy is a delicate art, and stepping too far in either direction is likely to receive criticism for stretching the truth.
Additionally, late-night comedians have an intense liberal skew, making them unappealing and offensive to right-wingers. To be fair, outside of controversial gender politics, the right is generally a lot easier to ridicule than the left. The left’s failed policies at least appear to come from good intentions, even if they were naively implemented. Meanwhile, Donald Trump and his aggressively anti-PC crowd seem to have no filter whatsoever. Unfortunately, these factors weaken comedy as a medium for American political discussion. Rather, comedy is more of a source of news and entertainment with a heavy liberal slant. This further polarizes the nation into two absolute, uncompromising sides, worsening America’s political climate.
Regardless of its present-day flaws, comedy is transforming the way Americans get their news and political opinion.