What to do on Saturday night is a philosophical problem. Notwithstanding the scheduling idiosyncrasies created by our “flexible” economy, it remains the time of week we are least able to avoid asking ourselves: What do we want? Under normal circumstances, the answers are as various as our moods—we want to eat, we want to dance, we want to watch an old horror film on 35mm while drinking a microbrew. But in the months following the 2016 presidential election, at least among the demographic that tends to read this magazine, everyone began to answer the question the same way: we wanted comedy. More specifically, we wanted Saturday Night Live.
We wanted to watch Alec Baldwin play Donald Trump as if he had facial neuralgia. We wanted to watch Melissa McCarthy play Sean Spicer spitting up gum and shouting down CNN reporters. We wanted to watch Steve Bannon as the Grim Reaper and Kellyanne Conway as a raving lunatic. We wanted to watch these things over and over, and then we wanted to commiserate for the rest of the week about how perfectly the skits had captured our new political (un)reality. “It’s funny because it’s true,” people said to one another, not quite sure what they meant—or, a popular variation: “It would be funny, if it weren’t so true.”
You could summarize the message of these skits in your sleep: Trump is an ignorant and childish stooge. Also, he’s narcissistic and greedy. So is everyone who works under or voted for him, except for the ones, like Bannon, who are less ignorant than evil. The obviousness of such points could sometimes be embarrassing. Yet it did not seem terrible, at such a time, to take some comfort in the obvious and familiar. We could do what we pleased with our Saturday nights, after all. And besides, where was the harm in a little laughter?
The worries began almost immediately. Not only Saturday Night Live but Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and the rest of the late-night hosts all kept playing endless variations on the same theme. Some warned that the joke was getting old—and what would we laugh at next? Others cautioned that satire was becoming the opiate of the resistance: sure, it made us feel good, but it was no substitute for calling our senators or boycotting Uber. Still others accused this kind of comedy of being a contributing toxin to the noxious political environment that thoughtful people, in their better-medicated moments, claimed they wanted to clean up. (“How did our politics get so poisonous?” asked Stephen Colbert on his election-night special; then he went back to making jokes about the president fellating Vladimir Putin.)
Such worries may be legitimate, but they risk distracting us from an underlying continuity. The formula that succeeded on Saturday nights—and soon on every other night of the week as well—can be traced back to the moment when Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999. Stewart became the face of a generation (its characteristic expression was a disbelieving smirk) who had graduated from their liberal colleges into a country run by George W. Bush and his impossibly inept henchmen. For them (for us!), it was a great relief to discover a nightly news report that did not feel the need to equivocate, or use respectful language, when discussing Dick Cheney’s delusional promises or Karl Rove’s blatant lies. When an aide to the president, later revealed to be Rove, accused reporter Ron Suskind in 2004 of being part of the “reality-based community,” we disagreed: the Washington press corps were rarely intrepid enough to tell us what was really happening; Stewart, on the other hand, broke it down for us, with entertaining punchlines, every night.
The indispensable premise of The Daily Show’s humor was that its anchor and its audience were on the same side—the side of the sober, the rational, the scientifically literate—in a cultural and political war against a group of people portrayed sometimes as malicious, sometimes as ignorant and sometimes as insane. (What else was the “Rally to Restore Sanity” besides an attempt to delineate a politics of the mentally fit?) Most often, the overt targets of Stewart’s satire, as of the SNL skits following the election, were politicians, but these targets could never be fully separated from the voters they represented. The link was made explicit in the often-hilarious segments where “correspondents” were sent out into the American hinterlands. The humor of these segments—Samantha Bee reporting from a tobacco farm in Kentucky, or Ed Helms covering the Cooter Festival in central Florida—would have been impossible without the chasm that separated Comedy Central’s audience so completely from the subject of its mockery that the subject could be counted on to have never watched, or even heard of, The Daily Show.
Whether measured by market share or the accrual of cultural capital, the formula proved a winner, and has since become ubiquitous. Samantha Bee now hosts her own popular show on TBS, while another of the early correspondents, Stephen Colbert, hosts The Late Show on CBS. Perhaps to greater long-term consequence, ascendant left-liberal commentators like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes routinely pepper their “serious” news programs with clips from their satirical counterparts. Indeed by the middle of Bush’s second term, Comedy Central and MSNBC had become, especially from the hours of 9 p.m. to 12 p.m., all but indistinguishable from one another, however much their star talent labored to deny it. (Stewart persisted in using the line that he was just an entertainer long past its expiration date. Meanwhile Keith Olbermann’s Bush-era “special comments” would be timeless masterpieces—“thus forgive me for reading Murrow in full”—if only Olbermann had been aware they were comedic.)
These developments might be interpreted as harmless, or even as a harbinger of liberalism’s imminent triumph, had they not been accompanied by a cascade of electoral defeats. As it happens, it is hard not to draw a connection between the role these shows played in reinforcing their audience’s hunch that they represent the vanguard of an enlightened civilization, and the abandonment of the Democratic Party by large swaths of the country. Just as importantly, the last election would seem to have proved, if it still needed proving, that Manichean satire and incredulous outrage can be adapted for many purposes, including reactionary or retrograde ones. Trump’s own act remains resolutely pre-Stewart—a blend of Rodney Dangerfield one-liners and sloppy slapstick—but the hard-right websites that helped clear the way for his rise, like Breitbart or the Daily Caller, employ humor much as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report did, to separate the sane from the insane.
The memes and hashtags shared by right-wing pundits may be more vulgar and less fact-based than their liberal counterparts. But these are matters of manners: in either case, the success of the joke depends on how effectively it demeans the portion of the population who is not in on it.
Likewise with the weekly leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, which began early in 2016 and rapidly became a popular clubhouse for Bernie Sanders devotees. Chapo’s style, as the show’s hosts never tire of pointing out, is more boorish than that of Trevor Noah or John Oliver, and its ridicule is aimed just as often at liberal targets—Hillary Clinton, Jonathan Chait, Ta-Nehisi Coates—as at right-wing ones. But it can be difficult to tell the difference between the Very Serious Liberal arrogance that the Chapo hosts like to lampoon, and their own didactic self-certainty. Quoted just after the election in a profile for the New Yorker, one of the podcast’s hosts, Will Menaker, spoke of his intention to declare “eternal, holy war on the Democratic Party.” Another host, Felix Biederman, said, “The Democratic leadership has to be purged. Our mission statement, for the time being, is to paint these targets.” The quotations make explicit what might otherwise be obscured by the show’s ironic-dirtbag shtick: the Chapo hosts see themselves as moral and ideological crusaders. What exactly they are crusading for can get a bit hazy—it appears to involve the conviction that Marx was right and Foucault wrong, and a $15 minimum wage. What needs no explanation is that their cause is the righteous one.
The point is not that partisan political commentary is always pointless or juvenile, nor even that there is anything inherently foolish about spending our Saturday nights watching cartoonish impersonations of our cartoonish president. Every political movement has ways of distinguishing between insiders and outsiders: satire and ridicule are among the most humane of them. And there have been times, as during the early years of the Bush presidency, where jokes were among the best tools for helping to cut through the residue of sclerotic habit. There have even been times where “laughtivism,” as the term was coined by Serbian activists working to depose Serbian president Slobodan Miloševic in the Nineties, has played a non-trivial role in political transformation.
But it is worth asking, given our current predicament, whether doubling down on the Adorables vs. Deplorables routine is the best we can do. If this routine had the political power that is sometimes claimed for it, then our current president could never have survived his first Republican primary debate, much less the March for Science. More plausibly, its increasingly strident manifestations—over the line or not, what was Kathy Griffin’s joke?—suggest that it is fast becoming yet another product of our feelings of powerlessness and frustration. There will always be an appetite for comedy that tells its audience someone else is to blame. Traditionally, though, the higher honor has been given to another kind of humor: one where the most intractable adversary is ourselves.
As an art form, comedy was institutionalized in ancient Greece, where it was often considered in tandem with its dramatic doppelgänger, tragedy. In his 1967 study Tragedy and Comedy, the critic Walter Kerr argued that comedy seems “not only to follow tragedy but also to derive from it.” Kerr meant this in the first place quite literally: in the Greek polis, tragedies were customarily performed in a series of three dramatic plays (the Oresteia, the Prometheia, the Oedipus trilogy), after which followed a fourth performance, a “satyr” play, written by the same author and treating the same material mockingly as opposed to solemnly. But he also means something like what Socrates was getting at when he suggested, at the end of Plato’s Symposium, that a skillful playwright should be able to write both comedy and tragedy. Not only does comedy share a subject matter with tragedy; it also, just like tragedy, asks us to endure the unendurable. “Laughter,” writes Kerr, “is an inadequate response to what is truly funny.”
The greatest twentieth-century comedian of what is truly funny was the Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett. Beckett risked his life as a minor participant in the French Resistance during World War II, but he resisted the temptation to turn his art into a polemic against the times. The most recognizable of his novels and plays can be described without reference to history or culture of any kind: four people bantering on a doomed boat, one in a wheelchair and two in garbage cans (Endgame); a vagrant lying in a bed formerly occupied by his mother, determined to “speak of the things that are left … [and] finish dying” (Molloy); a clown sitting in the desert, unable—and then unwilling—to seize the carafe of water that dangles just outside his reach (Act Without Words I); a husband crawling around the perimeter of a steadily growing mound of sand, under which lies his half-buried wife (Happy Days).
In Beckett’s most famous play, Waiting for Godot, two tramps put off hanging themselves while they “wait and see what he”—Godot, that is—has to say to them. While Vladimir and Estragon wait by a gnarled tree, they bicker about hope, salvation, their memories of yesterday and their forecasts for tomorrow. A third figure, Pozzo, passes by, chiding them for their preoccupation with chronology. “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time!” he shouts at them. “One day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?” Subsequent events reinforce Pozzo’s insistence on the futility of seeking to bring narrative order to our experience, although they also testify to our inability to stop trying. At the end of each day (and each act), Vladimir and Estragon determine to leave their chosen spot; each time the stage directions indicate that they “do not move.”
Surely it is no accident that such a play should have been written in the middle of the twentieth century, by a European playwright who was more than familiar with the dangers of excessive ambition, whether in politics or in art. Yet the drama’s enduring resonance comes from its depiction of a circumstance in which ambition is less a threat than an impossibility. There are neither friends nor enemies, neither adorables nor deplorables, on Beckett’s stage, only human beings who barely believe their own propaganda. (“Estragon: We’ve no rights any more? Vladimir: You’d make me laugh if it wasn’t prohibited.”) The play’s satirical target is the faith, which even the characters themselves acknowledge to be farcical, that we might, with enough intelligence and wit, be able to secure some satisfaction from the world. (“Estragon: I was dreaming I was happy. Vladimir: That passed the time.”)
Belying their supposed fidelity to evidence-based reasoning, the appeal of our late-night comedians and commentators is predicated on this very faith. Earnestly they persist, with much of their audience, in believing that the right fact, the right truth exposed, the right turn of phrase, will help to bring about the future they desire. They may yet be proven right—who can say? But surely they distract us from what is truly funny.
Estragon: I can’t go on like this.
Vladimir: That’s what you think.
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