Comedy in the Era of Obama

Obama wearing an Obama mask, an act described as racist until people remembered Obama did it once
August 20, 2014

There's something disquieting about the way the comedic class has treated President Barack Obama. The phrase "kid gloves" comes to mind, but that doesn't quite cover it. Obama's status as a trailblazer combined with a resurgence of political correctness and the fact that he, frankly, holds the political biases of most comedians has placed the presidency more or less off-limits for harsh treatment. It has become dangerous even to draw a caricature of the president: one wrong move, no matter your liberal bona fides, and you're branded a racist.

In the place of comedy to criticize the powerful, you have comedy to comfort the powerful. You have John Oliver and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert DESTROYING and EVISCERATING straw men, but the DESTRUCTION and the EVISCERATION is kind of beside the point. It's comedy designed to remind the smart set that it believes the right things, holds the right views, supports the right pols, vouches for the right laws. "Look at how dumb The Other is," these shows scream. "We are smarter. We are better. We are good."

Oppositional humor—truly oppositional humor, humor that challenges the Democratic elite that is running the country, that controls the White House and the Senate and the federal bureaucracy—is out. That’s the point that SNL producer-writer James Downey is getting at here:

The biggest risk to doing political comedy is, you always seem to have a choice: Am I going to piss off the audience by trying to get them to laugh when they don't like what I'm saying, or am I going to kiss their ass and get this tremendous wind at my back by sucking up to them? The second way makes me feel like I cheated. I'm sure there are a lot of people in comedy who completely share every f—ing detail, jot and tittle of the Obama administration agenda, and all I can say is: To the extent that you're sincere and that's really the way you feel, then you're a very lucky person because, guess what, you're going to have a very easy career in comedy because audiences will always applaud. They may not laugh, but they'll always give you [a] huge ovation.

Clapter is the death knell of comedy, a sure sign that one is reinforcing preconceived notions rather than challenging prevailing norms. But clapter reigns supreme. In the age of Obama, there are a ton of comedians who have prospered by getting the audience to cheer. And there’s a whole separate set of comedians who have prospered by simply going along to get along. Every time I think about humor in the age of Obama, I return to this horribly disheartening line from Between Two Ferns creator Scott Aukerman, who had been asked if Obama pitched jokes for the bit: "I don’t think the president has to pitch jokes, he just says jokes and we enjoy them."

That’s not the attitude of a comedian. That’s not the attitude of someone who is using humor to help create insights into the human condition or shine a light on the absurdity of our daily life. That’s the attitude of a court jester. That’s the attitude of someone who wants to suck up to The Man. That’s the attitude of a person who has put his critical faculties aside in order to help a cause or a politician or a political party.

It’s the attitude of a sycophant.