There was a troubling news item the other day. A survey of 1.4 million people in 166 countries measured how much people smiled or laughed each day and the conclusion reported in the book “Humour, Seriously” was that people’s sense of humor drops precipitously after age 23.
I can handle the loss of my hair and stamina, but I see humor as a necessity none of us should go without. But it is true that most of us get too serious about work, relationships and money in our mid-twenties and forget to lighten up and notice the amusing absurdity all around us. And if we venture out of our media-induced seriousness, we will notice that the craziness of national politics and government provides a treasure trove of laughter.
What’s the difference between a politician and a snail?
One is slimy, a pest, and leaves a trail everywhere and the other is a snail.
What’s the difference between baseball and politics?
In baseball, you’re out if you’re caught stealing.
These are basic, unsophisticated zingers that can be recycled to comment on lawyers and Wall Street big shots. One-liners are fun, but I really appreciate thoughtful satire that awakens us to a more subtle truth about an important issue or candidate. The most skillful political humor can help us see problems in a new light and possibly even steer our views in a different direction. The Onion is especially adept at giving readers both levity and food for thought on serious issues in their headlines: “Nation surrenders to Chinese balloon.” “U.S. officials call for correct amount of violence.” “Florida Board of Education removes Africa from world maps.”
I don’t care for Republican or Democrat jokes that stereotype people based on their party affiliation. Tens of millions of Americans belong to each party, and there is plenty of diversity of thought and life circumstances within each party. Mean stereotyping political humor is no different than ethnic jokes in the way it puts people down and divides our country. But I feel we need the cathartic effect of the humor that pokes fun at politicians and government in general.
In a 2023 U.S. Gallup poll of how the public rates the ethics of various professions, 62.6% of respondents gave members of Congress a low or very low rating. This was the worst of any profession, even below telemarketers and car salespeople. Political humor is so satisfying because we have such a low opinion of politicians, and we feel we have no say over what they are up to in Washington. We enjoy having a little control over top officials and feeling some moral superiority to them even if it is only in our minds.
Notice how humor that works so well on people in Washington or other states tends to fall flat on a local level. Perhaps it is the TV cameras which cause some congresspersons to be arrogant or foolish when everyone is watching. It might also be the money where the numbers are so big in Washington that corruption becomes too commonplace. Or maybe elected officials in Colorado are just more honest and don’t lose sight of their roles as public servants.
Journalist P.J. O’Rourke was the master of insightful satire of government and he was especially even-handed about hitting both major parties. “Giving money and power to the government is like giving alcohol and car keys to teenagers.” At first glance this quote is just a good joke, but it also draws attention to the need to not overfund the government and be thankful we have a Constitution that keeps the government in check. Or his witty reminder to be wary of big promises and unforeseen consequences: “If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free!”
Nightly monologs by talk show hosts almost always include wry comments on the latest gaffe by someone in Washington. Yes, this lack of respect for politicians can add to the cynicism about the direction of our nation, but it also keeps us from putting leaders on a pedestal and pretending they have no faults. This common public criticism should also remind us of the freedom of speech we enjoy. The media as well as individual citizens can poke fun at our leaders in order to keep them honest and spur lively public debate, rights not available to the people of Russia or China.
The “Humour, Seriously” book reported that the average 4-year-old laughs up to 300 times per day, but the average 40-year-old only manages to laugh 300 times during a 10-week period. I hope I am not that somber. Make it a point to look for more reasons to laugh each day. It is important to be an informed voter, but if you can see the absurdity and mirth in the political news it will help you to chuckle instead finding reasons to be angry. It’s a beautiful thing when humor and laughter bring people together.