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