It’s election night, 2012. I’m standing on stage at the Temple Hills Skate Palace in Prince George’s County, Maryland, the wealthiest majority-black county in the U.S.
I’m telling jokes to a bougie crowd eager to see Barack Obama win a second term as president. They politely tolerate the warm-up act.
“Madonna said she would take off her clothes on stage if Obama was re-elected. Finally, a celebrity supporting Romney!”
Some laughs. I look out at the audience, dressed to the nines, nibbling on chafing dish chicken in the dark. Sprays of shiny red, white and blue foil and glittery stars dot the white-clothed tables.
“If he wins tonight, Mitt Romney promised to name me ambassador to the Suitland Parkway.”
I see a few friends, more than a few. I may be the only Republican in the joint. I’m certainly the only white Republican. But I’ve been doing standup comedy in rooms like this for years.
In that time, I never encountered an audience member resentful that I was on stage. As long as I was funny, I was family.
“The First Lady is growing a vegetable garden at the White House. I miss the old days, when the government handed out free cheese.”
It’s a very different scene four years later. It’s election night at a country club in Franklin County, Tennessee. Media trucks and Beamers jostle for space in the cramped parking lot. The room fills with sequined Republicans, drinks in hand, their eyes glued to the drifting chyrons on TV.
Once again, I grab the mic.
“Nate Silver says the only precincts left to count in my home state of Pennsylvania are in the conservative ‘T’ counties!”
The crowd cheers. No jokes tonight, just stunned and happy people toasting their good fortune, in between bites of chafing dish chicken. Somehow, the reality TV star and real estate mogul who had been written off a hundred times before will become the leader of the free world.
I marvel at the dynamic. A handful of votes have once again determined whether we become a statist liberal or populist conservative nation. The world tilts on a needle-thin fulcrum. So much depends on so few.
And yet, I am sad that my friends in P.G. County won’t share in the joy.
I understand why.
Not long ago, then attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, called us a “nation of cowards.” He said we refuse to confront one another on race.
He must not read the mainstream media.
At Slate, Jamelle Bouie compared President Trump’s seven-nation visa pause to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. A headline on Salon.com said supporters of school choice are “living proof white people haven’t gotten over Brown v. Board of Education.”
Is it any surprise that besieged conservatives find it easier to keep their mouths shut?
Meanwhile, some on my side of the aisle, feeling cornered, fight back with racist memes of witch doctors or watermelons, juvenile shock tactics that have no place in political debate or polite society.
I don’t know the answer to this dilemma. But I believe humor is key.
My own political education began when I bought my first Mad magazine. I was hooked. Patty Hearst, the Black Panthers, the SLA, CREEP, Jimmy Carter’s “killer rabbit”—no topic escaped its wicked satire and parodies. Do you watch the Simpsons and South Park? Thank Mad.
Americans have always embraced political satire. Hell, we adopted the razzing “Yankee Doodle” as our unofficial national anthem. Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Thomas Nast, Will Rogers, H.L. Mencken—their names are as venerated as the presidents they poked.
My personal favorite was Finley Peter Dunne, whose “Mr. Dooley” character was both coruscating and prescient. “A fanatic is a man who does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts of the case,” he said. President Teddy Roosevelt read Dunne’s columns at Cabinet meetings and dined with him at the White House.
Today the banner of political satire is carried by late-night talk show hosts, some more ably than others. “Saturday Night Live” is currently generating the most heat, if presidential tweets are any measure. The show’s recent takedown of Sean Spicer was a brilliant (if unsubtle) example of the form.
At the same time, the Trump election seems to have broken Hollywood’s funny bone.
Horrified liberals are replacing jokes with lectures. The creators of South Park announced they’re giving up on satirizing the president. Even the White House Correspondents Association Dinner is being threatened with a boycott, led by Vanity Fair.
This will not embolden play-it-safe politicians, who flee from wit like Usain Bolt.
That’s a shame. Humor does not create tension, it releases it. I’ve written jokes for governors, Cabinet secretaries and a president. I constantly fight to get reluctant officials to add self-deprecating humor to their speeches. It humanizes them and makes them seem real in a business suffused with phoniness. And reminding people that politicians are real is a good way to remind them that their supporters, too, are real. If we remember that, we are a lot less likely to hate on one another.
In this hyper-partisan era, where the converted cower in snark-filled bubbles, self-awareness can be a terrific weapon. Acknowledging your critics is a mark of strength, not weakness. The king needs a truth-telling jester.
“I’m thrilled to be on ‘Deal or No Deal’ with you tonight,” President George W. Bush said to host Howie Mandel in a 2008 appearance. “Come to think of it, I’m thrilled to be anywhere with high ratings these days.”
Many of my friends in the comedy world would never think of voting for a conservative Republican. But they have the capacity to understand our motivations, and to realize that we all seek to do good for others and wish the best for our country.
After all, it’s hard to hate when you’re laughing.