Kathy Griffin's photo of the severed head of President Donald J. Trump is just the latest example of the decline of civility and decency in our political dialogue. The University of Alaska Anchorage refused to take down a painting showing Trump's severed head in a faculty painting competition; imagine the outrage if that painting had showed Hillary Clinton's severed head instead. The political left is far less tolerant of right-winged speech on campus, a glaring hypocrisy that helps fuel our current culture war standoff.
Both sides of the political debate contribute to this lack of civility, with the chief culprit being our own Agent Orange President, who came to office on a toxic wave of anger he fueled with lies, insults, and pandering to the basest elements of his base. Trump is simply the symptom of a larger disease: a widening lack of decency and respect in our country for people who don't share our views. This disease is wonderfully epitomized by the fact that most Americans have no clue what the beautiful 6 letter word "Comity" means (showing respect and consideration to others) for the simple reason that many have ceased to see it in their lives (here's a Komodia video mocking our lack of knowledge of comity). In contrast, Eskimos have 40+ words for snow, because of the importance of snow in their lives.
Our nation is caught in a downward spiral of "When they go low, we go lower." A Republican candidate for Congress body slams a reporter who asked a question about the abysmally unpopular TrumpCare and is then elected to serve in the US Congress. In response to the body slam heard round the USA (by recording), Fox commentator Laura Ingraham mocked the reporter who was body slammed and many on the right justified the slamming. Such anti-media attitudes reflect the broad myth that all mainstream media is fake news, a massive, evil conspiracy not to be trusted at any time, when in fact mainstream media, despite its liberal bias, is consistently the most accurate means of reporting the truth compared to the alternatives on the left and right. At the same time, folks on the left denounced the violence by now Congressman Greg Gianforte while forgetting all those on the left who gleefully applauded the punching of Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer and encouraged more such behavior.
Until someone wins an election while upholding standards of decency and civility, this trend will continue. On Monday May 29, 2017, tensions between Republicans and Democrats boiled over on the floor of the Texas Legislature over the crackdown on cities giving sanctuary to illegal immigrants. Komodia hopes that our joke video Funny Foreign Lawmakers Brawl! Is US Congress Next? remains a joke, but it is coming far too close to reality.
The good news is that our nation has seen worse in our history and we've recovered. There was a certain little event called the Civil War where civility broke down more than before, and there has been worse partisan rancor and dirty tricks at other times as well. The key to recovery is to have a critical mass of Americans commit to a basic code of conduct in how we interact in our politics and in our lives, especially on social media. It is encouraging that Griffin was widely criticized on the mainstream media, the left and right for her behavior, and that was fired immediately by CNN. Griffin also stepped forward with a sincere and open apology, epitomized by her lack of make-up. How great would it be if our toxic President occasionally acknowledged his errors? Instead he invites Ted Nugent, who famously called for President Obama to be hanged, into the Oval Office. President Trump also publicly praised that nutcase Alex Jones of InfoWars, a man who has spread such hateful lies like the Sandy Hook Massacre being a hoax.
# In the end, Kathy Griffin erred by breaking the Hippocratic Oath of Comedy: "Above All, Do No Unfunny." Griffin specifically acknowledged this fact in her apology. If comedians simply focused on being funny first and political second, our body politic would benefit. Even better if comedians consciously sought to create "safe areas" for sharing differences of opinion, even if they held strong views either way.
Until then, Komodia will continue to be the voice of one cackling hysterically in the wilderness. #Comedy4Comity
#PartisanPolitics #PoliticalCorrectness #KathyGriffin #FakeNews #MainstreamMedia #Gianforte
Much has been said about the media echo chamber and its contribution to our hyper-partisan politics, but not about the comedy echo chamber. Let’s face it, Trump is funny and fun to dump on, providing wave after wave of material often predicated on simply repeating Trump’s own, shoot from the hip words. Trump is to comedy as 9/11 was to CNN, with ratings fueling partisanship because, as Forbes noted, “Dumping On Trump Pays Off For Late-Night TV Shows.”
Before the elections, Stephen Colbert consistently ranked third behind the less partisan Jimmy’s: Fallon and Kimmel. Now, with his nightly Trump flayings as the “Anxiety Translator” for liberals, Colbert is vying to topple Fallon as king and consistently beats Kimmel for second.
But in many ways, comedy is missing the mark in actually helping Americans deal with President Trump, a political phenomenon who is not black, not white but shockingly orange. Samantha Bee on “Full Frontal” may be the comic who has most consistently turned the Michelle Obama mantra on its head: “When they go low, we go lower.” Going comic medieval has paid off for Bee. With pink-power, expletive-filled, anti-Trump fury, Bee has seen a 37% ratings increase among the prized 18-49 advertising market.
In an outstanding tour d’horizon of today’s comedy, Caitlin Flanagan grills Samantha Bee in the May latest edition of The Atlantic as probably the nastiest of the late night comedians—and not in the good (i.e., Hillary) kind of nasty. Flanagan recounts a story of Bee and her crew tricking a child into a humiliating prop role as a Trump ignoramus, noting that “Trump and Bee share a penchant for verbal cruelty and a willingness to mock the defenseless. Both consider self-restraint, once the hallmark of the admirable, to be for chumps.”
John Oliver’s most watched show on “This Week Tonight” revealed that the Trump family had once been the “Drumpfs,” seeing a 33% ratings surge. Flanagan notes that on Oliver’s show, even on complex and challenging issues like abortion, Oliver demonstrates his belief that he and his fans “are intellectually and morally superior to those who espouse any of the beliefs of the political right.”
Before the election, new Daily Show host Trevor Noah hoped to transcend party lines: “I guess my long-term vision of the show is… More pointing out the folly on both sides.” But since the elections, Noah has rarely invited conservatives onto his show. For Noah, it may be personal; he may see Trump as a spiritual heir to the apartheid regime that launched and still haunts his comedic vision. Noah is the only comedian to label the Trump Presidency, without irony, “the Trump Regime.” Since Trump’s victory, Noah has sharpened his tone further, enjoying an 8% increase in ratings. Noah clearly assumes only anti-Trump viewers are watching when he says, quite seriously, “I know we all agree that Donald Trump is going to destroy the earth.”
Many Americans no doubt see current late night comedians as liberal elites repeating Hillary’s mistake of Dissing Deplorables and other forgotten Americans. When Trump supporters look at Oliver, Noah, Bee and the other comedians belittling Trump and his supporters, they see an extension of the “Fake News Media Empire.” As Flanagan argues in The Atlantic, “Sneering hosts have alienated conservatives and made liberals smug." She continues "No wonder so many of Trump’s followers are inclined to believe only the things that he or his spokespeople tell them directly—everyone else on the tube thinks they’re a bunch of trailer-park, Oxy-snorting half-wits who divide their time between retweeting Alex Jones fantasies and ironing their Klan hoods.”
Because of its overt political agenda, late night comedy seems to be more regularly violating the comedic Hippocratic Oath: Above All, Do No Unfunny. When the main point of comedy is to attack, vs. being funny, it loses effectiveness. Comedy that seeks balance brings people together and is often spectacular. Before the elections, Saturday Night Live was praised for having Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon break character as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and lower political tensions with a magical romp around Times Square.
After the election, SNL lampooned liberals living in a bubble of denial over Trump’s victory and others wanting to kill a pro-Trump pug empowered to speak his mind through advanced technology. Samantha Bee invited Glenn Beck to an hysterical Christmas sweater encounter to promote comity. Even the efforts that fail to achieve comedic gold are a welcome cease-fire, such as Jimmy Fallon’s skit on Republicans and Democrats finding common ground.
With a little creativity, comedy could be fertile ground for reconfirming the basic truth that good Americans occupy both sides of this battle. Less political sites like Funny or Die and College Humor can poke fun at both sides and raise bipartisan awareness of issues like fake news. Rare conservative comics like Dennis Miller could team up with liberal comedians in shows to poke fun at each other while highlighting the vast common areas Americans share.
Humor could energize and project the message of nonpartisan, pro-civility groups like The Bridge Alliance that fail to satisfy mainstream media cravings for drama. Humor can bring Members of Congress together, creating more Ronald Reagan/Tip O’Neil friendships to open the doors for dialogue and compromise, like the humor-filled friendship between Senators John McCain and Al Franken.
Our colleges are a mess and increasingly hostile to intellectual diversity. Humor can counter intolerance of the left and right on college campuses, foster better dialogue and debate, and help end what The Atlantic has described as the “Coddling of the American Mind.” As Bill Maher notes regarding the Ann Coulter/Berkeley brouhaha, banning conservatives from speaking on college campuses today is "The liberal's version of book burning." Ideologically mixed comedy platforms can bring together thought leaders from all sides on campus and around the nation, forcing people out of their echo chambers to hear opposing thoughts.
So comedy itself can be a powerful vehicle for opening the door out of the comedy echo chamber—and the broader American echo chamber. The alternative to breaking out of the echo chamber is likely more of what Flanagan describes as “A race to the bottom, as the crudeness of the president is matched by that of ‘the resistance,’ with all of us being judged by how well—how thoroughly and consistently and elaborately—we can hate each other.”
Komodia believes that such a future would kind of suck.
Historically, comedy’s primary political focus has been to mock the powerful (a fact many Trump supporters seem to forget nowadays). But there’s also a long tradition of using comedy to advance political comity. Ancient Greek comedians promoted a live and let live attitude towards ideological differences. Aristophanes (444-385 BC), the most celebrated Greek comic playwright, was a social conservative who also disfavored politicians being “the self-appointed guardians of public morals.”
Great leaders of peace have recognized the power of humor. Historians say that Gandhi, a man whose public persona focused on serious activism, had an “infectious” sense of humor that was an important weapon in his Arsenal of Non-Violence. Gandhi once said that "If I had no sense of humour, I would long ago have committed suicide.” The world is better off for a Merry Mahatma.
Humor has often been used to help break through, and heal from, seemingly intractable conflicts. The 2001 Foreign Film Oscar Winner “No Man’s Land” lampooned all sides in the brutal Bosnian war, including the United Nations. One scholar described his delight seeing thousands laugh watching the film in a mixed crowd during the 2001 Sarajevo Film festival, despite the still-fresh wounds from the war.
With ample scholarly analysis on how comedy promotes comity, the secret is simple: does the joke land across political lines? Comedy can be a tool for peace when it creates a connecting layer among belligerents. Humor can highlight our common humanity, our common foibles. That is why often the best jokes attacking political opponents are laced with self-deprecating humor. Both President George W. Bush (who mocked his own abuse of the English language, such as his reference to “strategery” on Saturday Night Live) and President Obama (who joked about aging before our eyes during his White House years) are both rightly seen as virtuosos of political humor.
Our own President could try to use a little self-deprecating humor. Then again, the shock might cause quite a few heart attacks at a time when all agree our health care system is no laughing matter. --KK