Is political comedy a cure or catalyst for the misinformation virus?
My memories of the last US election are foggy at best, but the most prominent involve some outlandish phrases and jokes. Hillary Clinton telling people to “Pokemon Go to the polls”, Trump threatening to shoot a person on Fifth Avenue, or Gary Johnson being booed at a convention for supporting drivers’ licenses.
Besides the absurdity of these acts, what really made them stick in my mind is what people said about them. In 2016, Have I Got News For You’s panellists made jokes about Clinton’s email scandal or jabbed at Trump being the “first openly crazy president”. Across the pond, you can see Frankie Boyle in New World Order running similar routines about Prince Phillip causing Covid-19 in his bat form. Before the pandemic, Russell Howard was running bits about Johnson’s response to fearmongering over Brexit, televising fragments of his speech that reassured the public that Britain would still have Mars bars, or where he talked of putting an “oven-ready Brexit deal” into a microwave. While I can enjoy Russell Howard pointing out that Boris does talk more about food than policy, my extended family reading Mock the Week jokes in the form of serious political commentary is beginning to grow old. Some people use comedy and their own intuitions as their only source of political information, and it starts to make me wonder if that is really a positive thing.
Credit where credit is due – modern-day comics are hilarious. New World Order is a must-watch if you want a laugh at the expense of governments that are murdering thousands and ripping up the world at the seams. They are also really good at engaging people who otherwise could not care with politics; my mum already finds any conversation about politics I try to start these days pretty grating but is always willing to tune in to Have I Got News For You and, come election time, both my parents turn out to vote. My best friend is possibly the most apolitical person I’ve ever met, but even he still watches The Last Leg. Even if it’s just discussion over soundbites of Matt Hancock, these kinds of TV shows definitely draw people in, but the quality of information those people get varies.
Having interrogated various friends and family members on their political awareness, only one person (well done, mum!) was capable of naming more than just one member of the cabinet. All “interviewees” that attested to watching panel shows were capable of name-dropping Johnson and his title, but none bar one were capable of naming any more elected members of the current government. The problem with taking away serious political thought and information from only stand up and other comedy is that it’s just not meant to be used for that purpose. I get from New World Order and Have I Got News For You that Trump and Johnson are less-than-sane on their respective Covid-19 policies, but that’s about all the useful information I have. One might think “surely that’s fine, we don’t want people like Johnson and Trump to be loved,” but an issue arises when people that support those governments are watching comics crack similarly styled jokes at Clinton’s alleged health concerns or at Corbyn being a commie.
Stand up is inherently tied to the notion that you agree with the premise. With politics, you don’t want people taking in information with any particular biases or pre-established truths. To be politically well-informed and engaged in positive political participation, we need to think critically about any political content we consume. I’m not saying we can’t have a laugh at the fact that the Queen won’t die for another 250 years, but let’s also maybe have a think about why her kid isn’t in jail.