noon September 26, 2012

Obama for President

It is often believed that, on a professional level, comedians prefer bad politicians who make bad policies because they’re easier to write jokes about. In a profile of Jon Stewart last October, Esquire Magazine’s Tom Junod opined that “Stewart just doesn’t have the material he used to have when George W. Bush was in power, nor the nightly foil.” This year, comedian Bill Maher and satirist Mark Russell have explicitly said that Mitt Romney is better for business. So as political correspondent for The Future of Journalism (with jokes), you might have expected me to jump on 'Romney for Comedy' bandwagon.

But by now you should know that NSFWCORP does not join bandwagons.

Comedy is rooted in pain and to be sure, Mitt Romney promises to bring a great deal of hilarious suffering to the United States. Perhaps he’ll destroy the environment in the name of regulatory streamlining. Maybe he’ll take us to war with Iran. Maybe he’ll pry the laziest 47% of Americans off the government teat and foment violent resentment among the lower classes. Comedy-wise, these will all be hilarious situations right up until the conspicuous deaths from pollution, nuclear fallout, and/or class uprising begin. And of course, Romney will execute all of this with the stiff patrician inelegance we’ve all come to love. Jon Stewart will have a foil once again.

But the problem is that these Romney jokes will be just too easy. The source of the pain is too obvious. Here’s how The Daily Show’s John Oliver framed it in a Q&A with Rolling Stone:

Comedy is supposed to afflict the comfortable, so isn't it always easier to make fun of Republicans? That's an interesting question. Yes, it is easier, but it's also less satisfying. Towards the end of the Bush years, there were times where it was like shooting fish in a barrel, because he was saying things that were almost palpably ludicrous. But it wasn't much fun writing jokes about that, because they often came from a point of complete despair.

Yes, comedy is supposed to afflict the comfortable. However, Democrats have grown too comfortable with comedy itself. As Oliver implies, it’s a way for liberals to cope with the fact that reality is completely out of synch with their aspirations.* But the use of comedy as a coping tool obscures another truth: in 2009, liberals got pretty much the best political reality they could hope for. A majority in the House, a supermajority in the Senate, and a charismatic president who rode in on a wave of near-messianic expectations. And now, four years later, a lot of things still suck.

Disappointment is a different kind of pain and is more difficult for liberals to process. For the past four years, their default comedic posture has been to blame Republicans for blocking the president or Fox News for mocking the president. Underlying these jokes is the premise, laid out clearly at the Democratic National Convention, that it took four years just to clean up the Republican mess and only now can Democrats begin their real work in earnest. It’s still fun to laugh at Republicans because, four years later, it is still their fault.

Admittedly, another term for Obama does the run the risk of putting comedy writers out of business by transforming the United States into the prosperous, harmonious utopia liberals thought it already would be by now. But if, as seems probable, Obama continues to disappoint, the “blame the opposition” jokes may start to wear thin. We may approach a comedic breaking point. And then the comedic possibilities can transcend mere politics and rise to a much deeper level of self-reflection. What does it mean that the man who based his entire campaign on changing the process in Washington now believes ”you can’t change Washington from the inside”? What does it mean if the best candidate liberals could hope for, who seems to be doing the best job that he can, still can’t get very much done?

It means liberals might have to admit that they can’t just keep blaming and joking about the opposition. Maybe there are much deeper systemic flaws at play, and not just with our politics – with ourselves, too. To quote a George Carlin routine:

"…maybe it’s not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here – like the public. Yeah, the public sucks – there’s a nice campaign slogan for somebody: 'The Public Sucks, Fuck Hope.'"

The jokes may be darker in a second Obama term, but if so, they’ll also be better for our souls. They won’t be easy to write. But they will be much, much more satisfying.

* Dave Barry reportedly defined a sense of humor as “a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge."

Back channel chatter

There is a scribble about this dispatch in the backroom, with two contributors.