A Site for Scholarly Commentary, Debate and Media Resources for the 2016 Election

Student Voices

Serious candidates and the comedy circuit

Along with town hall meetings, colleges, diners, rallies and house parties, political comedy shows are becoming a mandatory campaign stop for anyone who wants to lead everyone.

“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” leads the presidential hopefuls’ gotta-catch’em-all game. In his first 35 episodes, Colbert has already interviewed four Republican contenders (Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, John Kasich), both of the Democratic front-runners (Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders), and Democrats’ wish-they-were-running Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.

The cathedral-like set at CBS isn’t the only political satire campaign stop for candidates. Chris Christie bantered with new “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah in the first week of the Jon Stewart-less show, while Clinton made a guest appearance on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live as a bartender with a killer Donald Trump impression. And Trump himself did not avoid the comedy limelight for long. Two weeks after Hillary’s SNL stop, he hosted his second SNL, appearing in skits as a dance-like-nobody’s-watching tax guy, a fed-up futuristic harp player and, of course, himself.

Why do American politicians think they need to get a laugh to get a vote? For Clinton, whom the punditry have been mocking as robotic, scripted and unapproachable, SNL was the chance to show her human side. But what was in it for Trump? His character on SNL was indistinguishable from the usual Taran Killiam portrayal of an aggressive egomaniac whose presidency would be the equivalent of reality television. In a sketch staged in 2018, President Trump appoints his daughter as Secretary of Interior to redesign the Washington Monument with more gold plating.

Yet the numbers don’t lie — Trump’s larger-than-life character has pull, as he rose in the polls and SNL got a big bump in ratings.

Unlike SNL skits where candidates get a certain amount of control over their image, comedy talk shows are riskier. Colbert’s interviews have ranged from heartfelt and generous with Biden, to cautiously discomforting with Bush, to hard-hitting with Cruz and Kasich. After pressing Cruz repeatedly on Ronald Reagan’s tax increase, amnesty program and ability to compromise, Colbert asked about gay marriage. That elicited loud boos from the audience, forcing Colbert to step in and quiet down the heckling masses with, “Guys, guys! However you feel, he’s my guest, so don’t boo him.” Kasich got similarly harsh treatment for his stance on drug legalization.

While the turn to political comedy feels new, it dates back to the ancient Greeks. The Athenian electorate spent many a lazy summer afternoon in the theatre, chuckling at plays by Aristophanes mocking the equivalents of Trump and Clinton. Laughing at politicians in public venues is a practice as old as complaints about the poor quality of discourse and debate in electoral politics. There are always experts like Plato who would like to see more truth than truthiness.

For many voters, Jon Stewart and his many comedic offshoots have become trusted voices of reason in politics. Justly or not, Stewart has been called the Walter Cronkite of our generation. Like the king’s jesters of old, political satirists can tell the truth as they see it without fearing political retaliation.

And the politicians would not be lining up to appear if they didn’t think the potential gain outweighed the risk. With the nightly news reporting the grim news of war, terrorism, mass shootings and police brutality, the electorate seems to welcome the hilarious side of political theatre.

So, like it or not, comedians will be important political players this election season. In the next few weeks, we’ll likely see Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and others competing for the title of “candidate I’d like to grab a beer with at a comedy show.”

Let’s hope we’ll still be smiling come election time.