The Comedification of Politics; The Politicisation of Comedy

by Willow Lloyd

In tandem with a growing distrust in politicians and journalists, the public sphere in the US and the UK is becoming increasingly comedified. Comedic bits taking on social and political questions of import – like Stewart Lee’s demolition of Paul Nuttall, excerpted from his BBC show Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle – are cut out, uploaded, tweeted and retweeted.

Socialism is not simply about new economic relations, but about creating a whole new culture with new ways of feeling. Moreover, political motivation involves a great deal more than a simple deduction from class location and economic conditions. For as Theweleit wrote, ‘[t]he success of fascism demonstrates that masses who become fascist suffer more from their internal states of being than from hunger or unemployment.’

Therefore, in the struggle for hegemony nothing should be left aside: the left must use the whole arsenal of art, feeling, and sensuousness in struggle. We must be comedic and critical, eliciting joy and laughter while opening the way to liberation. However, with the far-right currently using humour as propaganda – something best exemplified by the campus talks of Milo Yiannopoulos and the provocateur comedy of Sam Hyde – there abounds a suspicion about the viability of an explicitly political left comedy. Would a left comedy involve merely inserting a left content into the forms of Yiannopoulous or Hyde – in other words, presenting a ‘Milo of the left’? Or is there a uniquely left-wing way to approach stand-up comedy, one more in tune with the intrinsic characteristics of the art form itself?

With Yiannopoulous or Hyde, moreover, although their performances parallel comedy in general or stand-up comedy more particularly, because of failings that are ethical as much as aesthetic, they should not be described as stand-up acts. While stand-up tends towards criticality, and has an element of collectivism baked into it in the audience-performer interaction, it would be wrong to say therefore that stand-up is necessarily leftist. Nonetheless, the ethics emerging from the structure constituted by the relation of comedian to audience makes stand-up a potentially fertile terrain for the left.

Fascism Comedifies Politics

Described by some as a ‘comedian’, Milo is, however, no stand-up comic: relying on lecterns and PowerPoint presentations, he avoids the nakedness of genuine stand-up performance. These props of his serve as armour for the ‘intellectual’ character act, the charade he has constructed. They work as defences against audience criticism and possibly against his own self-doubt. The stand-up comedian, by contrast, is generally naked: they have nothing with which to guard themselves against the audience but their body and speech. Yiannopoulos’s performances, therefore (and they are certainly performances), may make his audiences laugh – and in that sense they could be described as comedy. They are certainly not stand-up, however, for they lack this radical baring of oneself to the audience sans assisting props: Milo symbolically shields himself from the crowd (or tries to), giving no opportunity for the display of abjection often found in stand-up as an art form proper.

If Milo stretches the definition of ‘comedian’, Sam Hyde sits more comfortably in that category. A viral video producer and member of sketch troupe Million Dollar Extreme, Hyde is a visible member of alt-right fascist networks online. Million Dollar Extreme had a TV show with Adult Swim before it was cancelled in late 2016, after controversy took hold over the offensiveness of the sketches and Sam Hyde’s own politics.

Hyde first became well known online for a comedic stunt in which he hijacked a TED Talk at Drexel University. Dressed in gladiator armour, he delivered a lecture titled ‘2070 Paradigm Shift’. The act moves in style and content between a parody of a TED Talk and the open profession of Turner Diaries-style far-right viewpoints. In it he describes culture as a ‘sewer’ and predicts race war. Hyde is also known for a stunt called ‘Privileged White Male Triggers Oppressed Victims, Ban This Video Now and Block Him’ in which he reads out a list of pseudoscientific ‘facts’ justifying homophobia to an increasingly hostile Williamsburg audience.

Sometimes called ‘anti-comedy’, Hyde’s activities have puzzled some, who have wondered: does he really believe what he says, or is it all an ironic act? Though Hyde has refused to be pinned down on his politics in interviews a visit to his Twitter account, @Night_0f_Fire, should dispel any notion of irony. Nonetheless it’s this liminal position – is it a joke or not? – that gives him a certain power. Yiannopoulos has benefited from a similar ambiguity, being seen by some as a provocateur who doesn’t really believe what he says, this quality lending him legitimacy even when he insists he does believe it.

This is outrageous; it’s contagious

Alongside these far-right attempts at humour comes a particular theory of comedy as a carnivalesque space in which anything can be said or done, rather than as an art form which comes with the same ethical and political responsibilities for the author as any other. Memes like Pepe and the ‘shitlord culture’ of 4chan are part of this constellation of far-right humour. Yiannopoulos praises this new comedic thing for its fearless, ‘mischievous’ explosion beyond the limits of acceptable discourse, and tends to falsely construes much of its antics as knowing irony borne of frustration with PC speech-policing, rather than as genuine fascist speech. In this reactionary theory of comedy, which works as a cover for propaganda, outrage and offense are made to be central. Within this putatively value-free space of comedy, one finds what Theweleit called the ‘utopia of fascism [as] an edenic freedom from responsibility’. Therefore a theory of comedy as a space of unrestricted speech, free from responsibility, allows real politics to masquerade hypocritically as a joke in a way that trivialises politics; that comedifies it. Thus, following Benjamin, if the right comedifies politics, the left should politicise comedy.

Can Sam Hyde’s activities be classified as stand-up comedy? His primary audience seems to be his sympathisers watching via the internet, rather than his live audience. The latter are being pranked, and their reactions supply much of the entertainment for the former group. Some have called his work ‘anti-comedy’, though, usually, ‘anti-comedy’ means audiences laughing at an intentional non-joke – a joke that is funny because it subverts a traditional form. But Hyde’s performances often elicit little laughter at all. Audience members sit in silence, vocally resist, or walk out. And eliciting this response is his intent. Hyde’s activities, although he performs in comedy clubs, would be better described not as anti-comedy but as anti-stand-up. Stand-up comedy is a live art form in which the joke is co-created by audience and performer. Hyde’s activities, by contrast, hijack the setting and expectations of stand-up comedy but use it to disseminate right-wing social critique. Generally, stand-up comics are in a relationship of creative intimacy with their audience. This relationship is not necessarily without tension – but if a comic challenges the crowd to see the world differently, or even offends them, they at least attempt to do it while getting them to laugh along, and are all the more persuasive for that. Total contempt for the audience is rare, and not sustainable for a stand-up comedian.

Comedy and Contradiction

Though stand-up comedy as bigotry, as in the reinforcement of existing social relations through mockery, is nothing new, the form can also be used as a means of emancipatory social criticism. For key to any joke is incongruity; comedians often uncover the contradictions in social life and norms, and audiences laugh at their disclosure. The showing up of social mores as absurd through comedic critique can be used to find that point of liberation, the crack in the accepted view of the world through which the light of truth or freedom shines.

Like jokes, social transformation too proceeds from identifying a contradiction of some sort, an absurdity – something that just doesn’t make sense. Comedy often plays in the tension between the symbol and what it refers to – or rather, what the comic and the audience agree about this tension. This makes comedy inherently critical, though not necessarily liberatory. It’s a weapon that can be used for progressive or regressive ends. Anti-racism, respect for women’s rights and gay rights, for example, can be construed as ‘sacred cows’ and turned flipside through comedy, as they are in Sam Hyde’s performances.

When this communality is lost, stand-up comedy has become something else. Audience participation in comedy – the more or less subtle communication between comic and crowd, the ineffable sense of a room’s tone – means that the stand-up comedian is never really browbeating or standing apart from them. The comic and the audience are, ultimately, on the same side. Thus comedy scholar John Limon remarks that ‘it is hard to fathom how a stand-up performance can be outrageous, that is to say (etymologically) outré, outside the circle. In standup as opposed to all other modes of art and entertainment, there is only the circle.’ In stand-up at least, outrageousness and offensiveness actually detract from the work – contra the reactionary theory of comedy, upheld by Yiannopoulos and others, which centres them.

Stand-up comedians and progressive struggles

Stand-up comedians playing a role in progressive politics is nothing new: Dick Gregory was as much an activist in the civil rights movement as he was a stand-up comic taking on racism in his performance. The UK’s alternative comedy scene in the 1980s was explicitly founded as a non-racist, non-sexist and non-homophobic alternative to the comedy mainstream at the time. In fact, politics is rife in stand-up comedy.

In the work of Maria Bamford we find a major contemporary example of critical comedy serving emancipatory ends and working on contradictions in creative ways. She transforms difficult experiences into powerful advocacy and social criticism in her comedy, much of which deals with mental health. In her stand-up she explores her struggles with depression, anxiety, bipolar-II and a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder from which she suffers called unwanted thoughts syndrome.

Bamford’s humour often arises from the tension between the smiling façade people present to the world and the truth of their inner life. In a bit about how Paula Deen’s recipes all read ‘like a suicide note’, between surreal imitations of Deen’s recipes she exclaims ‘each day I wake to a fresh nightmare’ and ‘don’t look for me: I’ve made a plan and I will follow through with it!’ The darkness in this material comes through as the human pain that bursts through the cultural norm – the informal proscription on discussing depression.

Bamford destigmatises mental illness and challenges myths surrounding it – often through hilarious vocal imitations of naïve, faux-concerned friends, family members and acquaintances who beset the suffering individual with pressures and misconceptions. She shies away from nothing in this regard, and has audiences laughing from suicide attempt to psych ward.

She also deals with gender pressures in her comedy: 'holding myself to an impossible standard of beauty keeps me from starting a riot!’ Making an audience laugh is an experience of power, even if the humour is of a self-deprecating kind. Female success in stand-up has come later than male because audiences have been less disposed to seeing women in power.

But socially critical comedy doesn’t always come from a direct experience of marginalisation. Comedians can self-deprecatingly undermine their own position, disclosing social disparities and contradictions by laying bare their privileged social location. Maria Bamford jokes:

My neighbour is super nice, neighbour Carlos, came over and he said, 'I hope you don't mind living next to a Mexican, “cause we leave shit on our lawn.” I said, 'Well, if we're going to talk in stereotypes, I hope you don't mind living next to a white lady – “cause I'm gonna steal that shit. Manifest Destiny, it's kind of already mine.”

Stand-up comedy is a medium in which performers frequently put abjection on display, personal as much as social, which means it can show the abject reality of injustice and dispossession which we would rather slough off and ignore.

For Limon, what is stood up in stand-up comedy is the abject. He summarises his book on American comedy thus: ‘The one-sentence version of the theory of this book would state the claim that what is stood up in stand-up comedy is abjection. Stand-up makes vertical (or ventral) what should be horizontal (or dorsal).’

This fear of baring one’s abjection to the audience characterises Yiannopoulos’ performances and distinguishes them from stand-up comedy proper. Though he proudly displays his homosexual identity as a kind of abjection, this is done in service of reigning social norms. Too afraid to undermine himself, Yiannopoulos is more the ‘wit’ than the stand-up comic, more in the vein of a Christopher Hitchens or a Stephen Fry. Theweleit characterised the type of the wit thus:

‘Momentum; verbal machine-gunning, thinking as quick as lightning, sparkling wit, “esprit,” brilliant humor. Such skills are often said to be rare among women. True enough perhaps; yet the conclusion should be that what women lack men should equally abandon. The more men’s polished words gather momentum, the more they distance themselves from intrusive feelings; they bask in armoured brilliance. More than this, they do violence to anything similar to themselves; they identify their own faults in others with punctilious precision, and mercilessly annihilate them.’

Could this description not apply to the verbal antics of the President?

Trump himself has been likened to a stand-up comedian, though he falls more into this category of the penetrative, violent male wit. Indeed, one of Trump’s outrageous ‘jokes’ that became famous early on in his campaign bears a strong resemblance to the disgust with women’s mouths, association of these with vaginas, and images of such mouths dripping with blood or spittle which Theweleit finds in the interwar writings of fascist soldier males. That joke was about the journalist Megyn Kelly:

‘She gets out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions. You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.

Here women are babbling, physiologically disgusting menstruators. Such a motif accords with a general somatophobia found in fascist texts and which characterises Trump. Trump has a seeming general disgust with the body: he is said to be a germophobe, obsessed with washing his hands, clearly fearing bodily abjection. In many of the fascist writings Theweleit studies in his book Male Fantasies, ‘[t]he mouth appears as a source of nauseating evil. It is “that venomous hole” that spouts out a “rain of spittle.”’ If, as Limon contends, stand-up comedy requires a baring of one’s own abjection to the audience, it is this that the humour of the ‘stand-up comic’ Trump is designed, armoured to prevent, here with the body as the sign of it.

But if progressive comics aspire to display some of the world’s abjection for the sake of a social critique, they cannot help but be corrupted by that marketized world, often alongside greater success. Bamford routinely expresses a tragic frustration that she’s unable to change the world with comedy, and expresses angst about the limitations of the medium. She’s also aware of the compromises comics with a message often have to make for the sake of fame and success:

But you know how it goes – you need health benefits so you start working for the man. You know, I was just typing out what he had to say. I felt like I was taking back the night from inside the machine, because it makes a difference to this starfish. And then you get a promotion. And my ego says uh, I wanna be on TV and it turns out the man owns that. He just wants to make you do a couple changes to your jokes so as not to upset his buddies/corporate entities. And I made those changes. And then the man says, “I’ll give you a big bag of money if you just say what I want you to say.” And I took that big bag of money and I said exactly what he wanted me to say. And now I’m re-decorating my house in shades of grey!

Dave Chappelle and the ambiguities of Comedy Success

At the height of comic superstardom, Dave Chappelle has seen these problems first hand. Echoing Bamford’s concerns about ‘the Man’, Chappelle expresses a frustration with the ethical and political compromises big-name comics are sometimes pressured to make:

Maybe corporate America fucks with human beings like they’re products and investments. Maybe a motherfucker brings you into a room and says, “this 50 million dollars, this pile of money, it’s all for you” – and when you try to grab it he just throws his dick right on top of it.

Chappelle’s huge success has come with drawbacks. Not only have executives interfered with his work, but audiences have misinterpreted it. In 2004, at the height of his fame, he walked away from his hit TV sketch show on Comedy Central, leaving behind a $50m deal. He had experienced a white crew member laughing uproariously at an act in which Chappelle put on blackface. Reflecting on the matter, the comedian said that

I was doing sketches that were funny but socially irresponsible. I felt like I was deliberately being encouraged and I was overwhelmed. It's like you are cluttered with things and you don't pay attention to things like your ethics.

Thus Chappelle ran into the phenomenon of failed irony – a sketch which he had intended as a mockery of racist stereotypes was received as a hilarious confirmation of them. Jokes are co-created by audience and comic not only with regards to whether they’re funny or not; audiences also determine what jokes mean. The larger and more diverse the audience, the more opportunities there are to be misread.

In his stand-up, Chappelle frequently digs into the subject of racism and racist police violence. He also uses his comedy to de-mythologise American sacred cows. In his special For What It’s Worth he discusses the removal of the image of Saddam Hussein from Iraqi currency during the US occupation. He describes the image of the dictator as a ‘subtle psychological nuance of oppression’ but then asks ‘what about our money? Our money looks like baseball cards with slave-owners on ’em.’ Chappelle’s seemingly effortless likeability and his proficiency in dirty jokes and weed humour allow him to masterfully smuggle social critique into his stand-up. The title of his 2000 comedy special Killin’ Em Softly indicates something of Chappelle’s method: social commentary cuts deep but is surreptitiously and smoothly delivered.

Yet Chappelle has recently been celebrated by some on the right for a set in which he reportedly took aim at gay rights, women’s rights and transgender people, even seemingly defending Trump against sexual assault allegations. Chappelle’s work has an ambiguity that permits it to be appropriated by different sections of the political spectrum at different times. Some of what Chappelle says is progressive and some of it regressive. Other parts invite multiple readings. It’s often unclear what his exact socio-political motivation is, and in part this ambiguity helps to maintain his popularity with a racially diverse American audience.

Even so, Chappelle paid the price. He saw his work tampered with. In an interview with James Lipton he recounts a sketch he had shot, about his being booed off at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, causing scepticism among white television executives because there weren’t any white people in it. Chappelle has called his own career a ‘parable’; indeed, it provides useful lessons on the possibilities and limits of mass-market comedy as a vehicle for social critique.

This ambiguity is perhaps innate to the form: political speech and stand-up comedy are, of course, not identical, and while comedy can be a means of emancipatory social criticism, stand-up comedians cannot replace public intellectuals, nor should they. On the other hand, the lack of a direct correspondence between comedy and political propaganda should not lead to our imagining they are utterly distinct, any more than would be the case with regards to any other art form – should not, in other words, lead to a nihilism. A nihilism is proclaimed by the reactionary theory of comedy as a space in which ‘anything goes’, but this is perfectly hypocritical, since fascist humour is in fact not valueless but full of value: Sam Hyde’s work operates more like direct political speech much of the time, rather than possessing anything like the self-undermining, abjecting quality to stand-up. Here the feint of nihilism is simply a cover for far-right propaganda.

And whilst comedy is always comedy and can never replace socio-political critique proper, we must be attentive to the ways in which joking which raises critical questions about society and even attacks its injustices can, nonetheless, through the cathartic release of laughter in the audience, leave the latter well-adjusted to iniquity rather than mobilised to do anything in particular about it. We must be careful not to confuse the mere allusion to social problems in humour as a sufficient comedic critique and intervention. In this connection, comedy scholar Rebecca Krefting’s concept of ‘charged humor’, which names a form of stand-up that motivates action and builds community amongst the marginalised, ‘comedy that aims to create community using shared experiences of occlusion, misrepresentation, stigmatization and oppression as the basis for identification’, is useful. Krefting cites Maria Bamford, and others such as Hari Kondabolu and George Lopez, as examples of charged comics.

Arguably the process of audience and performer co-creating the joke in the stand-up comedy environment, discussed above, has taken a new turn with the advent of the internet. As the internet increasingly dominates and determines other media, audiences fragment. These fragmented audiences take different bits from a comedy special, different aspects of a comic’s persona, and use these to celebrate or denounce the performer and their work. Although this constitutes a more recent phenomenon, stand-up comedy especially conduces to this process of cutting up, this selecting of aspects of an author’s work for praise or critique, given that the form generally consists in short bursts (jokes) rather than great arcs or storylines. Co-creation of the joke has thus taken on a new form: the audience is empowered to disseminate critique, relatively freed from the mediation of TV executives and advertisers, in a manner suited to their own ends. The audience now not only co-creates the joke through their laughter (or absence of, or outrage) but now possesses the tools to edit and distribute it. This remixing of stand-up, a production in use by the consumer, extends and complexifies what already happens in stand-up comedy; it provides new means for propaganda. These are means the left should grasp, since the right are already doing so. The left should find creative ways to mobilise comedy in a variety of fora, to rally and to use this art as a means of finding liberation and of healing patriarchal and capitalist damage. Comedy can and should be part of creating new ways of feeling for a socialist future.

Photo: Carlos Delgado; CC-BY-SA


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