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The Squelch Guide to Political Humor

March 27, 2010

Politics are funny. This is a fact. The constant dance of politicians, pundits, and activists mixing ideology, pragmatism, and pandering to the lowest common denominator, and the clashes that derive from their interactions, produce such a wealth of absurdity and contradiction that humor is really the only way to deal with it without losing your mind. Yet somehow most attempts at political humor are terrible. So as a public service, the Squelch hereby offers a simple outline of the Dos and Don’ts of political humor. No one’s guaranteeing that this is 10 Steps To Becoming Jon Stewart, but hopefully it’ll help people improve their game.

DO have a definite point to make. Too often political jokes boil down to nothing more than “liberals are wussy” or “Republicans are evil” or some such thing. All that really does is contribute to well-worn stereotypes. Specificity is what keeps the joke from descending into hackery. Think of a specific policy or person to criticize or extol. You don’t even have to push a point of view. Even something as simple as “Senator X changed his stance on issue Y over the past year” can be a good start to a funny piece. Just keep your point in mind and don’t lose focus.

DO gather information about your topic. It’s important to have all the details right, because a factual error can destroy your credibility in an instant. And sprinkling your piece with information gives it an extra feeling of authority that adds to the humor, especially in a newsflash. “Sprinkling” is the operative word, though. Don’t explain the whole thing to your audience, or you’ll bore those who aren’t familiar with it and insult those who are.

DON’T assume that because you’re a comedy writer you’re right about everything. It’s not uncommon for comedians who are used to courting controversy to come to associate all criticism with prudes and closed-mindedness. TV comedians have a special vulnerability to this, because they have an audience to clap for them at all times, no matter what they say. As Flavor Flav once said, don’t believe the hype. You have to consider the possibility that you’re wrong and that people could reasonably disagree with your opinion.

DON’T think that being offensive is funny in and of itself. That shit’s hilarious in middle school, but if you keep spouting “ironic” racism and suchlike once you’ve old enough to vote, you wind up sounding like, well, a middle schooler. Offensiveness can be a side effect of good comedy, but never its genesis. I covered this at greater length in a post on the UCSD Koala’s recent troubles, but it bears repeating. Bottom line: spewing hateful rhetoric doesn’t make you Dave Fucking Chapelle. It makes you a racist using comedy as a veil. Even worse, it makes you a hacky racist.

DO be aware of your time frame. Topical humor by its nature has a short shelf life, and if your topic doesn’t last, neither does the joke. If your topic is, say, some Congressman or other saying something foolish on the House floor, your window to be funny is mighty thin. The Daily Show and its brethren get away with this because they’re, well, daily, and don’t expect to be watched years or even months in the future. Shows like Family Guy and South Park are going to look very strange to DVD audiences in a few years who aren’t familiar with their super-zeitgeisty subject matter.

DO get out while the getting’s good. A comedy writer needs to develop a sense of just how much comedy is inherent in a subject, and when to abandon it. Make your point, make your joke, then move on to the next thing. Remember David Letterman on The Simpsons: “And the number one reference I’m running into the ground is… Homer Simpson.” Don’t be that guy.

DON’T hate. It’s important to keep a somewhat impartial perspective on the targets of your humor. It’s okay to be angry at someone who deserves it. Just make sure that the reasons you are angry at them (and they should be reasons that would make other people angry, not just you) come across in your comedy, not just your loathing. Otherwise you’re just impotently settling scores. For instance, suppose that I were to write a piece making fun of, say, Michelle Malkin, an obnoxious hate-monger who annoys me quite a lot. If I were to title my piece “Michelle Malkin is an awful human being and everyone should hate her,” and make that sentiment the bulk of the piece, it would be unfunny and downright mean. Instead, I would want to focus on the reasons this person annoys me, such as her disingenuous misinformation campaigns or her use of inane ideological wordplay in place of genuine political analysis. That opens up more avenues for comedy and keeps the joke from turning into mere vindictiveness. In comedy as in all things, don’t be an asshole.

That’s all that comes to mind for now. If my colleagues can think of anything to add, be my guest.

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