THE POLITICS OF COMEDY Is this thing on? In efforts to promote voter education, laughter is perhaps the best strategery. Comedy and tragedy prove one in the same, as the saying goes. The variability of the twosome, however, substantiates rather inconsistently in politics, an arena overflowing with participants who take themselves too seriously. And where a potential candidate attempts to utilize comic relief, one often discovers the result to be rather tragic. In lieu of the consequences politicians may endure with the mere utterance of a poor joke, most tend to stray from the possibility of Meet the Press turned comedy hour.
Especially when their reputations are at stake; politicians are well aware, according to Mark Katz, humorist and speechwriter for Bill Clinton, that "a good joke will last about a week", whereas a "bad joke will be reprinted in you obituary". Perhaps responsibility lies within the confines of a narrow-minded media, exhibited as a threat to be avoided rather than a tool to be implemented. But certainly with just cause; "the news media are poorly suited to their role as the principal intermediary between candidates and voters", rooted in the conception of politics as "game" and a "business" rather than a "struggle" over national policy. The aforementioned incidents occur frequently, but not absolutely, should candidates appropriately utilize humor. The war on terror provides unavoidable roadblocks on an already-tumultuous campaign trail, and even primitive technology such as television suffices in establishing the general 9/11 'fear climate'. The presumption of a candidate's entrepreneurial priorities over his public relationship undermines the use of humor as the candidate's ultimate weapon.
The primarily noticeable aspect of political campaign humor pertains to its absence. Undoubtedly humor "is used more sparingly than songs in political commercials"; the commodity appears even more so in the early campaign efforts of the mid-nineteenth century than recent endeavors. Humor's effectiveness originates from its multilevel success in the campaigning process. Involuntarily proliferated by an ever-expanding press, the ideal candidate would employ comedy because of its effervescent facility of concurrent humanization and advertisement. Moreover humorous politicians formulate an equally comical and less aggressive response within the entertainment realm, successfully intertwining the sphere of pop culture with the relatively unscathed territory of political science. The general consensus regarding the benefits of humor relates to its malleability; it can "be employed to attack the opposition, or it can serve to enhance a campaign".
While it can be argued that humor refers to a conscious campaign maneuver on the part of its source, as a tool it only succeeds with regard to the respective candidate. As Mike Murphy, senior strategist for the John McCain campaign, emphasizes that politicians cannot be taught to be funny. "The worst thing you can do", Murphy says, "is take an unfunny person and try to make him funny". Thus the aforementioned objectives of humanization and advertisement reserve themselves for the politician who readily applies artful, spur-of-the-moment quips over canned laughter. Therefore it is necessary to characterize the candidate and the campaign that so aptly and ideally epitomizes these qualities.
Condemning the traditional straight-laced campaign requires that a candidate remain optimistic though not dogmatic, knowledgeable yet willing to learn, humbled yet outgoing. In essence, he embodies the "universal man". The public preference portrays a man with whom it can personally identify, yet one who fully communicates and implicates his vision with an ever more exceptional grandeur. Thus the ideal candidate's aspirations "are more highly motivated and magnified versions of what we all dream of doing", with the prowess and potential for us to do the same. The ironic public idolization of candidates normally deters from neighborly campaigning as it 'supernaturalizes' him to deity-like status, and creates an unapproachable political facade.
In the event, however, by which these deities must capture the hearts of wholesome bread-and-butter America, then even gods must attempt to be funny. And the correct way of doing so involves verbally resizing the role of bread-and-butter America to a realistic but superior status, for example, in the comic portrayal of a candidate via the likes of a doll. The result naturally indicates increased votes with respect to the candidate's entertainment value, as ordinary voters "cannot resist reducing presidents and pretenders to cartoonish caricatures". Therefore when humor utilization is concerned, personal infliction proves worthier than the interpersonal, cross-candidate stab. H.J. Palmer's manual on running for office depicts the "self put-down" joke as a blessing over a curse; it "has your audience laughing with you". Of course, the presidential race exemplifies a cross-country endurance test rather than a circus-like 100 meter dash; a presidential candidate's true comic efforts refer to those that do not make light of the situation but instead enthused their audience, "invigorating the body politic" and "uplifting the national spirit". The premiere form of political humanization, nonetheless, delves into the incongruous merely because it is both unexpected and taken for granted.
While the sky is not exactly the limit in producing a "creative, fast-paced ad that carries a punch", a political up-and-comer must uniquely capture both the entertainment and political interests of his audience. Incongruity divulges itself in numerous ways, but particularly in the case of one-liners and shocking anachronism. It is laughable but similarly humanly accessible for George H.W. Bush to possess a variable library of raunchy jokes solicited from state senators, for Senator Joseph Lieberman to tote the ultimate campaign Passover survival kit, for John Kerry to prefer Swiss Cheese on an authentically Cheese-Whizzed Philly cheese steak because of the unorthodoxy of the situation. And for that reason Kerry can request as much Swiss cheese as his only slightly left-wing heart desires, as it exhibits him in a light as American authentic as... well, a Philly cheese steak.
"Any glimmer of authenticity", especially when humorous episodes come into play, "becomes incorporated in an overarching theory filled with psychological speculation about the candidates". Voters more susceptibly relate to the antics, be them deeply religious or straightforwardly vulgar, because they deem reflective of real life character quirks in intensely dramatic political situations. In other words, despite all efforts to package themselves into the castes of uber political supernovas, the candidates ultimately remain themselves. Lord Bryce emphasizes the necessity of brilliance over safety in denoting that a party's nominee "should be a good candidate than that he should turn out a good President". Perpetually this occurs when a candidate appears for the sheer sake of self-promotion, but instead proves him self-humbling by making light of the political situation. In arguably, a cameo by Richard Nixon in 1968 on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In or a musical interlude by Bill Clinton on the Arsenic Hall Show in 1992 breaks the boundaries of political comedy.
The embodiment of the perfectly humorous candidacy also predominantly resides in the commercial distribution of comedic novelty, a novelty itself that, with the exception of the occasional Bush / Cheney bumper sticker, has recently witnessed its dwindling demise. Granted, the candidate portrait feigns as a political device when caricatured and distorted to the pleasure of the editorialist or opposing party. Yet distribution of humorous presidential nostalgia proves beneficial in that "they draw public attention to office seekers, reminding voters that the election is near". Whereas women were expelled from the field of politics, implementation of certain humorous novelties promoted the desire for involvement. During the 1952 campaign, a well-dressed "Party Girl" would not dare leave home without her complementary Eisenhower apparel. The sphere of gender segregation was expunged by a perpetual political fashion show of "I Like Ike" emery boards, compacts, stockings, umbrellas and other such household items.
Eventually the role of the traditional housewife acquired a slue of Eisenhower paraphernalia, including scrub pails and brooms advertising, "Let's Clean Up with Eisenhower and Nixon". In contemporary society, the gender division has blatantly witnesses its final days, but the political objectives can most certainly be utilized. Rather, presidential hopefuls should adhere their puns and witticisms to the various socioeconomic classes of the present day. The objective remains similar: to ease the campaign to the forefront of attention in the home and its viewers along the path of activism. This is further exemplified in the incorporation of unaffiliated age groups into the presidential campaign, particularly the 18 to 24-year-old bracket. Nontraditional advertising methods seek not only to humanize the candidate from his own whimsical bouts and one-liners, but also to extemporaneously extract humor from his audience.
Simply put, the viewer's opportunity to informally interact with the candidate -- -without the burden of canned answers and spot advertisement -- -spawns from the media brainchild of equally informal settings. Networks such as MTV expressed extreme disinterest in being politically manipulated by the barrage of lobbyists and party. Public preference prioritizes questions from peers over standard news interviews by two to one, according to a Roper survey taken in 1992 MTV certainly took that into consideration, and while continuing to adhere to the candidate policy issues, took a hiatus from the journalistic norm by inviting Bill Clinton on a 90-minute question-and-answer period with underage voters. And despite the skew from policy platforms to the ever-perennial "boxers or briefs", the opportunity to amusingly delve into the personality of Bill Clinton attracted both George Bush and Ross Perot to MTV for similar Q-and-A broadcasts. Humor from the other side of the political playground consists not only of voter participation, but also from those who know the field in its entirety. While politics is certainly not funny business by any means, undoubtedly the field has broadened in scope and appealed to unexposed audiences.
Via the dawning of Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Daily Show, and even the recent U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, the hybrid of Kerry and Carey "provides a raucous platform devoted to arguments about humorous politicians and political humor". The avant-garde medium, by incorporating politics into an unheard arena of expression, opens new doors to twenty-first century political awareness. Political comedy (poled y?) will become the "I Like Ike" button of elections to come. Not to say that the hybrid medium hinders the politicians themselves; if anything it is a double en tendre for political and comic geniuses alike. In the event that comedians get laughs, and politicians get a chance to loosen up, the stiff-shirted notion of politics in general will be discarded for a chance to truly explore the candidates as people and not walking billboards. When Al Gore, Al Sharpton, Senator John McCain and George W. Bush can publicly insult themselves by hopping on the Saturday Night Live bandwagon, there is no question of a political and comedic renaissance from the Coffee With Kennedy days.
Perhaps the transition from strict policy to light comedy signals a transition in how political consultants should secure votes. Perhaps popular culture plays a more significant role in running for office that was first perceived. And perhaps the failure of a presidential candidates public relationship lies in the fact that he is spending too much time on serious political numbers and needs to expand to the likes of Letterman and Leno. Late night humor magnifies the amount of quick publicity and public acceptance a candidate may acquire, as a useful substitution for good old fashioned political boredom, where he, as Murphy aptly relates, "is put into the Tim Russert hot seat to do trigonometry". Comedy speeds up the political race in its simultaneous effort to humanize and advertise every presidential hopeful. Yet it is rather paradoxical how the field resembles a form of both pacifism and protest.
While humor displaces the aggression of a normally cutthroat competition, as a weapon it is in due course cutthroat itself, particular in regards to the electoral process. In all seriousness, some comical attempts are "more bitter than laughable", expressing distrust of the electoral process itself. Laughter has indeed been exemplified as 'the best medicine', the elixir of choice among voters and candidates alike. Used appropriately, a politician assumes the role of a human being and dismisses the possibility of "star politics" overtaking the White House as a means to entertain the public. Like celebrities who move freely from film to politics, politicians will now "achieve their own kind of star quality" with the implementation of comedy. Unless, of course, comedy is ignored entirely within the political atmosphere.
The best medicine, henceforth, will be discarded for traditional politics, which, in a progressive era, will surmount to be a definite political poison.
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