The Joke Is On Us: New Book Explores Political Comedy | WGLT

The Joke Is On Us: New Book Explores Political Comedy

Feb 4, 2019

For those concerned about the Trump presidency, late-night comedy can be therapeutic—like you're sitting down on the couch with Dr. Colbert or Dr. Kimmel after yet another crazy news day.

But the joke is on us. That’s the title of a new book about political comedy by Illinois State University professor of politics and government Julie Webber. It looks at political comedy through the lens of neoliberalism, a view of the economy where multinational companies and other free-market players are empowered to make the big decisions—not politicians or the government.

Just think about the platforms we use to consume comedy. HBO, Netflix, CBS, Comedy Central, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim. They are giant companies often owned by other giant companies.

“We assume that political comedy and late-night TV is always going to be edgy and critical,” Webber said on GLT’s Sound Ideas. “But it’s really determined by the bottom line and what corporations are willing to let comics present and what audiences feel comfortable hearing. So late-night comedy has played a largely therapeutic role—comforting people after a long day at work. It’s not too edgy in the sense of motivating them politically or socially to think critically about their everyday lives.”

Webber’s new book “The Joke Is On Us” includes contributions from many different authors, covering everything from late-night comedians to “Roseanne” to lesser-known examples of political comedy.

On Stephen Colbert, host of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”

“Even from the beginning of his first show on Comedy Central in 2005, Colbert’s always had a slight edge. He’s managed to buck industry a little bit with his comedy,” Webber said. “I think it’s his specific delivery. The way he does irony, the way he does comedy. And that goes back to his earlier stuff on ‘Strangers with Candy,’ which is brilliant.

“He’s like the new ‘Meet the Press’ in a way. Now political comedy has become this sort of delivery vehicle for what’s happening in American politics. And (Colbert) has become the new standard bearer.”

On John Oliver, host of “Last Week Tonight”

“It’s like a ‘60 Minutes’ format. He’s able to go longer on HBO. He can get into topics and really explain them to people. In that sense it’s really informative. And I like that HBO made it free on the web so that college students can see it. It’s very popular with college students and young people who don’t have a lot of money. That’s a really smart move.

“But just like any corporate-sponsored political comedian, he has his limitations too. He’s been rightly criticized for some of his shows, such as Venezuela. He gets it right and he gets it wrong, but I think he tries.”

On “Million Dollar Extreme: World Peace,” an Adult Swim show embraced by the alt-right that was famously canceled in 2016 after Trump’s election

“It was important because it kind of encapsulated this idea that everyone sees themselves as a victim in a weird way. Those on the right. Those in the corporate Democratic sphere. None of them are victims really, which I found kind of interesting. There’s a big controversy over which you would rather see.

“For me, I’d rather have no one in charge of what kind of the comedy we consume or listen to. I’d be more interested in something like workplace comedy, which ‘The Office’ was a trailblazer in that sense. It didn’t go far enough, but it was very good in showing how we don’t question corporate and managerial policy and the relevance of it to our lives.”

Webber said consumers of comedy should pay closer attention to its content.

“Is it more focused on how people can live their lives in a freer way? Or is it focused on how people can stay within the leash of consumer capitalism? Which I think is what a lot of comedy does. It makes jokes about our consumer habits. In the end it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s who we are, that’s what we do.’ But I don’t think that’s all we are and what we do. I think we have a much broader range as humans, and that’s not always represented in political comedy,” Webber said.

The book is part of Webber’s series with Lexington Books on political comedy.

You can also listen to the full interview:

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