In his preface to A Subtreasury of American Humor, the great essayist and children’s book writer, E. B. White (you may know him from Charlot’s Web) writes:
“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”
Now, I tell you that to tell you this.
Sometimes I am a humorist. (A humorist writes funny things. A comedian talks funny things.) Most humorists eventually must touch on politics. The political realm is part of our social existence, and writing and talking about social existence is what we do.
This has been a volatile political week, on a good many fronts. In our current societal divide, I hereby declare that there are two categories of political humor writing. (So sez me):
Category 1: Giddy Indignation
Nowadays, most political satire exists to create humor from shared anger. It endeavors to belittle those we perceive to be bad actors and it seeks to drum up a sense of righteous indignation with like-minded people. Certainly, the particular media outlets that people choose to read, view, or listen to makes a difference. The person who watches, say, Stephen Colbert or Saturday Night Live, is generally not a regular viewer of FOX News or a listener to Rush Limbaugh. And vice versa. The divide is clear. Where one chooses to consume media fosters the already-held opinions of the consumer.
When the media consumer reads/hears/sees political opinions that match his or her own, a certain euphoria transpires – that collective giddiness. Now, come on. Fess up. You know it’s true.
Category 2: Benevolent Influence
The more challenging political satire attempts to bring about change. Which is to say, the humorist is honestly trying to sway the opinions of people who do not agree with him. At best, it invites an open and honest conversation. This is a tougher nut to crack, of course. For many people, political identity is wrapped up with personal identity, their mores, and their even their religion. The idea of hoping people change their minds is tantamount to asking them to change who they feel they are. People are emotionally invested in their political beliefs. (Especially if they have invested in hats or tee shirts.) The satirist must tread lightly, with affection, for those who disagree with him. And the good ones tell the truth.
I want my humor to help people to listen.
My (sort of) monthly column appears here in the Covington News. (It ain’t The New York Times, and it ain’t Breitbart.) Therefore I must be prepared to encounter my diverse readers face to face every day at the Kroger, the Bread and Butter, and The Town House Café. This so-very-human interaction informs the way that I write. I love my community, even the people who don’t agree with me. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that, politically, most of the people in my community don’t agree with me.
And as with all humor writing, it has to be funny. And my most enjoyable challenge is to make my material inarguable.
For example, (and here is where I am “dissecting the humor”) when I had learned that two of the musical acts who were to perform at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration were to be The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, well, I found that pretty funny.
So, on Dec. 26, 2016, I published the following on social media:
Here is a short poem based on the news, therefore it has a shelf life.
But in consideration of the current roster for the big event on January 20, 2017...
And embracing more and more that quote from the Great Elvis (Costello):
"I used to be disgusted; now I try to be amused." …
And knowing, full well, that now that I am posting such things publicly, I shall unleash a plague of locusts of arch opinion and they may come to eat the residue of that which is me, (while others may question: “How does one leash a locust?”) ...
I offer the following small verse
Named for the buildings
where they perform the most,
Together at last!
Will there be regrets?
For the glory of glitz
and the Heavenly Host,
The tabernacle's choir
And the music hall's Rockettes.
I had a good many comments from readers of my little poem, but one, in particular, started quite a thread. I am changing her name here.
Sallie Lynette wrote: “Perhaps instead of laughing at him, we could pray for him.”
“I see your point, Sallie Lynette. But there is power in the funny. From the court jester of old, to Mark Twain, to political cartoonists, to the Yiddish-speaking Eastern European comedians who fled oppression and death, and made their way to these shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Humorists are truth bringers. And we – if I may include myself – have a lot of work to do.
I know warriors who pray and fight.
I shall pray and make comedy.”
After a while, Sallie Lynette responded, “There's always room for comedy... it provides much-needed relief... but so do prayers. We have room for both.”
And that's about as good as it’s going to get.
Let us strive to hear and tell the truth, y'all.
Andy Offutt Irwin is a storyteller and professional whistler. From 1996 to 2007 he was the director of "The Cracker Crumble," The Georgia Press Association’s political satire show for the governor, the legislature and eight hundred of their closest friends.