No rest for the witty
Comedians aren’t joking around in the current political climate, using humor as a legitimate form of discourse no less penetrating than scholarly essays or newspaper op-eds.
“The time is right,” said David Chambers, a visiting professor in Theater, Dance & Media. “We have to have a community consensus that we can’t physically hurt each other, but we can argue passionately, be controversial, and turn humor into a flamethrower.”
The humor, some of it scathing, much of it biting, reveals itself with every zing at the Trump administration from late-night hosts Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and Trevor Noah. “Saturday Night Live” has also joined in the fun, scoring its highest ratings in more than 20 years thanks to the kind of in-your-face comedy that has the power to start and steer conversation — sometimes inside the White House itself.
Melissa McCarthy (as White House press secretary Sean Spicer), “SNL” cast member Mikey Day (Trump adviser Steve Bannon in a Grim Reaper costume), and Kate McKinnon (adviser Kellyanne Conway) have all played a role, and Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of the president has drawn social media pans from the commander in chief.
“The idea of the mask allows them and us to put these figures into an elephantine proportion, blown up 10 or 12 times, which has always been a source of political comedy,” said Chambers. “Deep humor lies in the mask — the mask of the Grim Reaper, the mask of Sean Spicer. In one skit, McCarthy took the podium and pressed people back into the pigpen of reporters, literally using the bully pulpit as a weapon of extinction.
“It was deeply funny. For the performer, the psychological premise is: The mask made me do it. But it’s not just the mask but the physicality, which takes an element of the character being portrayed, and expands it to a grotesque level.”
Chambers, who served as faculty adviser to students starting the Harvard Cabaret in 2015, likened “SNL” to cabaret, calling it fun and transgressive.
“You get to be a little mean and start little fires. It’s social arson,” he said.
He noted that cabarets with political satire originated in Paris in the late 1800s and were exported throughout Europe around the turn of the 20th century. In Germany and Poland, Jewish variety shows continued late into the Hitler era, stages for gallows humor and maudlin songs even in the concentration camps.