The Renaissance of Comedy in Times of Political Uncertainty
Anne Gregory, Co-Editor in Chief
I had stopped watching Saturday Night Live. Not because I disliked the show, but it wasn’t as intriguing as some other entertainment options. A number of my friends had also tuned out, claiming the show had “passed its prime” and was on the decline. Then Alec Baldwin came, and I started it watching it again. And I’m not alone in this shift – NBC claims that SNL, now in its 42nd season, is enjoying its highest ratings and viewership of the past two decades.
Now this little vignette is an example of a behavior that is centuries-old, and is a phenomenon that almost always coincides with moments of political uncertainty. This phenomenon has become especially prescient as of late, so much so that CNN is running a special titled “The History of Comedy”, described as a docu-series that “explores what makes us laugh, why, and how that’s influenced our social and political landscape throughout history.” Another favorite medium for political discourse has become the podcast – with one that is especially prescient in today’s world being the show “Pod Save America,” where comedians are often invited to join the hosts (all former aides to the Obama administration) in a dialogue on the current political climate.
But what truly inspired the turn to comedy and to laughter? The word comedy comes from the Greek term kōmōidía – which essentially represented the stories and plays with a happy ending (the opposite of the epics and tragedies). It was this definition that inspired Dante Alighieri’s title for Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy). Though this work isn’t what we would (today) define as a comedy, it was written in the throes of political turbulence. Italy in the 14th Century was a divided nation, with stark borders separating the Imperial loyalists from the Papal ones. Many of the important leaders and politicians who were involved with this conflict are featured in Dante’s comedy.
So let’s expound on this idea of why we need happy endings, especially in times of uncertainty. According to John Morreall, author and professor emeritus of philosophy and religious studies at the College of William and Mary, laughter originated as a communication device: signaling a tribe’s relief from escaping a certain danger. It seems only natural that audiences thus turn towards happier stories and “pie-in-the-sky” narratives to escape grim realities. The Great Depression has some interesting examples: the original Frankenstein and Hunchback of Notre Dame classics, released in the 1930’s, both alleviated the darker conclusions that were originally presented in their literary inspirations. Tony Earnshaw, a film historian, explains that “[the] death of central characters sent completely the wrong message at a time in American history when they were coming out of a huge depression and looking forward to a better future.” Disney has a habit of doing this as well. Take The Fox and The Hound and The Little Mermaid: released in The Cold War era, both movies paint a much rosier future for our protagonists than the original fairytales did.
Back to the main thesis: comedy is certainly no stranger to happy endings during grim chapters in history. Take Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler. Chaplin, at the time, had risen to fame in both Europe and the United States, famous for his slapstick roles in silent films. In 1940, after years of planning, he released what would be his most successful yet controversial work: The Great Dictator. Chaplin assumes the two starring roles in the film, playing both a Jewish barber and a callous dictator named “Adenoid Hynkel.” This was also Chaplin’s first film produced with sound, quite literally breaking the “silence” on this political topic. At the end of the film, the two characters (who are practically identical, hence Chaplin’s dual role) are mistaken for one another—and the Jewish barber is handed extreme power while the real Hynkel is arrested. The movie ends with the barber delivering a speech encouraging humanity and kindness and unification. It was one of Chaplin’s most successful films, having walked away with five Academy Award nominations and millions of fans across the Europe and the U.S.
Given the historical relationship between humor and politics, the two have more recently set courses on parallel tracks. The recent trajectory of political satire in the United States can largely be attributed to the enormous success of two household names that are still at it: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Stewart’s Daily Show launched in 1999, which was a timely start for a show of political satire given the incoming administration. Jason Zinoman with the New York Time wrote: “Mr. Stewart proved that nightly topical humor could be hilarious while also being as incisive and passionate as the best news organizations.” With war, terror, and uncertainty flooding news outlets, Stewart began his meteoric rise as viewers looked for a news medium that could also make them laugh. Colbert took this to a completely new level through the renowned Colbert Report, and through having the gall to take on the Bush administration with candor and edgy tactics (most notably his speech at the Correspondents’ Dinner). While both have since left their respective shows, the two continue to be beacons in today’s political environment. According to the New York Times, Colbert’s newest project, The Late Show, recently surpassed the audience totals of Fallon’s Tonight Show —the latter having previously eclipsed the former quite substantially—implying that viewers are once again turning to Colbert for political respite.
And so this brings us back to SNL, which Daniel D’Addario and Time Magazine claim as having become “the single most vital show on TV.” Thanks to recent sketches featuring Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer and Kate McKinnon’s cabinet coverage (most recently a strong impersonation of Jeff Sessions), SNL is now in the same camp that Stewart and Colbert had held for years prior. And if history has nothing else to say about this, we need to laugh now more than ever—not just to escape the abnormal circumstances of what’s happening, but to remind ourselves that tomorrow is another day. If anything, laughter is just another way of saying—to echo the defiant battle cry of comedian Bill Maher—“We’re still here.”