William Marcy “Boss” Tweed was the corrupt head of Tammany Hall, the New York State Democratic political machine … until he was brought down, in part by the political cartoons of Thomas Nast.
Humor changed the world. From Will Rogers to Mort Sahl to Stephen Colbert, comedians have influenced the way we understand the social and political world around us. That is why we ought to take notice when President Donald Trump and his White House staff have declared that they will not attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an annual event, which among other elements, includes a big name in the comedy world who does a set focused on the politics of the day.
The Shakespearean fool is often the only one who can speak the truth about those in power. Jokes can say what we need to hear, but dare not speak.
The goal in avoiding the event is to take away some of the power of today’s comedians to influence, to limit the connections we might make when hearing the jokes.
Jokes are generally structured around an incongruity; that is, two ways of understanding something that are incompatible. The set up leads the listener to construct a mental world in a particular way. The punch line then forces the listener to realize that there is a completely different way of seeing the world and that the created mental joke-world that came from the set-up must be completely rethought.
Inherent in the act of joking is the presupposition that there are different ways of seeing the world and that we gain from our ability to see the world differently.
Jokes only work because we are able to change our perspective, to re-envision the world, and re-interpret what we had originally believed.
This ability to re-envision what had been a cognitive commitment is what makes jokes so dangerous to people in power. Their control is based on making sure that we have a particular way of seeing the world — one in which they, and they alone, are able to make our lives better, save us from danger, improve our lot.
But the joker reminds us that there might be a different way of seeing things and seeing them from this alternative perspective might give us a different result. What had seemed clear and necessarily true, might in fact be absurd when we leave the limited perspective we had been trapped in.
This is especially true when the jokes express a truth. Comedian-turned-Sen. Al Franken coined the phrase “kidding-on-the-square” for jokes that are used to express beliefs.
Not all jokes do this. I do not believe that any given chicken ever crossed a road or that a rabbi, a blonde, and the pope ever walked into a bar together.
But there are jokes that are especially effective because they can make us realize that our perspective is not a God’s eye view of the world, but only way of seeing things. Wisdom and insight can be achieved by taking someone else’s perspective into account.
This is why the Shakespearean fool is often the only one who can speak the truth about those in power. Jokes can say what we need to hear, but dare not speak.
In times as tumultuous as these, we are in the greatest need of political humor. Study after study shows Americans trapped in echo chambers, only taking in media and opinions self-selected to agree with pre-existing positions.
We trap ourselves in our perspectives, working hard to make sure that there is nothing to perturb our pre-existing biases. That, of course, is precisely where comedians aim.
Finley Peter Dunne contended that the job of the newspaper is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” but that role has been assumed today by our comedians.
This is why the attempt to downplay the comedy of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner ought to strike us all as worrisome. When we are told not to re-think, not to critically re-examine our beliefs, it is generally because those beliefs — true or false — benefit someone or some institution.
Humor, by its very nature, is an invitation to reconsider. This is why those who seek to hold onto power consider it so dangerous.
But on April Fools’ Day, we should make sure that we recognize and appreciate the role it plays and the need we have for it as we face decisions that affect the lives of our fellow citizens and the planet as a whole.
Steven Gimbel is a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College and an amateur stand-up comedian.