Despite Jimmy Fallon’s many fans and sterling reputation in show business, he faced an avalanche of criticism for treating Donald Trump as a human being in a recent interview. Though some fellow comedians came to Fallon’s defense, the backlash against him was still overwhelming.
Critics accused Fallon of conducting “a softball interview” and called it “sickening,” as if his job was to grill Trump rather than entertain an audience. Apparently, they thought the bit where Fallon pulled out a clipboard and “interviewed” Trump for president was serious, and blamed the comedian for failing to properly vet him.
Liberal garment-rending over “offensive” humor is nothing new, but the progressive Left can’t even tolerate neutrality. Fallon sinned not in promoting Trump’s politics (he has done nothing of the sort), but in failing to excoriate them. Like Matt Lauer, he committed the crime of allowing Trump to speak for himself, and got the same response from liberal commentators for his trouble: Fight Trump or else.
Is this what humor is supposed to be? It’s a hard concept to define, but it is not difficult to differentiate from mockery. Theologian and social commentator Reinhold Niebuhr believed humor was rooted in seeing the “incongruities of our existence,” which are universal:
If men do not take themselves too seriously, if they have some sense of the precarious nature of human enterprise, they prove they are looking at the whole drama of human life, not merely from the circumscribed point of their own interests, but from some farther and higher vantage point.
For the significant portion of the Left that seeks to eliminate dissent, the goal is not to widen the vantage point but to narrow it. In a piece entitled, “TV can’t not be political: What Jimmy Fallon’s defenders get wrong about late-night,” Salon’s Silpa Kovvali stated that the humanizing of Trump made Fallon’s segment “bigoted and selfish and cruel.” It’s right there in the title: TV can’t not be political. That does not leave a lot of options, does it?
This absolutist view of humor’s role in culture has been cropping up all over the place. Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History had an episode called “The Satire Paradox,” in which he observed that political satirists must not be effective because they do not destroy the careers of those whom they target. He interviewed British comedian Harry Enfield about his character “Loadsamoney,” which was created to mock those who enjoyed having more spending power due to Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms. Moving away from socialism meant Britons had more money because the government spent less, which Gladwell called the “dark and crude” result of Thatcherism.
For the significant portion of the Left that seeks to eliminate dissent, the goal is not to widen the vantage point but to narrow it.
Enfield wanted to lampoon those who made unseemly use of their newfound wealth. Loadsamoney was hugely popular as a sketch character, but Gladwell and Enfield concluded that “speaking truth so boldly to power made no difference,” because the Tories kept winning elections. Gladwell wondered why people didn’t get the joke.
The thought that perhaps people could get the joke without wanting to take money out of their pockets and put it toward the NHS seems not to have crossed his mind. It’s possible that Loadsamoney did ring true in its satirical depiction of some aspects of British culture, but the victory of humor ought to be in greater understanding of each other, not in tearing down those being targeted.
Margaret Thatcher’s political fortunes were not the test of whether British people understood Enfield’s joke. Satire certainly intends to make a point, but that does not mean it finds its purpose in influencing elections. Niebuhr’s view of humor holds that it mixes judgment with mercy. Humor is not a tool to put wrong people in their place; it is a way to help us see the incongruities in and around us. Unless you’re so blinkered as to believe that only those with whom you disagree contain incongruities, you should have no trouble recognizing the humility this process requires. But while it is not easy, it can be rewarding: It may even lead to unity, as when a liberal laughs at the Republican on TV simply because his interview is funny.
Determining humor’s success by seeing if it divided people into in- and out-groups led to Gladwell’s lament that satire “does not work” and to the Internet’s hysteria over Fallon’s segment. Ross Douthat has observed that the left-wing-comedy echo chamber may be hurting Democrats, and he makes a good argument that Progressive ascendency in comedy is doing more harm than good for Democratic politicians specifically.
Why don’t comedians help win elections? For a long time, people have understood that you cannot mock people into coming to your side, and that it’s foolish to try, because mockery is a bitter substitute for humor. Obviously, mockery is part of discourse, and has been throughout history. It has a time and place. But if we reach a point where mockery is the only acceptable form of comedy, our culture will be the worse for it — and if comedy “can’t not be political,” then we’re heading in that direction.