11/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Age of Jesters

Reposted from Foreign Policy In Focus

Comedian Boris Johnson is now the mayor of London. Comic Beppe Grillo has emerged as an important political force in Italy. Here in the United States, comedian Al Franken has moved into the lead for one of Minnesota's Senate seats according to one recent poll. Inadvertent comic Arnold Schwarzenegger is still the governor of California. And a good number of people watching last week's vice-presidential debate would prefer that Sarah Palin's comic doppelganger Tina Fey were in the race than either the Alaska governor or the senator from Delaware.

It used to be that prospective politicians chose law school as the first step in their career path. Future politicians may skip law school altogether and try out for the Saturday Night Live team instead.

Political scientists have already taken notice of a "Daily Show effect." Fans of the popular "fake news" program hosted by Jon Stewart view both the political system and the mainstream media with considerable cynicism. So it's no surprise that the electorate has begun to blur the distinction between insider politics and outsider humor. Almost 5,000 people have signed a petition to encourage Jon Stewart to run for the White House at some point in his life. In the Canadian magazine Maisonneuve, Paul Matthews provides eight reasons why The Daily Show host should run sooner rather than later. The number one reason is trust -- the public is more comfortable with someone who tells jokes than someone who is the butt of jokes. Not surprisingly, Stewart won an endorsement from Robin Williams, who played a comic president in the film Man of the Year. Before Stewart could throw his hat in the ring, his former Daily Show colleague Stephen Colbert launched his own presidential campaign last year.

Why are people all over the world leaning toward throwing the bums out and replacing them with jesters? Part of the explanation is the collapse of the firewall that once existed between the world of comedy and the world of news. During that last great slough of despond in world events -- the Vietnam War and economic recession of the 1970s -- the very somber Walter Cronkite presided over one arena and the often politically astute comedy of All in the Family reigned in another. Today, Jon Stewart has picked away at the fire wall from the comedy side while news commentators Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow have knocked away bricks from their side. This deregulation of the two worlds has prepared voters to take comic candidates -- and not just actors in the Ronald Reagan mold -- very seriously.

The reshaping of the overall entertainment-political industrial complex favors the nimble and the agile over dinosaur lawmakers. When sound bites get shorter and shorter, no one can one-up the comic's one-liner. As entertainment increasingly trumps sober analysis and the great art of oratory atrophies, only comedians can command the audience's attention. As anti-intellectualism grows ever more profound, only the comic can get away with being smart (everyone else is a pointy-headed elitist). It goes both ways, for Hollywood too is often stuck in the laugh track. Consider the disturbing fact that of all the recent movies linked to the Middle East or the war on terrorism - such as Rendition and Redacted - the only certifiable hit was the stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.

It's just a matter of time before the firewall crumbles away completely and someone like Bill Maher fires the questions at a presidential debate and someone like Al Franken is one of the respondents. In the meantime, there's no question that so many people watched last week's vice presidential debate because they were drawn to the potential spectacle of the event rather than a genuine interest in the policy positions of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Would Palin rise above her comic impersonations and avoid the gaffes of her interviews with Katie Couric and others? It was the political equivalent of rubbernecking.

"Neither candidate embarrassed their ticket, but neither went beyond the core talking points of their campaign," reports Foreign Policy In Focus policy outreach director Erik Leaver in The VP Debate: Exceptionalism vs. Liberal Internationalism. "However, hidden amongst the folksy talk in an otherwise lackluster debate, Palin and Biden provided apt viewers with a glimpse of their ideologies that will undergird the key foreign policy decisions of the next administration."

FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes annotates the debate, finding errors of fact, interpretation, and judgment in both candidates. For instance, Palin claimed that the other ticket opposed funding for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. "In reality, Biden has consistently supported unconditional funding for Bush's war in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as evidence of torture, widespread killings of civilians, the resulting insurgency, and other problems have become apparent," Zunes writes in The VP Debate: Dishonest Foreign Policies. "Furthermore, as Biden pointed out, John McCain also voted against 'funding for our troops' when the appropriation was tied to certain conditions he disliked."

The Iraq War, escalating violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a global financial crisis, carbon dioxide emissions at record levels: it's no wonder that people are turning away from politicians and seeking relief in laughter. During the Great Depression, Mickey Mouse and Disney, Will Rogers and his broadsides against Wall Street, Jack Benny and his famous penny-pinching all became immensely popular. The difference today is that we are turning to comedians not just for laughs but for leadership.

Back in 1979, new wave artist Elvis Costello surveyed a similarly bleak world: "As I walk through/This wicked world/Searchin' for light in the darkness of insanity./I ask myself /Is all hope lost? Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?" In the chorus, he croons the now famous lines: "What's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding?"

In these equally bleak times, the problem may soon be that unless peace, love, and understanding are funny, no one will pay any attention to them.

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