Progressive Comedy And The Dangers Of Superiority

At Netroots New York this weekend, I went to an interesting workshop by John Hlinko, the man behind Left Action (and, interestingly, the write-in campaign to get former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty reelected after he lost the Democratic primary) and Julianna Forlano, the Brooklyn College media professor and voice behind the Ironic News Report. They were discussing how to use comedy to recruit people for activist projects, which is, of course, different from comedy for comedy’s sake. But the presentation raised some interesting questions for me about how best to make arguments through comedy — and whether, as progressives, it makes more sense for us to be rallying the troops internally, or to be working on converting the unconvinced.

“What makes people laugh,” Julianna said, is “surprise and a feeling of superiority…this is one that can be used for good or evil. You can use it to create a feeling of solidarity with your people, or you can do that thing I mentioned, where Mexicans love gardening. What we want to do is turn our focus on those people who are in power.” Which I think is true, to a certain extent. But there’s always the danger that in cutting people down to size, you end up confirming your (and your audience’s) own biases in a way that disarms your ability to fight hypocrisy and damaging ideas. Take the idea that Republicans are stupid. John used, as an example, a campaign he used to attract followers to LeftAction, getting people to register Facebook likes for the concept: “Can this horse’s ass get more fans than Mitch McConnell?” “It was clearly tapping into the kind of community,” he told us. “It pre-sold them on the concept. And then I said if you like an edgy, creative approach to left activism, like LeftAction.”

I get the impulse, especially if you’re feeling beaten up, to take refuge in the idea that your opponents are stupid. But that’s not actually an argument that’s going to dislodge people who agree with the arguments you’re not actually addressing, a project towards which I am more temperamentally inclined. By contrast, there’s something like Hustler’s Jerry Falwell parody, which was both funny because it was obviously not true, and because it provoked him into a response that made Larry Flynt’s point for him: that Falwell was thin-skinned, brittle, and humorless. The parody ad worked precisely because Hustler was coming into it from a position of confidence, rather than insecurity. He didn’t scare them enough for Flynt and company to have to reassure themselves that they were better than Falwell was—in fact, the ad copy is written completely straight, and sets Falwell up as a figure of authority within the context of the joke. “The greater the prestige of the target, the greater desire of people to see them equalized,” Julianna said. “My theory is we all know this is an illusion…Some of us on the left have to get over saying we love everyone and go on the attack.” The question is, what’s the best way to expose that artificiality? Dismantling illusions takes more work than just stating that they’re mirages, but it’s probably more effective in the long term.

I brought this up in the session, and John and Julianna and I talked about it afterward, but I also think it’s important to remember that comedy can be an incredibly valuable tool for reframing debates. The funniest bit of Louis C.K.’s environmentalist riff on his current tour and in his special isn’t necessarily the bit about people who think the natural world is there for them to exploit. It’s him as an aggrieved, and slightly naive, God, asking, “What the fuck did you do to my duck? It had a green head and it was so awesome and you fucking killed it!” When our debates become about who is smarter, or cooler, we’re losing focus. Sometimes the most important thing about environmentalism is the wonder of the duck.