Since Hasan Minhaj’s release of his talk show “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” in 2018, the former Daily Show correspondent was met with high praise for his perfect blend of catharsis and criticism. Every Sunday, Minhaj conquers a new pressing political issue, from his first episode on affirmative action to his internationally-contested one on corruption in Saudi Arabia, all while maintaining a strong level of relatability with his predominantly young audience of first-generation millennials and members of Generation Z. Patriot Act is undoubtedly one of the most successful comedic talk shows on Netflix, but Minhaj’s humor isn’t the reason. Political comedy has wandered into an era of condescension and self-righteousness that ultimately rewards anyone who fuels this attitude, showering them with endless views and retweets. In today’s age of cancel culture, rampant moral outrage and the never-ending need to “out-woke” the next person, political comedy is slowly losing its footing. A genre that once served as a form of catharsis from serious issues in political discourse has deviated into superficial post-humor activism where each punchline searches for applause instead of laughs.
Transformative moments in American politics demand a method for coping, but that becomes more difficult when every joke seems to be followed by solemnity. This was first witnessed after the tragic 9/11 attacks when The Daily Show host Jon Stewart delivered an overwhelmingly emotional monologue that was far from comedic, and again after the 2016 presidential election where Late Show host Stephen Colbert confronted his own genre of entertainment saying, “I’m not sure if it’s a comedy show at this point” — and he’s right. Talk shows endure a grieving period to console viewers on recent devastating events. But apart from this collective recovery, what was once considered a method for coping has turned into mockery and overt contempt that further intensifies and reinforces extreme partisan views. As a 2017 study might suggest, this genre’s current dry cynicism and induced confirmation bias creates and fortifies these attitudes.
While Minhaj’s show might have more informative content to pair with the entertaining ridicule of politicians, his and others’ preachy activism isn’t improving politics in any way — it’s just making comedy worse. It’s a noble goal for comedy to try and make up for where proper political representation and resolution is lacking, but effective activism is not going to be found in an industry where the first priority is comic relief. What should be two distinct professions has melded together into a new role: the cometician. The “cometician” serves as the middle ground for both the comedian and the politician, making up for where the other lacks in either seriousness or humor.
Minhaj played the “cometician” when he was asked to testify before Congress about the student debt crisis last September, but when his testimony is received as “cute” and disingenuous by some politicians on account of a few pop culture references, this role begins to fall apart. And comedians aren’t the only ones trying to dip their feet into two pools: Politicians are taking on a more comedic persona. During his two terms, former President Barack Obama gained a reputation for his exceptional humor in delivering the traditional joke-filled monologues at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. But supporters adored his wit for more reasons than his self-aware and relevant punchlines. President Obama struck a skillful balance between the conventional self-deprecation that accompanies presidential humor and the more assertive subgenre of weaponized comedy. The latter is a strategy that comedians often use in order to further their own political sentiments by delivering punchlines that not-so-subtly strike a chord among a politically aligned audience.
While the Obama administration found success in aspects of this approach, other politicians are still figuring it out. Former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg launched the Meme 2020 project as part of his campaign in order to reach a wider, younger audience and to gain credibility online. For obvious reasons, Mayor Bloomberg’s publicly sponsored memes were ill-received by online culture, and his attempt at self-aware humor left him at a disadvantage. And it doesn’t seem to help that he is arguably the spitting image of President Donald Trump in terms of public persona — but at least in Trump’s case, he’s not paying millions of dollars to be made fun of.
While politicians are having trouble navigating the field of comedy, comedians aren’t necessarily dominating politics either. It seems that outside of his Manhattan production studio and the cyber realm of Democratic Twitter, Minhaj’s content is met with scattered laughs and weak applause. And that’s because his content isn’t for everyone. Today’s political comedy is directed toward a closed-off audience of people who are either looking for their next opinion or for another way to fuel their self-righteous moral outrage. Apart from this audience, no one really reaps any benefits from political comedy. Instead, the same jokes attacking the Trump administration or mocking the 2020 presidential candidates are recycled over and over again within the Comedy Central network. And it’s not funny anymore.
It’s time to reevaluate how comedy fits into politics, because let’s be real, it’s counterproductive and repetitive. Today more than ever, politics is constantly intertwined with everyday issues, and it’s important to advocate for what we believe in. But there’s a lot of noise and misinformation surrounding any real conversation for change, and part of that is our fault. We demand entertainment and drama while refusing to acknowledge the advantage of a more critically constructive approach to political activism. We’ve given comedians the opportunity to stand before Congress and crack jokes to politicians who refuse to take them seriously. We’ve allowed for moral anger to be the status quo — where the only views that exist are under extremism or ignorance. Although indifference is the enemy to progress, perhaps our woke factor needs the night off once in a while. And political comedy can once again become the biting but good-natured means of relief.
Easheta Shah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.