A handful of academics, a political strategist, a cartoonist, and a Donald Trump impersonator walk into the Bordy Theater…
While the 2016 election cycle has given America plenty to agonize over, it has also been ripe for humor – from SNL send-ups to parody news shows to Twitter hashtag games. “Comedy and the 2016 Election,” held Friday, October 21, and sponsored by the School of the Arts and the Center for Comedic Arts, looked at the impact of humor on the campaign season, and vice versa.
Moderated by Communication Studies Chair Gregory Payne, the panel was also part of the Second Annual Global Summit on Sports, Politics, and Civic Engagement, a joint venture of Emerson’s Communication Studies Department and the Blanquerna School of Communication and International Relations in Barcelona, Spain.
Payne opened the panel by asking the panelists whether comedy has the ability to affect politics.
That depends on your definition of “affect,” said Amber Day, associate professor of English and Cultural Studies at Bryant University.
“It’s always a really narrow question – ‘Is this going to affect votes?’” said Day, who researches satire and has a background in improv comedy. “I’m always exasperated by that question, because first of all, human behavior doesn’t really work that way…however that’s not to say there aren’t concrete effects, they’re just harder to measure. Satire has the ability to really shift the terms of the debate.
Comedy also has the power to color the image of a candidate, said Todd Belt, professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, Hilo, currently a visiting lecturer at Wellesley College.
For instance, President Gerald Ford tripped once coming off Air Force One and Chevy Chase spent the next year portraying him as a klutz on Saturday Night Live, Belt said. During the 2000 election, Al Gore’s staff made him watch SNL parodies of himself to get a sense of how he was perceived, Belt said.
“[It can be difficult] for a campaign to downplay the image that is created on Saturday Night Live,” Belt said.
Payne pointed out that increasingly when it comes to politics, journalists are competing head-to-head with comedians, who don’t need to be as “deliberative” in their reportage.
The country saw a “satirical renaissance” after 9/11, when comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert stepped into the vacuum created by a timid press, Day said.
“The news system we have has not done a great job of…breaking open the industry of spin and the spectacle of public debate,” she said.
Gina Sapiro, professor of Political Science at Boston University, said journalism varies widely from outlet to outlet and genre to genre, and it’s unfair to lump them all together and hold them equally culpable. Voters are still getting information, she said.
“In order to understand the jokes, they have to have the information or it would go straight over their heads,” Sapiro said. “The kind of comedy we’re talking about is quite sophisticated.”
Daniel Wasserman, editorial cartoonist for The Boston Globe, said it’s his job to highlight some of the darker elements of this election cycle—such as misogyny and racism—and not everyone appreciates that.
“Those are the kinds of things comics, satirists, cartoonists should be tackling all the time,” he said. “I don’t go out of the way to be gratuitously insulting, but I’m not someone who thinks offending people is the same thing as oppressing people.”
Wasserman said while Trump supporters may bear the brunt of his critiques, Democrats and Hillary Clinton supporters bear some responsibility for the conditions that allowed Trump to win the Republican nomination, including the disaffection of working-class Middle America.
“I think if there’s going to be a correction coming out of this upheaval, that’s something that requires a lot of self-examination, and I think satirists should be a part of that,” he said.
Iris Burnett ’68, an author and Democratic presidential campaign strategist, said in 35 years in presidential politics, she’s seen a general decline in respect, both for elected officials and for the average voter.
“I think we should spend some time figuring out how we can be civil,” Burnett said. “How we treat people justly and with some equity, and just listen to what some of these people are saying.”
Anthony Atamanuik ’97, a comedian who impersonates Trump live and on television, was asked by an audience member how satirists can make their points clear, given that satire is often interpreted differently depending on ideology.
“You have to punch people in the face with it,” said Atamanuik, whose fictional Trump often says things so tasteless and depraved that audiences gasp in shock. “You have to remind them that their complacency, that they agree with you, is not enough. Your job is not just to have people agree with you, your job is to agitate the audience and make them informed.”
Comedy has always played a crucial role in maintaining balance in politics, Belt said.
“When you have someone who is…arrogant and pompous, you want to take him down a notch,” he said. “That’s what the court jester was for, taking the king down a notch.”