Comedy in Politics

If you’ve ever studied theater (or if you’ve ever been drunk in New Orleans at or around Mardi Gras), then you are familiar with the masks of drama. They are the two masks you see side-by-side, one laughing and one crying. Drama dates back to the late fifth century BC, with both comedy and tragedy being created around the same time.

Comedy itself has changed and grown tremendously over time, and in no form of comedy is this truer than in stand-up comedy. The field has become incredibly diverse, with several great comedians out there who appeal to a variety of tastes. As human culture diversifies, so does the form of entertainment we like, comedy included.

But at what point does a cultural icon stop being a comedian and start being a political activist hiding behind the cover of comedy? The most notorious example to come to mind is Bill Maher, who took a liberal ideology, coupled it with extreme atheism, and turned it into straight insults of right-wing politicians and pundits alike, with a punchline thrown in seemingly as cover. But at least Maher is consistent in his rejection of religion – he is very quick to attack extreme Islamism, as well.

Other “comedians,” however, do not show the same equal treatment of religions. The focus is, almost exclusively, toward Christianity. Take, for example, John Fugelsang. Perhaps best known for helping “America’s Funniest Home Videos” tank in the ratings before quitting, Fugelsang is more recently known for being an MSNBC contributor and constant Internet troll. His tweets show little to no comedic value, but are instead vicious attacks on people who exists to the right of the political spectrum and, in particular, those of evangelical backgrounds.

Another comedian who has chosen the path of the pundit and who assigns himself the label of “comedian” is Dean Obeidallah. Obeidallah is an Islamic activist who was, at least at one time, a very good comedian. But, as he drifted more and more into the political field, his views and “jokes” became more and more pointed. His political tweets can often be seen to target “right-wingers” who are “Islamophobes” or “bigots.”

The basis of all forms of comedy is a sense of maliciousness. Comedy pokes fun at things, particularly stereotypes and caricatures, but to the level that these and other comedians have drifted, the maliciousness seems to override any sense of humor the “jokes” might contain. Rabid followers of these two and others are always ready to laugh, but more at the people who are offended than the jokes themselves, and this does not bode well for comedy as a whole.

Making fun of “right-wingers” has almost become the fart joke of the political comedy spectrum: it is the easiest route to take really only appeals to the lowest common denominator (those who want to laugh at people, not at jokes). Several great comedians realize where the line is and how to remain funny. Lewis Black is one of the more successful. He is very political, but never too much so, and always with the promise that the other side will “get theirs” when they get into power. Politics and comedy are not mutually exclusive, you see, but most comedians who do have political material know to balance it out with non-political material because that’s what keeps audiences hooked.

If we’re to sit back and enjoy comedy, like any form of entertainment, then we have to know that there is something in there that will appeal to us. If intellectual liberalism’s news network, MSNBC, is anything to go back, fewer and fewer people feel that way about the ideology. Obeidallah, Fugelsang, and others like them have the benefit of being very active online, where younger liberals like to play, so they can maintain an audience on that front, at least. But, they risk ever growing as entertainers because of their choice to isolate themselves to such a narrow group – young, Internet-dwelling millennials.

Comedy, like all entertainment, has and will continue to grow and change over time. How comedians online and on-stage adapt to those changes in both style, audience, and demand will be interesting to see. But the Dean Obeidallahs and John Fugelsangs of the world will come and go, while others who know how to better attract audiences (from Richard Pryor to Mitch Hedberg to Louis C.K.) will remain nearly-immortalized in the entertainment world.