Donald Trump’s presidential campaign scares me, and it has since it began in June of 2015. Trump’s beliefs are the opposite of mine in many ways, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has found that his populist rhetoric has resulted in an upsurge in violence, xenophobia, and even bullying in schools. Why, then, during the screening of the first presidential debate in the Lang Performing Arts Center Cinema, did I find myself bursting out in laughter nearly every time the GOP nominee opened his mouth?
I can assure you that my laughter wasn’t caused by Trump’s incredible comedic timing or quick wit. No, he employed just about the same level of word salad we’ve become accustomed to over the course of his campaign. He talked in bold, brash terms about “the cyber,” heaped criticism on the Iran deal and what he called “the nuclear,” and urged the media to call up Sean Hannity—because Hannity is definitely both an unbiased news source and the only person who knows what Trump’s true position on Iraq was before the 2003 invasion.
No, I was laughing at the absurdity of it all—the preposterousness of a man with no experience in government defeating 16 other, arguably better qualified, primary candidates; the improbability of a twice-divorced adulterer gaining the nomination of the party synonymous with family values; the outrageousness of a candidate known for mocking and insulting combat veterans being so close to becoming our next Commander-in-Chief. I simply took a step back and realized just how bizarre this election has become.
Comedy that stems from important issues might initially appear to be in poor taste. After all, something as impactful as a presidential election shouldn’t be treated as a joke. However, there is a huge—yuge, even—difference between making a joke out of an entire issue and using comedy to enlighten. Laughter at serious topics does not necessarily indicate apathy, but rather analysis. When comedians like John Oliver feature segments about Trump on their late-night television programs, they don’t just play a clip of a Trump rally, cut back to the studio, and announce to their audience, “Look how funny that is.” No, these commentators use that footage as a starting point. They build on it, providing viewers with relevant historical details, thereby allowing us to understand an issue in a more nuanced way. If we happen to laugh along the way, it is because we are able to understand the absurdity of the given situation. No wonder Jon Stewart of Comedy Central was voted America’s most trusted newscaster in 2009 by TIME Magazine readers.
This style of humor is nothing new, either. Throughout history, comedy has been a source of both entertainment and perspective. Take, for instance, Charles A. Ridley’s World War II-era short film “Lambeth Walk – Nazi Style.” In this piece, the British Ministry of Information edited together a popular song from a British musical with footage of Hitler and his soldiers from the propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” to give the appearance that the fearsome Germans were dancing to a hit tune. In spite of the threat facing the Allies at the time, this two minute long film gave Britons a chance to laugh at the absurdity of the Fuhrer and his goose-stepping cronies. Yes, even though 40,000 civilians died in the Nazi-orchestrated Blitz, British citizens managed to laugh at Nazi leaders. Thomas Nast’s cartoons give an even earlier example of the dual nature of comedy. His drawings in “Harper’s Weekly” caricatured Boss Tweed and other Tammany Hall politicians. His use of universal symbols like money bags simultaneously made readers aware of the corruption and taxpayer-funded embezzlement of the infamous political machine.
Political satire doesn’t just end with laughs. Oftentimes, what we perceive as topical comedy actually has a lasting impact on society. Thomas Nast’s popular caricatures of Boss Tweed made people laugh, but they were also accurate enough that when Tweed fled to Europe after escaping from prison, Spanish authorities used Nast’s drawings to identify the fugitive. While Charles A. Ridley’s short film may not have won World War II, there is no doubt in my mind that his efforts helped keep up British morale during one of the greatest armed conflicts in global history. Even our more contemporary friend Jon Stewart has done his part: after the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010—a bill that would provide healthcare to sick 9/11 first responders—stalled in Congress, Stewart took up the issue, ridiculing Republican lawmakers responsible for the holdup, while making his studio audience laugh. Later that year, the bill was passed and signed into law, and many credit Stewart (a comedian) for getting it done. No one stopped to criticize his use of humor, because through its use, he accomplished something incredible.
A common critique of using humor to discuss serious topics is that it’s a sign of privilege—if you can laugh about it, then you aren’t really affected by it. I disagree. I believe the most socially relevant comedy comes from understanding the importance and impact of an issue first-hand. Jon Stewart’s 9/11-related segments were so effective because that tragedy was personal to him. A native New Yorker, Stewart knew what his people went through that day. His show, while jocular and wry, kept the best interests of his community in mind. It’s easy to see that his comedy was born out of reverence and love, not detached privilege.
In the end, my point is this: we are witnessing one of the most absurd moments in the history of American elections. No one should criticize you for allowing yourself a little perspective. If you need to take a break from all this sober talk of impending doom to recognize just how crazy our world is, then do so. Laugh at it. Make fun of it. You might even be doing the world a little good.