Way back during the last Bush administration there was a short-lived political comedy show on FOX called The Half-Hour News Hour. It was an attempt to create a conservative answer to The Daily Show and Colbert, and was short-lived because not even FOX viewers could deny that it was abominable. At the time, I was skeptical that there could be such a thing as effective conservative comedy.
These days, I can barely make it through the few minutes of supposedly hilarious SNL skits, and my old notion of comedy as the special province of culturally liberal types is in ruins. Bad impersonations of people you loathe is not comedy, though this distinction seems generally lost.
It is a truism that real comedy “punches up”, but what “up” means at this point, with the cultural hierarchy fragmented, is hard to tell. I’d say being on top is more a frame of mind. A person “on top” is bound by the premises of the people they represent, whereas the jester is free exactly because of a lack of all pretense to respectability. Freedom from respectability allows the jester to get underneath the pretenses of those “above” them, and so expose the difference between these pretenses and common sense. Real comedy asserts the superiority of common sense over pretense, by exposing it as farcical.
Real comedians depend upon being free from the pretenses of respectability, and this dependence explains why the vast majority of what I’ll call “#Resistance comedy” – from SNL to Colbert – sounds more like the old Half-Hour News Hour than the old Daily Show. In a nutshell: the people involved in making this comedy are more hidebound by pretense than their targets. They are people steeped in the fear of saying something forbidden, and acutely aware of the ideology that holds cultural authority. This self-consciousness deprives them of the flexibility essential to revealing impersonations and comedic truth-telling. They are always punching down from on high.
Of course they are performing for an audience endlessly hungry to see its sense of superiority reaffirmed. An audience which has lost its sense of genuine humor in the growth of an appetite to see its targets degraded beyond all recognition.
For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.
Consider, for example, Steve Martin’s nonsensical impersonation of Roger Stone (portrayed as if he were a wild and crazy guy), which goes out of its way to justify the pre-dawn, military-style raid employed to apprehend Stone in his home. If your routine justifies the excessive use of force, you’re not a comedian but an apologist for power.