Australian PM Julia Gillard's formal address today announcing the end of the world ("Whether the final blow comes from flesh-eating zombies, demonic hill beasts, or from the total triumph of K-Pop…I will always fight for you to the very end") could provide evidence that the guardedness of political life is cracking. Gillard's comments come only two weeks after President Obama, mugging furiously, pulled off a likeable version of the Maroney Smirk. Four months earlier, various British politicians had gamely made asses of themselves for the sake of the London Olympics: London mayor Boris Johnson allowed himself to be dangled in the air from a zipline, which got cartoonishly stuck, and even Queen Elizabeth reached for a deadpan, leaping from a helicopter with James Bond.
This is notable because a fear of losing clout has often made politicians the world's stiffest people. Is the current crop of politicians looser than the last? As recently as 2007, what passed for funny in politics was — or at least, some scriptwriters thought — Karl Rove rapping.
Research on humor is common, but research on humor in politics is, paradoxically, pretty dry. For example, consider this look at humor in the Greek parliament, From Studies in Political Humor: In Between Political Critique and Public Entertainment:
…Although the parliament constitutes a highly institutionalised, formal setting, where logical and legal argumentation is expected to prevail, Greek parliamentarians employ oral humorous narratives to persuade the voting audience and create and maintain bonds with them. The wider cultural and political context plays a significant role in determining parliamentarians’ stylistic choices: orality and respective practices are highly valued in Greek culture, where story-telling in particular is often used for argumentative purposes.
So: funny works. But how? Writing in Lapham's Quarterly during the recent campaign, Monmouth University's Michael Phillips Anderson goes with pragmatism:
It is not enough for politicians to amuse; they must also persuade, for their benefit and ours. Gorgias, a fifth-century-BC Greek philosopher and rhetorician, urged orators to “destroy one’s adversaries’ seriousness with laughter, and their laughter with seriousness.”
…Cicero in On the Orator identified the strategic value of humor as securing goodwill, demonstrating cleverness, and attacking an opponent. In his Education of the Orator, Quintilian recognized that humor could be used to relieve tension, divert attention, refresh the audience, and deflect criticism. He also argued that Demosthenes simply lacked a sense of humor and that Cicero joked too much.
Politicians who can laugh both at and with their constituency, like Gillard seems to be doing above, seem particularly rare and valued. The late Molly Ivins, in her famous obituary for Texas governor Ann Richards, notes that a colleague once sought support for liberalizing gun laws by telling Richards that Texan women would feel safer with pistols in their purses. According to Ivins, Richards told her rival that if you put a gun in the average Texan woman's purse, she'll never, ever find it again.
Richards later lost her governorship to George W. Bush.
(Below, some of Gillard's apocalyptic K-pop. She may be on to something.)