The Day The Laughter Died

Will anything ever be funny again now that Donald Trump has won the presidency?

Image: Johan Lange

It happened that a fire broke out backstage in a theater. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was just a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning, they shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid general applause from all the wits, who believe that it is a joke.

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Throughout the election cycle, Donald Trump had been parodied, mocked, ridiculed, and “destroyed” by a veritable Who’s Who of comedians, but that didn’t stop him from sweeping the Rust Belt and seizing the White House. Humor can’t vanquish an unqualified race-baiter, so what can it do for us going forward? Speak jokes to power? Help us bear the unbearable?

The next four years — heck, maybe even the next eight — should be exceedingly funny. History shows us that such liminal periods are rife with comedy. In the classical world, Greek tragedy yielded to Greek comedy as that region’s influence waxed and then waned. The Silver Age of Roman literature saw the flowering of its finest wits; so too did late Victorian England, which provided a backdrop for the great works of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. But what kind of humor will suit our troubled times?

The 1960s and 1970s experienced social upheaval and a reorientation of American politics, with comedians from horn-rimmed pianist Tom Lehrer to drug-fueled Richard Pryor tagging along to offer biting commentary. These performers also sounded alarms, warning against the forces of political reaction that would empower Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In 2016, however, the reaction and retrenchment embodied by Trump were treated as a kind of joke, a self-parodying cable news sideshow that distracted from the real future of American politics. From Lena Dunham to the “Chapo Trap House,” most comedians operated on the assumption that HRC’s victory was a fait accompli and thus aimed their best barbs at one another as they participated in a rollicking debate about the direction and velocity of liberal (or leftist) reform.

Is comedy, so often invested with deep social significance by highbrow commentators, good for anything besides enduring chronic pain? In prior election cycles, I had retreated behind a wall of “Daily Show” clips and the resulting self-satisfied laughter. This time around, I chuckled along with my favorite millennial media-savvy podcast hosts, all of us secure in our obvious mental superiority. As philosopher Henri Bergson wrote in Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, “Laughter cannot be absolutely just, [for] its function is to intimidate by humiliating.” Having recognized the failings of the ignoramuses around him or her, “the laugher immediately retires within himself, more self-assertive and conceited than ever.” All jokes, Bergson thought, were jokes at someone’s expense. During the 2016 election cycle, many of those someones on the receiving end of the gibes and jests were, in theory at least, encompassed within the same enormous Democratic coalition that was all but guaranteed to deny Trump the White House.

For many of us, humor had been our defense mechanism; sarcasm our second language. But now the harsh reality of a presidential administration oriented around racism and xenophobia had strangled comedic invention. Yet how could we possibly cope without it? How could we accept anything as deadly serious as Trump’s ascension without adding an ironic wink to leaven the unbearable heaviness of being woke?

Like every other Gen Xer, I was weaned on stupid, misogynistic 1980s teen comedies and then nourished to maturity on the minimalist nihilism of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. The apolitical consensus comedy of a show like “Seinfeld,” where an entire episode can revolve around a tell-tale red spot on a cashmere sweater, was both funny and safe. Judging from the Nielsen ratings, upper middle class, middle class, and even lower middle-class Americans could all relate to jokes about minor faux pas and petty irritations. Even “The Ben Stiller Show” and “Mr. Show,” two brilliant slacker sketch shows, failed to pair biting social critique with any particular call to action. The closest thing we ever got to that came when Beavis told Butthead, “This sucks, change it.”

The 2000s, a decade dominated by the dynamic duo of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, witnessed the tentative rebirth of oppositional political comedy. Jon Stewart, an MTV alum, earned two Peabody Awards for broadcast journalistic excellence by exposing the intellectual bankruptcy of the governing class. Stewart and his “Daily Show” colleagues redefined how millennials consumed the news: they watched clips of stupid politicians saying dumb bullshit intercut with live studio footage of an exasperated Stewart doing spit-takes. In retrospect, this was soft-edged comedy, almost toothless at times, that eschewed hard political labels even as it emphasized how we, the educated, college debt-incurring audience, were all so much smarter than our debt-free boomer parents.

Obama’s first election to the presidency was the beginning of the end for what remained of the comedy consensus. We had joined together to laugh about nothing, then tuned in to Stewart et al. to enjoy a reassuring twenty-two-minute reminder that everybody else was stupid. But the cracks were beginning to show. It became impossible to ignore that much of the humor described here was overwhelmingly the work of heterosexual, reasonably well-off white men. Short-lived successes like “Chappelle’s Show,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” and “Everybody Hates Chris” didn’t linger on the national stage long enough to change that, and even a new crop of women-helmed comedies, such as “Girls” and “Inside Amy Schumer,” struggled to foreground many underrepresented viewpoints.

Then there was the matter of politics. For young people struggling to secure gainful employment in a globalized market where graduate degrees often meant less than nothing, Jon Stewart’s ceaseless exhortations to be reasonable and his can’t-we-all-get-along attitude grew insufferable. The hollowness of that approach became painfully obvious when John Oliver released a lengthy “Last Week Tonight” segment mocking Donald Trump’s candidacy, urging viewers to “Make Donald Drumpf Again.” The bit was textbook Stewart — “We can beat them if we make them look dumb!” — and spoke to the weaknesses of this method: you cannot make Trump look any dumber than he already appears. Trump’s fire — his insults and tweetstorms and alt-right trolling army — can only be fought with fire.

As if on cue, the blaze has indeed arrived, burning away the vanities of many of our nation’s greatest menaces — villains like multiple-time Jeopardy! champ Arthur Chu, a dude who writes widely panned thinkpieces about toxic nerd masculinity for The Daily Beast. One of the funniest comedy sketches I heard this year was a pitch-perfect parody of sports talk radio that mocked Chu and a bunch of other internet-native “allies” who rather naively and unhelpfully believe they’re “amplifying the voices” of people with more legitimate stakes in the campaign for social justice. The sketch, one of the first “Chapo Trap House” segments that boasted legitimate production values, highlighted the trio’s ability to simultaneously skewer multiple forms of popular culture (dumb sports commentary, even dumber millennial media commentary) while conveying a relatively simple and blunt political critique.

Why did I derive such Twitter-brained enjoyment from a laugh at the largely unknown Chu’s expense? And why, for that matter, did I care that Samantha Bee — another comedian whose work I sometimes enjoy — had sided with one politician over another during a divisive Democratic primary? Did Jon Stewart fail because he couldn’t maintain a form of oppositional political discourse that included everybody who was at least slightly left of center? And why was this assumed to be his responsibility in the first place? Given how wistful and reflective he’s become post-Daily Show, it certainly seems he began to think so, even if he didn’t want to shoulder that burden.

With Stewart gone from the scene, millennial humor has devolved into a kind of Donner Party, with high-profile yukksters and their wisecracking partisans devouring one another on Twitter. And as these battles raged, populist puppeteer Jeff Dunham and his stereotypical sidekicks filled midwestern arenas to capacity while outspoken white nationalist Sam Hyde (who appropriated Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s public access TV aesthetic if not their progressive politics) briefly helmed a controversial alt-right sketch show on Adult Swim. Have comedy’s limits at last been reached?

Sure, comedy didn’t “destroy” Trump, but that doesn’t mean it should be devalued as a form of social discourse. One vitally important function of humor is to eliminate any superficial optimism we may have by explaining the reasons for despair. But what comedy can never do — what we must somehow find a way to do for ourselves — is replace this superficial optimism with cautious hope. Hope calls for a willingness to act on one’s best conjectures, even if they can never be proven absolutely. It demands continuing to strive for genuine reforms to ostensibly insoluble problems.

In recognizing comedy’s limits, we should be left with a sense that all of civil government, all of ethics, all of civilization is at stake. We stand with one foot over the edge of an abyss, and the answer is not to avert our gaze, stifle a helpless giggle, and pretend things are all right. Even those of us who have laughed ourselves into a state of despairing skepticism have reason to remain brave and hopeful in our struggles for what is good and right. Otherwise we will lapse into cynicism and indifference, chiding one another for our mistakes and chuckling to ourselves about the impossibility of altering this untenable state of affairs. Comedy isn’t some all-powerful messianic force that can alter the course of history, but it’s right to expect that our comedians will continue alerting us, their voices increasingly strident and urgent, to the fires off in the distance. We must heed their warnings, and extinguish these blazes before it’s too late.