Comedy Looks Beyond the Debt Ceiling

Last Friday morning NPR host Mary Louise Kelly wrapped up a segment on the debt ceiling debate by quoting the Onion headline “Congress Continues Debate Over Whether or Not Nations Should Be Economically Ruined.” It was an attempt for the news program to import some levity into their coverage of this perplexing voluntary crisis, but it was also the truest thing that’s been said about the debt ceiling to date, and you could sense Ms. Kelly knew this.

The debt ceiling debate in Washington has been dragging on for a long time now. The comic reaction was measured at first — comedians were taking their time to ponder the situation and gather their reactions — but now they are piling on, and its dominance of the late night monologues is becoming newsworthy.

An article on Politico yesterday summarized the trend this way: “A persistent theme running through much of the humor — for those who can’t stay up late — is the general ineptitude of the federal government.” That’s accurate, but pretty much all political comedy is about the ineptitude of the federal government. This one’s different. The stakes are higher. This time, political comedians are reacting to Washington’s intention to bring about the end of the world.

The default threat is not inept. It’s evil. And as usual, a lot of comedians are seeing through the bullshit in a way the news isn’t, or isn’t allowed. Conan gets the disconnect between what our congressmen are telling us and the reality they are hiding. In his “serious” segment on the crisis, Rep. Donald Maguire of Illinois preaches calm while preparing himself for Armageddon. It’s a comic heightening that has real-world parallels. As the debt crisis was ramping up, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor shorted (bet against) U.S. Treasury Bills. The motherfucker was maneuvering to make a profit if the debt talks failed. Then he walked out of the debt talks.

The Colbert Report already saw this happening in the beginning of June. Republicans were promising the Tea Party it would reject any raise in the debt ceiling, then reassuring Wall Street that they weren’t serious. While the rest of the country was turning their attention to Anthony Weiner, Colbert foresaw how the debt ceiling would be clouded in doublespeak. He caught that the bill Republicans were opposing was a Republican-sponsored bill, and illustrated it with CSPAN footage of Republican Rep. Dave Camp letting out a Lewis Carroll-quality conundrum: “This vote, a vote based on legislation I introduced, will and must fail.”

The Onion headline perfectly captured the essence of what people had been feeling but hadn’t heard said, so it’s nice that the headline was such a hit. For the best explanation of what is happening behind the brinksmanship, we also have a comedian to thank. Rob Delaney’s take on the debt crisis in Vice, “Debt Ceilings Debt Feelings” sees this movement for what it is: a kleptocracy, bent on the redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

At this point, realize, “Oh yeah, I want that money now. I want to buy that funny shirt I saw at the mall with the police officer cat saying ‘Move along now!’ to the dogs eyeing a fire hydrant.” But you can’t, because there’s no more money, so what you should do is get very angry and sit down in a La-Z-Boy chair and take a nap. Then get up and yell at poor people and detail how you’re going to hurt them and their grandchildren and how you’re definitely going to take what little they have left so you can buy that awesome cat-cop T-shirt which you’ll never even wear. And when I say poor people, I’m referring to everyone who isn’t in one of the three branches of the government or on the board of a multinational corporation.

Anyone who follows Rob Delaney closely should have gathered by now that he is stealthily becoming one of our most talented and insightful political comedians today. Like the Onion or Colbert, he avoids the broader jokes about the “ineptitude of the federal government” or political caricatures and focuses on overlooked aspects of the government that actually affect us, like his series of tweets about Supreme Court decisions. Delaney understands that the debt ceiling is just a cover for much darker impulses, and we are being held hostage by people who are either reckless (the Onion’s take) or devious (Colbert’s take).

The news could never say this. That’s why comedy fills the void. But as the hosts at NPR know, when the news gets too far away from reality, report the comedy.

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.

Comedy Looks Beyond the Debt Ceiling