As President Barack Obama made his way to the podium, Anna Kendrick’s voice crooned through the speakers: “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone …”
It was the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in April, and the president was delivering his annual address to a hall full of press, politicians and celebrities. “You can’t say it, but you know it’s true,” the president deadpanned. The audience erupted in laughter and applause.
Obama continued, reflecting on the year in politics and the recent election cycle. “Eight years ago I said it was time to change the tone of our politics. In hindsight, I clearly should have been more specific,” he quipped.
The speech was seen by many as a victory lap for Obama, a president ending his second term with a strong approval rating. But the tradition of roasting Washington and the reporters who cover it gets at something larger that perhaps only comedy has the power to do.
USC researchers have been examining humor’s ability to cut tension, get at truth and, perhaps, influence people’s politics. Here’s a look at how laughing at our political system, our politicians, controversy and conflict just might be the best medicine.
Speak truth to power
Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Lanita Jacobs, like most Americans, was in need of a reprieve from the aftermath of national tragedy. So she sought out a place where laughter is not only encouraged but celebrated — a comedy club.
As an ethnographer with an interest in stand-up comedy, she was also curious how comedians — particularly African-American comics — were dealing with such a charged moment in history.
“I imagined that these comedians might have a different discourse than the one that was circulating in America in the mainstream pop culture,” explained Jacobs, associate professor of anthropology and American studies and ethnicity with the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Her first stop was the Comedy Union, a comedy club in South Los Angeles known for showcasing black comedians. It was early October 2001, less than a month after the twin towers fell.
That night, one of the comedians who took the stage was Ian Edwards. He posited that in light of the 9/11 attacks and the resulting war on terrorism, black people had been supplanted by Middle Easterners as a target of racism in America.
“Black people, we have been delivered,” Edwards announced to the crowd.
Jacobs recalled that a woman in the audience responded emphatically: “Finally!”
That narrative ran through not only Edwards’ set, but was reiterated in jokes by other African-American comics whose shows Jacobs later attended. “I was like, ‘Oh snap,’” Jacobs said. “I have got to figure this out.”
Jacobs made the subject the basis of a research project. For eight years she frequented shows by black comics. She also interviewed comedians, clubgoers, promoters and club owners. Her goal was to untangle what exactly was happening onstage when comics poked and prodded at racial constructions in the wake of 9/11 with their humor, and what audiences were saying with their laughter or their silence.
Jacobs published a paper on her research in the journal Transforming Anthropology. “For many minority audiences, 9/11 jokes ‘work’ as political commentaries that resist pro-war rhetoric and implicate a larger shared history of racial marginalization. These jokes also work because they invoke problems of race in America, particularly comics’ ongoing struggles against violations of their civil liberties,” she wrote.
Comedians were saying that “the way America is being constructed in the aftermath of 9/11 is not one I feel myself to be a part of,” she said.
Jacobs continued her study of African-American comedians through 2008 — the beginning of Obama’s presidency. What her research has shown is that humor cuts to the core of an issue and offers both comics and their audiences a way to cope with tragedy.
“Humor provides a salve in times of trouble,” Jacobs explained. “It provides a moment of redress when you need to speak truth to power. It plays with notions of truth. And sometimes comedy, when it’s the most successful, is the absolute truth. It’s the emperor not wearing any clothes.”
In addition to being a balm in challenging times, comedy is used to highlight politicians’ authenticity and to shape the public’s view of them.
On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot. As he was placed on the operating table at the hospital, bleeding — his lung pierced by a bullet — Reagan looked up and famously said to his doctors, “I hope you’re all Republicans.”
Reagan went on to make a full recovery. His sense of humor, which clearly remained intact even with his life in jeopardy, won him points with the public.
That’s no surprise to veteran political consultant Robert Shrum, whose career includes guiding presidential, senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns. Politicians can seem remote and inaccessible; humor allows people to relate to them, explained Shrum, Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics and professor of the practice of political science at USC Dornsife. “It’s a powerful validator of their humanity.”
Using humor to connect with an audience — or an electorate — is nothing new. But doing it with authenticity is what really makes an impact, said Shrum. “For folks who can do that, and do it naturally, it can be a big asset.”
He pointed to Reagan as well as President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as politicians with a special knack for wit. Shrum, who served as speechwriter and press secretary to Edward Kennedy, recalled that the senator — who was thought to be a shoo-in for president, but never ran successfully — once joked: “Frankly, I don’t mind not being president. I just mind that someone else is.”
But it’s not just what politicians say that affects how they are perceived, but what other people are saying about them. Programs like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live “shape the images of candidates,” Shrum said. “They become water cooler conversation. It can be a very powerful force. Humor cuts through in a way that simple rhetoric doesn’t.”
Know your meme
A 2015 Pew Research survey of news preferences by generation cites Facebook as the top source for political news among millennials. In fact, social media has been where some of the most hilarious — and cutting — political barbs have occurred.
As any social media user knows, you can merely post updates on your Twitter or Facebook account or you can “crush.” Effectively using funny memes helps achieve the latter. Morteza Dehghani, assistant professor of psychology and computer science, studies social media as a means to understand people’s behavior and reasoning. He sees memes as snippets of popular thought.
“If we think of cultures as a shared way of thinking — a shared pattern of mental representations and beliefs — then memes are the basic units of those beliefs,” explained Dehghani, who leads the Computational Social Science Laboratory and is a researcher at USC Dornsife’s Brain and Creativity Institute.
Adapting memes to serve a purpose in our culture ensures their staying power, particularly when they are funny. But when it comes to influencing the people with whom we share memes on social media, their real power appears to be in supporting what we already feel is true.
“It boosts our egos. It tells us that we’re right,” Dehghani explained. “It tells us that our point of view about the world is correct, and also it tells us that the opposing group is wrong, which is probably more important than knowing that we are right.”
The mighty pen of Thomas Nast
Satirist Thomas Nast held an enormous amount of sway at the end of the 19th century. According to art historian Jennifer Greenhill, “In the U.S., he was seen to be absolutely singular in terms of his political impact.” In fact, he’s credited with making the elephant the symbol of the GOP and popularizing the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party.
Nast, considered the father of the modern political cartoon, began sketching caricatures of New York City politician William “Boss” Tweed while he was an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly newsmagazine. Tweed, who ran the city’s Democratic Party throughout the 1870s, was also one of its most infamous corrupt politicians. Nast would regularly depict Tweed with a money bag for a face, overweight, and with his brooch and hat embellished with dollar signs.
“Nast makes it incredibly clear what the man’s motives are,” explained Greenhill, associate professor of art history. She is the author of Playing It Straight: Art and Humor in the Gilded Age (University of California Press, 2012), which examines deadpan humor in late 19th-century American art. “Caricature strives to make legible the aspects of his character that are hidden — those he might work to conceal.”
For a public that included illiterate consumers of newsmagazines, Nast’s drawings on their own were a powerful statement. Tweed is reported to have said, “I don’t care so much what the papers write about me — my constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures.” Eventually Tweed was brought to justice.
The art of revelation
Greenhill sees a parallel between the function of Nast’s political cartoons in Harper’s Weekly and current comedic news shows.
“Because the magazine was weekly, Nast’s commentary was incredibly timely,” Greenhill said. “In a way, it’s The Daily Show of that period in terms of its timeliness, and with a comedic commentator who is shining a light on what’s going on in politics from his perspective.”
And that is what humor’s main function appears to be when it comes to politics — to render a truth, whether it is to further someone’s agenda, as in Nast’s case, or to shed light on something uncomfortable or challenging by wrapping it in laughter to make its consumption easier.
“Just as caricatures unmask hypocrisy,” Greenhill said, “we look to comedy as an art of revelation.”