Comedy is for making people laugh. Had the editors not demanded an additional 1,494 words, I would happily have left my contribution to this symposium at that. After all, brevity is the soul of wit, as I learned this spring when the almost entirely blank book I self-published became the number one best-seller in the world for eleven consecutive days, earning a lucrative book deal with a major publishing house and an endorsement from the president of the United States, who called my tome Reasons to Vote for Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide “a great book for your reading enjoyment.” Many writers spend their lives crafting magnum opuses of art and scholarship that will never garner a dollar of profit or a moment of fame; I told a joke on Amazon that catapulted me to the very heights of literary success. Man plans, and God laughs.
It’s an old joke that echoes, among other works, The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro T. Agnew, Everything Men Know about Women and Irish Erotica. During the 1880 presidential campaign, the Republican ticket of James Garfield and Chester Arthur published A Record of the Statesmanship and Political Achievements of General Winfield Scott Hancock, Regular Democratic Nominee for President of the United States. But in the months after Donald Trump’s inauguration my version outsold them all—bigly.
For conservatives, long excluded from mainstream media outlets like the legacy press and Hollywood, new media platforms have offered inexpensive, uncensored opportunities to advance our political goals and amuse one another. As those platforms have flourished over the past decade, so too has a subversive form of exuberance on the right—one that many consider instrumental in propelling Trump to victory in 2016. When Hillary Clinton decried her political opponents as a “basket of deplorables” at a private gala in New York, her right-wing critics had plenty of forums in which to mock her back.
Among the things the right-wingers mocked Clinton for was her humorlessness. A popular internet meme, which appeared in 2015, depicts contraception-subsidy activist and Democrat contrivance Sandra Fluke standing arms-crossed and frowning next to the words “that’s not funny.” That same year, Jerry Seinfeld announced that he would no longer perform comedy on college campuses because “they’re so PC” that students refuse to laugh at jokes.
What killed Democrats’ funny bone? There has been only one major shift within Democrat orthodoxy in recent years: during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the delegates drafting the party platform removed all references to God. Party leaders, realizing that the change would not play in Peoria, added an amendment reintroducing God, but when the amendment was put to a vote, rank-and-file delegates shouted it down. The party of Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter had morphed into a largely atheistic enterprise.
I suspect this development is related to the left’s present humorlessness, while Christianity continues to pervade the right. No less of a Republican authority than Ronald Reagan described the Christian worldview at age seventeen, in his poem “Life.” The teenage Reagan writes, “I wonder what it’s all about, and why / We suffer so, when little things go wrong? / We make our life a struggle, / When life should be a song.” For the atheist’s opinion, we might consult the voice of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who declares, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
All comedy, from the cheapest gag to the most beautiful epic, from Henny Youngman’s one-liners to Dante’s divine poetry, requires hope. And it is hope that vanquishes the despair that would otherwise preclude laughter.
To Reagan, the world is real and ultimately joyful; for Macbeth, reality is as illusory as a shadow or a stage play, and, in any case, hopeless. Not to belabor the point, but while the Gipper famously could pull a laugh from friend and foe alike, one struggles to imagine Macbeth delighting at a dinner party. In my own simple joke, the empty pages offer a political truth—there isn’t any reason to vote for Democrats. But they also offer several levels of hope, from the basic observation that a democratic republic empowers its citizens to vote against bad politicians to the promise that political opponents can suspend their righteous anger and rib one another with a lighthearted joke.
Even gallows humor requires the prospect of something better in the end, which Samuel Johnson provided in his famous quip about capital punishment: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” We laugh because we do not share the condemned man’s fate—at least not yet—but also because the joke plays on our sense of hope and its comic foil, dread. The man’s newly concentrated mind now ascends from trivial problems to eternal questions: What is the meaning of life? What justice might come after the grim end? And is death really an end at all?
Comedy’s connection to hope unsurprisingly finds its clearest artistic expression in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which begins in Hell and closes at the peak of Paradise. In order to reach the beatific vision, the pilgrim Dante travels from a dark forest through the gates of Hell, where a sign instructs those who enter to “abandon all hope.” Yet it is in the very pit of Hell, at the lake of ice next to Satan himself, that he emerges “to re-behold the stars.”
But does Dante’s vision describe the world? Is the world a place of hope, and God therefore a comedian? Aristotle says in his Poetics that comedy “consists in some blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster, an obvious example being the comic mask [of classical Greek theater], which is ugly and distorted but not painful.” What story better fits that definition than the world of Christianity? Man blunders himself laughably ugly for a bad apple and the love of a beautiful woman, yet the apparent catastrophe proves ultimately joyful when the God-made-man overcomes the world.
The German polymath Gottfried Leibniz answered the theological problem of suffering by concluding that we live in the best of all possible worlds. An omnipotent God could choose from infinite possible worlds to create the universe, an omniscient God would know how this one turns out and an omnibenevolent God would by definition choose the greatest. It follows that our world, replete with misery and suffering but also incarnation and redemption, must be the best one possible.
Horace Walpole, an English writer and politician, reflected Leibniz’s sunny view of reality when he claimed, “This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” A night at any comedy club proves Walpole right. Incisive observational humor does not compel an audience to exclaim, “He’s expressing what we’re all feeling!” Instead the common refrain goes, “He’s saying what we’re all thinking!” When Hamlet wants to appear mad he conflates humorlessness and despair, claiming to Claudius’s spies, “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth … and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.” Shakespeare sees delight, not despair, as the mark of sanity because hope inheres in truth. Fanatics are humorless because they lack a sense of balance and proportion, although they may cause laughter by being ridiculous themselves. The more absurd the fanatic’s conviction, the less capable of comedy he becomes. First-century Christian martyrs smiled as they were fed to lions because they found solace in knowing they would be saved; left-wing protesters in 2017 shriek claims of post-traumatic stress disorder after hearing differing points of view. Which group can claim the better sense of humor?
As one might expect, leftists did not generally find my book funny. Several bookstores owned or managed by Democrats refused to stock it. In a New York Daily News op-ed, an NYU law student called it “puerile,” “dispiriting” and symptomatic of a larger “war on facts and knowledge.” Another writer in the Washington Post implied that I had committed plagiarism by writing nothing. The comic absurdity was lost on those whose worldview is itself absurd.
For those utopians on the left who imagine, as John Lennon sang, a fantasy world without heaven, hell or human nature, the perfectible world precludes the tragic fact of the felix culpa that makes earthly mirth possible. Nevertheless, the real world continues to spin toward reckoning, man still plans and God still laughs—I hope especially at a blank book called Reasons to Vote for Democrats, which is funny because it’s true.