The truth is not always funny. You may have heard, in the past year, that irony and satire are dead, that in the age of Trump they have become indistinguishable from their opposites. Liberal comedians and critics are volubly alarmed, producing essays and think pieces and giving asides in interviews about Trump’s immunity to satire, about the inexplicably malevolent humor of “trolls,” about the triumphs and failures of late-night shows, about the inexaggerable absurdity of the news. Everyone recognizes that something essential to comedy is failing: the power to defeat lies. Very few have asked how comedy came by that power in the first place.
Comedy is not dead, but it is changing. And comedy’s association with honesty is far more recent than we might think. You and I just happen to have grown up during an unusual period in the history of comedy, one in which it became strangely bound up with truth and virtue. Trump, thank God, has cut the knot.
You can hear the ropes groaning in Emily Nussbaum’s essay about humor and the 2016 election, which eloquently diagnoses the problem and just as eloquently sneaks away from it. When she was a kid, she writes,
I had the impression that jokes, like Woody Guthrie’s guitar, were a machine that killed fascists. Comedy might be cruel or stupid, yet, in aggregate, it was the rebel’s stance. Nazis were humorless. The fact that it was mostly men who got to tell the jokes didn’t bother me. Jokes were a superior way to tell the truth—that meant freedom for everyone.
But by 2016 the wheel had spun hard the other way: now it was the neo-fascist strongman who held the microphone and an army of anonymous dirty-joke dispensers who helped put him in office. Online, jokes were powerful accelerants for lies—a tweet was the size of a one-liner, a “dank meme” carried farther than any op-ed, and the distinction between a Nazi and someone pretending to be a Nazi for “lulz” had become a blur.
Nussbaum’s crisis of faith is a perfect index of the conventional wisdom of comedy in 2017. Each of the observations in that second paragraph communicates an attitude about comedy: that internet trolls, for instance, “dispense” jokes, insentiently, rather than tell them; that jokes can “accelerate” lies, as though irony were a kind of artificial additive to language.
This conviction—that humor is “a superior way to tell the truth”—is extremely recent, but it is dearly held. The 2016 election confronted liberals with forms of expression that were indisputably amusing to many people but failed miserably to meet the Nussbaum Criterion: lies, insults, and cruel pranks, emanating from anonymous abusers and presidential candidates alike. Baffled, we started to call such things trolling. The word conjures a kind of evil twin of humor. The trolls had “stolen Washington,” where, as Amanda Hess lamented in the New York Times, they worked their nihilistic magic: “No reason, no principle, just the pure exercise of power.”
The panic about trolls has little to do with their actual political influence, which is tiny, and a lot to do with our fear that shittiness and humor might be compatible. They are. And when you think about how constrictive the Nussbaum Criterion is, it starts to become clear why practitioners, consumers, and critics of comedy might be struggling to understand its role in our culture and politics.
When we talk about comedy, we have a very short memory. Thousands of years of Western music, art, and literature remain more or less present to practitioners and audiences today. But comedy, as a species of rebellion, razes its canons and refuses to explain itself.
In the absence of historical context, a given era’s comic forms, like ours, can seem eternal. Before the 1950s, comics rarely presented stories or arguments in their own voices. Comic performance was not a baring of the soul so much as a striptease, and humor was more likely to come from paradox or wordplay or nonsense than from the dropping of truth bombs.
The cornerstone of American humor—colonial humor and frontier humor and the literary humor of Artemus Ward and Mark Twain—is the tall tale, the zany anecdote that tests the trust between speaker and hearer. Sometimes you know you are being told a tall tale, in which case you may be watching a stand-up set, and sometimes you don’t, in which case you may be reading fake news. It’s easy to see why the form has had so much appeal, especially in the early days of the republic. In telling a tall tale, you both fulfill and puncture the American dream: You demonstrate that anybody, no matter how humble their origins, can grow up to fake anything. That act is a form of social critique, which is why tall tales are particularly important in black American humor, from stories of slaves fooling masters to Richard Pryor’s Mudbone. “I heard most of my humor backstage at the Apollo,” said Sammy Davis Jr., quoted in Mel Watkins’ On the Real Side. “We didn’t call them jokes at the time, we called them lies.”
According to Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians—a flawed but useful compendium of showbiz history—stand-up comedy began around 1918, when vaudeville emcee Frank Fay started telling jokes, not about himself but about stock characters (e.g., mothers-in-law), between the acts. By midcentury, there were numerous stand-ups, but their jokes, written for them by hirelings, were still about stock characters.
That changed around 1957. Here is how Nesteroff describes it: “Eventually men like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Jonathan Winters came along and led a revolution by developing their own material, derived from their actual personalities.” Bruce talked about abortion; Sahl made incisive political observations. Winters said, “Just tell the truth and people will laugh.” According to George Carlin, comedy “changed forever for the better.”
These stand-ups didn’t see their acts quite the way we see them: They understood themselves to be constructing characters. “Will Rogers used to come out with a newspaper and pretend he was a yokel criticizing the intellectuals who ran the government,” Sahl has said of his vaudevillian predecessor. “I come out with a newspaper and pretend I’m an intellectual making fun of the yokels running the government.” Bruce, too, was initially received as a performatively “sick comedian” and not a portal to authentic being. The force that united Bruce’s jokes was not self-revelation but rather the urge to scorch middle-class tastes. Both men’s acts were experiments in identity, in who you could get away with pretending to be, be he pervert or pundit.
The idea that we couldn’t perceive the human soul until Lenny Bruce told jokes about masturbation in 1957 not only warps our understanding of the comedy that followed, it blots out the comic traditions that existed before and alongside him. It has no room for Will Rogers, Bob Hope, and Danny Kaye—former vaudevillians who somehow managed to entertain people before comedy became funny—because they weren’t “real.” Neither was Moms Mabley, the immensely popular black stand-up whose act shingled character over social observation over character. (She performed as an old lady for most of her career.) This is how Nesteroff accounts for her significance: “From the 1930s through the 1950s, Mabley was comedy’s primary voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” which started in 1954.
Still, since the moment Mort Sahl appeared on the cover of Time in 1960, the Bruce-style stand-ups have been touted as dragon-slaying heroes, a “revolt against pomposity,” the introduction of fearless truth into a wasteland of American “corn.” Sahl remarked, “I’m the intellectual voice of the era—which is a good measure of the era.”
We are still living in that era. Comedy has gone from sitting “in the back of the country” throwing spitballs, as Jon Stewart once put it from behind a news desk, to teaching the class. The most visible comedian in America right now is probably Stephen Colbert, who hit his stride, according to the New York Times, when his producer told him—during Colbert’s election night special, as the Trump era inconceivably dawned—to “stop being funny and go and just be real.” Jimmy Fallon, the loser in Colbert’s ratings bump, refuses to be “bullied into not being me, and not doing what I think is funny.” He may be insufferable, in other words, but at least he’s not faking it.
The role that Colbert and Fallon are competing to occupy—Your No. 1 Hypothetical Friend—would not exist had comedy not become synonymous with personal authenticity, and personal authenticity with wisdom. Their authority (and the authority of Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Trevor Noah) rests on the illusion that because an audience is laughing, the performers must be channeling some holy spirit, not their partisan loyalties or professional interests.
But this breed of comedy is didactic, and things that are didactic are not funny. Baudelaire, in his treatise on laughter, makes a distinction between “significative comedy,” which you recognize by its carefully expressed “moral idea,” and “absolute comedy,” which you recognize because you are laughing. Our political humor today is certifiably significative. As a Vox video put it, “What makes satire such a powerful antidote to Trumpism isn’t that it’s funny.” (It’s that it’s true.) While absolute comedy affirms that we are all equally ignorant, significative comedy assures you of your superiority over others. For liberals, the experience of late-night comedy is largely one of narcissistic gratification—lectureporn, as Emmet Penney termed it. Before the election, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and company had presented themselves as jesters in the court of a crazy king. Now they play straight men to him, ceaselessly signaling to the audience, “This guy is a nut! Normal people like you and me can see what a nut he is!” Not only is this shtick monotonous, it seals its audience in a bubble where a smirk is worth more than a joke.
Take Seth Meyers, who reminds me of an energetic pediatrician. His “Closer Look” segments, like the one below, are built on gestures of impotent exasperation. Track the body language he uses immediately after the clips of Trump: the baffled squint (2:19), the resigned head-shake (3:17), the palms-open “What gives?” (5:50).
It’s the same rhythm as Saturday Night Live’s spoof of Trump’s Lester Holt interview. Here, Comedy Trump is even stupider than the real one, and the journalist is even smugger. The studio audience seems to experience maximum catharsis a minute and a half in, when Michael Che’s Holt, having realized that Trump will never be held accountable for his misdeeds, asserts that “absolutely nothing matters anymore.” There is barely a moment in the sketch when Che is not squinting, raising his eyebrows, or pleading with outstretched arms for normalcy; at one point Trump earns himself an “Anderson Cooper eye-roll.”
In the actual interview Holt, though clearly shocked, repressed any contempt. There is already a grain of absurdity in Holt’s strained stoicism. But SNL has to show us “the truth”: If Trump is stupid, Comedy Trump must be very obviously stupid, and a schoolmarm must tell him, “On everyone’s behalf: I can’t believe you’re president.” The joke, in this case, is a wish your heart makes—the fluttering hope that everyone in the world recognizes and shares your problems.
They don’t—and where one person craves validation, there will always be someone else happy to give the opposite. The word trolling originally referred to the practice of disrupting web forums by pretending to be obtuse or angry. The internet trolls of the 1990s had explicit codes of conduct—including one that discouraged “verbally abusing or hurting anyone.” It wasn’t until the early 2000s that trolls began harassing people offline, and it took a few more years for their communities to discover politics.
The distinguishing feature of trolling is that it aims to provoke a response. It forces its target to make a choice: Enforce the rules, or let the troll’s behavior slide. This is often discussed as an obvious demerit. Nussbaum, in her article, calls it the “finger trap”—the harder you try to pull away, the tighter it grips you—and insinuates that it inherently favors men. But Western comedy has been an art of tricksy provocation for much longer than it has been a consensual, pleasant, relatable experience. The satirists and scholars of the Enlightenment, from Jonathan Swift to Benjamin Franklin, were ruthless pranksters and hoaxers. The Decadent movement of the late 19th century mounted a vexing challenge to bourgeois values by hyperbolizing them. (Think of the echt troll Oscar Wilde, who demonstrated that a love of beautiful things, taken to its extreme, could render a person morally suspect.)
In the second half of the 20th century, a host of radical groups made carnivalesque trouble: from the Situationists to the early performance artists; from the Beats to the Merry Pranksters to the Yippies; from gay activists in the ’70s, who explicitly set out to get beaten up (and generate press), to ACT UP and its descendants. You don’t need to know every one of these movements by heart. All you need to know is that they used tactics we would recognize immediately from our encounters with shitposting Twitter assholes.
The common ancestor in this lineage is the medieval carnival—a ceremony of chaos, political inversion, and sometimes persecution—which itself evolved from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Stirring the pot is an authentic form of political action. It can be effective. As anthropologist James C. Scott wrote in Domination and the Arts of Resistance in 1990, “it is virtually impossible to disassociate the carnivalesque from politics until quite recently”:
[R]ebels mimic carnival—they dress as women or mask themselves when breaking machinery or making political demands. … Are they playing or are they in earnest? It is in their interest to exploit this ambiguity to the fullest.
Scott’s observations are not limited to rebels of the left. I encountered them in Elaine Frantz Parsons’ history of the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, whose members “went to great lengths to stage their violence as comedy,” dressing up in Mardi Gras outfits and peppering their attacks with minstrel banter.
Comedy, evidently, is neither necessarily moral nor inevitably liberal. Andrew Anglin, a neo-Nazi blogger, has linked trolling to “culture jamming,” a late 20th-century wave of anti-consumerist media pranks. Mark Dery, who introduced the term to the mainstream with a 1990 essay in the New York Times, replied in a 2016 interview that Anglin’s tactics are actually a “bastardized form of cultural jamming” because they “discredit the official narrative” and “suggest a false equivalency between viewpoints and positions where there truly is a right and a wrong.” Never mind that the whole point of culture jamming was to discredit the official narrative: Anglin’s culture jamming must be wrong because it targets the wrong people. This is like saying that a gun is not a real gun because it was used in a homicide.
Which is not to suggest that racist trolling, like murder, is ever justified—just that it’s still a species of humor. A bad joke is a joke, just as Der Ewige Jude is a movie. Trolling, culture jamming, and deceit may currently be the comic armaments of people you don’t like, but it hasn’t always been this way. (Remember: “We called them lies.”) And comedy’s survival may depend on it not being so again.
At this point you are likely to protest, as comedians who have ignited a controversy often will, that comedy isn’t about politics—it’s about fun. Banana peels! Fart sounds! Most people recognize, after all, that plenty of modern comedy has nothing to do with authenticity or revelation. They might tell you about the importance of escapist entertainment, confident that it offers no meaningful insight and is, essentially, a vacation into childhood. This hogwash is comedy’s alibi when it fails to live up to our impossible expectations.
But there really is a body of modern comedy that escapes my dyspeptic criticisms, and it is neither “a superior way of telling the truth” nor trivially escapist. If mainstream comedy is Mort Sahl’s “intellectual voice of the era” circumcised of irony, this “dumb comedy” is the detached remnant. It ranges from gross-out comedy to risqué cartoons to Saturday Night Live commercial spoofs, and its defining feature is parody of mass media including itself. It is an alternative to mainstream culture and could not exist without that foil. It does not aim to present a true picture of the world, but rather a true picture of what pictures present as true. That makes it irresolvably meta and ideologically indeterminate.
Dumb comedy came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as camp sensibility—a means of creating value, through willful heterodoxy, out of schlock—spread out from gay subculture to the masses. The Producers is a campy movie about the transmutation of Nazism into camp; Blazing Saddles, revelatory in its day, is the Louisiana Purchase of camp. SNL was conceived as a campfest, “the television generation’s own television show,” and for a while, it was. (The first episode introduced Andy Kaufman, camp genius most high, to a national audience.) SNL was immediately preceded by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, another TV show about TV, which owed everything to The Goon Show, a radio show about radio. SNL, in turn, spawned further generations of sketch shows about TV like Mr. Show and its nephew Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! In today’s environment, dumb comedy—often sloppily labeled absurdist or surreal—is a missing link between authenticity humor, which is how a lot of baby boomers think about comedy, and the alt-right. It is particularly legible to people currently in their 30s and 40s.
I valorized this strain of humor in Slate, before the election, as the only comedy equal to the emptiness of Trump. The dumb comics I love, however, have fallen short. It’s not just because reality is too crazy for them to exaggerate further, though that’s true: Both Super Deluxe and McSweeney’s have republished artifacts from the Trump administration without alteration, as if to say both “We were right” and “We give up.” (This is the dumb-comedy equivalent of the Seth Meyers shrug.) It’s also because pointing out that we live in a sewer of kitsch has ceased to be interesting since the sewer crocodile ate us.
Trump, in other words, has defanged cynical outsider humor by mainstreaming it: quite a feat. The musician Father John Misty has said that he felt, on election night, as if “all of the Gen-X humor that I was weaned on had this very cruel orgasm in my mind. In that moment, satire died.” For liberals, this nihilism is a blind alley. For would-be fascists, it feeds utopian dreams. Before Trump won the nomination, I reached out to a guy on Twitter—a former 4chan denizen and ex-Trump supporter living in rural western Georgia—who said to me:
A lot of these kids that are getting behind Donald Trump are tired of anything that can resemble tearing down traditional values—anything that can be cynical about things considered traditional. Vic Berger, Tim and Eric, and Super Deluxe is: “Look how stupid everything is all the time. Look how dumb everything is all the time.” Donald Trump supporters understand that sort of humor very, very well. I feel like they’ve had enough of it. That stuff’s great and it’s very entertaining and … I think these kids feel like it’s not actually helping them.
In The Politics of Cultural Despair, a 1961 study about the development of Nazi ideology, Fritz Stern wrote of Germany’s “cultural Luddites, who in their resentment of modernity sought to smash the whole machinery of culture.” Like millennial internet trolls, Germany’s Luddites gladly traded cultural despair for fascism when the time came. They had been weaned on the intellectual voices of pre–Nazi Germany, who happened to be failed philologists. Comedians are the intellectual voices of our era—and if our comedy has become a form of cultural despair, then I worry it may be creating conditions under which only the cultural Luddites feel empowered.
But let’s restrain ourselves from prophesying. It is ever more tempting to announce the death of laughter. If the history of comedy teaches us anything, though, it is that comedy has had a history. It will probably have a future. The crisis that it faces resembles the crisis that other art forms faced around the time comedy acquired its present cachet. Writers, musicians, and visual artists rejected the expectation to be raw and accurate and turned instead to minimalism, archaism, formalism, and the incorporation of theory. I suspect the immediate future of comedy will involve a similar rebellion, 40 years later, as comics find humor in modes they have traditionally mocked or avoided: the beautiful, the abstract, the pedantically self-reflexive. History repeats, first as postmodernism, second as farce.
But nothing’s guaranteed. What if, after all this time on Earth, comedy actually died? That would be the funniest thing of all.