The world’s natural resources may be at risk of depletion, but there’s one that’s still plentiful and has never been more vital: humour. Not the laughter that provides a temporary escape from the nastiness of the present, welcome though that is. No, the kind I’m talking about is humour that skewers the lies, boasts and taunts of those who claim to have “won”.
Beleaguered people have long understood the significant political role that humour can play. Earlier this month the New York Times posted a video of comedians living in repressive regimes around the world advising Americans – oh bittersweet reversal! – on how to survive the next four years. In eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, satire was one of the few channels through which dissent could escape the censor, by using political propaganda to undermine itself. As in the joke about the Russian applying for an exit visa who is summoned to explain why. “Isn’t your salary good enough?” “No, I can’t complain.” “Isn’t your flat big enough?” “No, I can’t complain.” “So why do you want to leave?” “Because I can’t complain.”
Laughing at powerful elites makes them seem less omnipotent. It punctures their self-importance and makes us feel less alone. But subversive though comedy can be, let’s not delude ourselves that it’s a path to regime change – just remember Peter Cook’s biting remark about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the 1930s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler. The same could be said of the US TV show Saturday Night Live’s weekly roasting of Donald Trump. Last week they had Breaking Bad’s Walter White (Bryan Cranston), ace crystal meth maker, appointed head of the Drug Enforcement Agency. His motto? “Make America cook again.”
Humour is not a complete answer. Is it still possible to lampoon Trump, for example? After Henry Kissinger (responsible for the illegal carpet-bombing of Cambodia) was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1973, the American humourist Tom Lehrer said satire was obsolete. With Trump it’s been argued that it’s hard to outdo a narcissist who’s a parody of himself.
Worse, impersonations run the risk of rendering the Trumps of this world harmless objects of mirth; they might even act as a safety valve. On the other hand, Trump himself is notoriously thin-skinned, tweeting about how unfunny Alec Baldwin’s representation of him is on SNL. (Oh no, president-elect: that at least isn’t your call.)
In his early days of campaigning, Trump demonstrated some flair for entertaining repartee (his sense of timing was always good), but this soon faded, replaced by today’s demented tweeter. Never trust a man who over-uses exclamation marks: he’s not being witty, he’s just using punctuation to shout.
Some aspects of human experience lie beyond humour. Any jokes about Aleppo would need to be as savage as the events unfolding there. Attempts to bring humour to bear on the Holocaust have also proved ghastly, whether well-intentioned (Roberto Benigni’s hideously feel-good 1997 Italian “comic” movie Life Is Beautiful, about a Nazi concentration camp) or ill (the skit on the liberation of Auschwitz by the French comedian Dieudonné, in his 2012 film L’antisémite, in which he dabs his neck with liquid from a Zyklon B gas canister)
The left has often been caricatured as humourless, often by those passive-aggressive types whose refrain is “can’t you take a joke?” (To which the proper response is “Yes, if it’s funny.”) The best humour isn’t agit-quip but more nuanced and self-deprecating. One of comedian Nish Kumar’s most perceptive jokes at a recent show was about gentrification involving white people moving into areas where minorities previously lived. “It’s a double edged sword for me, given my parents are Indian and middle-class,” he said. “Gentrification is essentially the replacement of people I’m related to by people I went to university with.”
But political humour isn’t just the preserve of professional comedians; the internet has uncovered a huge army of wits. Who knew so many ordinary people were so funny? When a grinning Trump was photographed last month having dinner with Mitt Romney, who called him a “phoney” during the campaign, social media went wild with witty captions and Photoshopped jokes.
They won’t make Trump disappear, but they can still be an essential weapon against bigotry and prejudice. And all such weapons seem essential now.