What is the role of comedy in a crumbling republic? Kathy Griffin feels it’s the comedian’s duty to steer public discourse. “Our job is to shine a bright light on issues people are afraid to talk about, speak truth to power, push boundaries, take risks, and by being provocative … force people to pay attention to important issues,” she tweeted on Wednesday. Griffin’s tweet was part of an extended thread about how her career was torpedoed by a picture of her holding a bloody mask of Trump. She detailed the death threats, bomb scares, and Secret Service investigation she endured because, as she sees it, Trump sicced his followers on her via social media. And now, Griffin is coming to the defense of Samantha Bee, who is facing a similar onslaught of conservatives from a joke gone wrong.
The decorum police came for Bee this week after she called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” on Full Frontal. Bee was criticizing Ivanka, who claims to be a friend to all women/children/photogenic animals, for doing nothing to stop the barbaric separation of migrant children from their parents. Pundits on the right equated Bee’s comments to Roseanne Barr’s show-canceling Ambien tweet from earlier in the week, when she compared Valerie Jarrett to apes. Bee has apologized, as has TBS, yet the furor remains. The White House, and Donald Trump himself, is calling for the cancellation of Full Frontal, and Autotrader has already pulled ads from the show. Bee joins her Daily Show alum Michelle Wolf in Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s burn book.
“Bee’s larger point was to criticize Ivanka Trump’s insensitive and tone-deaf photograph. The point of Barr’s tweet, in as much as it had a point, was that Barr thinks Jarrett is both an Islamist and an ape,” Jen Chaney wrote in her piece breaking down how Bee’s joke differs from Barr’s. “Saying that both women deserve to be fired suggests their offenses are identical. They are not.” Another way that Bee, and also Wolf, differ from Barr: They were punching sideways. They’re privileged white women attacking privileged white women. Bee and Wolf broke the implicit taboo of naming white women’s complicity in violence against women of color. Bee told Ivanka off for her dad’s separation of immigrant women from their children, and Wolf called SHS “Aunt Lydia” because she sells out other women for a sliver of more power, just like the Handmaid’s Tale character.
But if the goal of political comedy is to change hearts and minds with laughter, does it even work? If people get the joke, they’re pissed, and if they don’t get the joke, what are we even doing here? Peter Cook expressed his skepticism for comedy’s ability to be anti-Establishment when he literally named his London nightclub The Establishment and modeled it after “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.” In a 2009 study of The Colbert Report, researchers found that the show didn’t convince racists that they were wrong — it actually reinforced their bigoted views. Racists laughed with Colbert, not at him; art didn’t stop Hitler, and comedy has yet to stop Trump.
Elsewhere this week, Jimmy Kimmel agreed to play one-on-one basketball with Ted Cruz, and I’m unclear who that benefits/denigrates. Liberal comedians sometimes get razzed by other liberal comedians for preaching to the choir, but this world is bleak, and I could use some jokes. If satire doesn’t change minds, maybe rallying the troops isn’t such a bad thing. Give me a pointed joke that “goes too far” over a nebulously chummy stunt any day. If Ted can be in the same room as you, you’re not telling enough truths.
The Break with Michelle Wolf premiered last Sunday on Netflix, and it is excellent. In her opening monologue, she said her show is called The Break because it’s supposed to be a break. “I’m not going to try and teach you anything or discuss political policy with you,” she said. “On The Break, we will joke about anything we want.” Wolf never apologized for her White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech. Her priority is telling a good joke, not reaching across the aisle.
In her new book Against Memoir, Michelle Tea says that the purpose of political art is “not to change the world that can’t or won’t be changed. It’s to leave traces of ourselves for others to hold on to, a lifeline of solidarity that spans time, that passes on strength like a baton from person to person.” Samantha Bee is passing on grace under pressure and an ability to hold herself accountable. Michelle Wolf’s baton is mostly made of Mario Batali fat jokes, and I’ll take it.