For something that elicits universal pleasure, comedy lacks a universal definition. Aristotle only laughed at jokes of the phallic kind, Shakespeare required a marriage and Freud some kind of humiliation. Today’s comedy, by and large, is the political kind. It punctuates late-night monologues and monopolizes meme culture. To be generous, it provides an egalitarian access point to politics. While we can’t all be flies on the wall of the Oval Office, we can all laugh about the one on Mike Pence’s head.
But should we?
In 2016, I was such a comedy zealot that I believed humor could resurrect America’s democratic corpse. In fact, I wrote countless articles for my high school newspaper to sing the praises of political satire. To know my misguided jeunesse is to cringe at its conclusion: “Political satire, like that of ‘Saturday Night Live’ has the ability to educate, strengthen and improve democracy.” I fundamentally believed that jokes would be our salvation.
And why wouldn’t I? Humorists are smart. They are epic analytical bards, able to craft stories so rooted in truth we can’t help but laugh and cry at once. Perhaps this is because the best jokes function like lessons. Comedy, whether it be obscenity, observation or satire, works because it bridges the unacknowledged and what we are conscious of. It’s a slap in the face, a delightful sting, a forcible blink to relieve you of life’s somber staring contest.
If this sounds masochistic, it’s because it is. The transcendent quality of comedy works best when we flinch before the slap and still take time to ice our bruises. A problem arises, though, when there isn’t time to feel. Jokes fired in too rapid a succession are dangerous. At some point, it’s hard to feel pain when you’re already dead.
In an attempt to benefit from the power of humor, we may have canonized Trump in comedy when we should have annexed him to tragedy. I empathize with the humorist’s instinct to make relentless fun of this utterly unfunny time. Humor is how we cope. But I worry that at some point the sting will subside too quickly and we will have become desensitized to the damage that the Trump administration has already done to America. Whether it’s euphemistic epithets like “Agent Orange” or the stylish “Dump Trump” paraphernalia my well-meaning mother buys in bulk, we have to remember the way Donald Trump benefits from the anesthetic of his own perpetual gaffe. We cannot grow numb to what should feel like a spine-chilling nightmare.
Perhaps we think that our American right to speak freely about Trump keeps us out of the reaches of his demagoguery. This privilege of free speech is a double-edged sword. While it empowers us to mobilize, it can fool us into believing things are better than they are. Even though –– at least for now –– we can call Trump anything we want and publicly wish for a less than speedy recovery, we cannot forget that other human freedoms have already been compromised. At what point will Trump start to regulate our speech the way he has already begun to regulate reproductive rights? Laughing about Trump is not the same as taking action against him.
Some of the most powerful moments in comedy happen when jokes are not made. Even though I will probably watch every late-night show from now to the election with resigned hedonism, I do wish one cold open could just be silence. Returning to sensitivity, after all, is not about forsaking the stimulus altogether but renewing its strength through reprieve.
Perhaps the redeeming value of the jokes and the memes and the ultimately irrelevant insects is that we can all suffer together. Then again, I’m inclined to remember another definition of comedy: tragedy plus time. We haven’t had the necessary time or distance from the implosion to laugh without consequence. Now isn’t time to cope –– it’s time to fight back. When we do, the last laugh is ours for the taking.
ELLA ATTELL is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.