Using comedy as a mechanism for political commentary is not a new concept by any means. In fact, its history can be traced back to 427 BCE, when an Athenian playwright and comedian named Aristophanes planted the first, fledgling seeds of political satire. Caricaturing a Greek political figure as a warmongering demagogue, his provocatively funny take on the political state of his country elicited both admiration and outrage amongst his audiences.
Since then, not much has changed; comedy remains wholly inseparable from politics, and contemporary comedians still endeavor in humor that provides commentary on the current political climate – even to the dismay of the people that they’re supposed to be entertaining.
This is evident, for instance, in Amy Schumer’s most recent show in Tampa, Florida. After blithely (and accurately) calling Donald Trump an “orange, sexual-assaulting, fake-college-starting monster” and unleashing other insults upon the Republican presidential nominee, nearly 200 individuals escorted themselves out of the arena in which she was performing. One attendee even offered his reasoning as to why he decided to leave: “The show became political.”
But why, exactly, is that critique a scathing indictment of Schumer’s stand-up instead of a proud pat on the back? Sure, it was an easy joke to make about Trump, and it may not have offered any new or insightful analysis about him. But when comedy ventures into the political sphere it has the potential to be incredibly relevant – especially in a time when politics have become ever-present in our daily functions.
Recall that Schumer has never been shy of evoking political commentary through her humor; to expect her to not make a low-brow joke about Trump requires some amount of naivety. On her show “Inside Amy Schumer,” she tackles everything from gun control to reproductive rights, and why shouldn’t she? In an election season when politicians can make comments about women and our bodies that are brutal, vulgar and absolutely nasty, Schumer has every right to fight back against such sexism with her comedic platform.
Because, inherently, the mentality of wanting comedians to shut up about politics and make us laugh (about sex or airplane food or whatever else makes the American public chuckle) is incredibly dehumanizing and counterproductive. Comics are not cogs in the entertainment machine, and expecting them to be nothing more than funny observers of the mundane is uninspiring.
An individual consumer of comedy may have the privilege to ignore the current state of our country as they settle into a stand-up show – to them, hearing another attack on Trump might be annoying or banal. But for women like Schumer, who have to fight sexism in all its manifestations daily, to ignore what’s being said by our politicians and to not use a platform to rail against it is both unconscionable and irresponsible.
In this way, comedy should be understood as a means for creating thought-provoking or important dialogue. Effective comedy forces listeners to think about or reflect upon the joke after it’s been told because of its irreverence or boldness. Anyone can stand on a stage and make the popular, crowd-pleasing joke that will garner a laugh from everyone, but skillful comedians will use irony or satire to cleverly commentate on their surroundings.
Perhaps this is why good political humor is so important. As an institution, comedy is reflective and conscious of its audience; comedians won’t often tell jokes that they don’t think will make people laugh because, at their core, they want to entertain us. It doesn’t aim to create scholarly insight on an issue or take authority on a subject, but instead relate to the public in accessible terms. Political humor, then, takes relevant, pressing issues and turns them into easily digestible but provoking bits of farce.
Political comedy has become, in many respects, a way for the frustrated and voiceless to air their grievances. But it’s also become a way for the person sitting in the audience to finally articulate what exactly has been bothering them about the current state of politics – and these small revelations are crucial, because America often uses comedians to confront ideas that we’re too afraid to address on our own.
Amy Schumer later apologized for the comments she made during her Tampa, Florida show. “I’m sorry you didn’t want me, a comedian who talks about what she believes in, to mention the biggest thing going on in our country right now,” she said.
Yes, the fabric of comedy is woven tightly with strands of political humor, but it’s also undeniably intertwined with the feelings and thoughts of the people who create it and consume it. Until politics are no longer personal and highly relevant to our everyday lives, political humor will remain meaningful and pertinent – no matter how many Amy Schumer fans it may upset.
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