Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


cicerowithglasses

Are Politicians Getting Funnier? Or Just Relaxing?

• December 06, 2012 • 8:28 AM

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.)

 

Marc Herman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 23 • 12:00 PM

A Brief History of the Loch Ness Monster

From 1933—and possibly much, much earlier—to just this past May, people have been claiming (and staging) sightings of the famed water cryptid.



September 23 • 10:00 AM

The International Surrogacy Market

In Bangalore, where many women earn just $150 a month working in garment factories, surrogate mothers can make thousands of dollars by carrying others’ babies to term. But at what cost?


September 23 • 8:00 AM

Medicare: Your New Long-Term Care Provider

A 2013 court ruling has paved the way for an incredible, costly expansion of home health care by removing a critical lever the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had to control who receives services, and for how long.


September 23 • 6:22 AM

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.


September 23 • 6:00 AM

The Heist: How Visitors Stole a National Monument

Fossil Cycad National Monument was home to one of the world’s greatest collections of fossilized cycadeoids—until visitors carried them all away.


September 23 • 4:00 AM

Fifty Shades of Meh

New research refutes the notion that reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy strongly impacts women’s sexual behavior.


September 23 • 2:00 AM

The Portlandia Paradox

Oregon’s largest city is full of overeducated and underemployed young people.


September 22 • 4:00 PM

The Overly Harsh and Out-of-Date Law That’s So Difficult on Debtors

A 1968 federal law allows collectors to take 25 percent of debtors’ wages, or every penny in their bank accounts.


September 22 • 2:00 PM

NFL Players Are More Law Abiding Than Average Men

According to records kept by USA Today, 2.53 percent of players are arrested in any given year.


September 22 • 12:00 PM

Freaking Out About Outliers: When the Polls Are Way Off

The idea of such a small number of people being used to predict how millions will vote sometimes irks observers, but it’s actually a very reliable process—most of the time.


September 22 • 10:00 AM

The Imagined Sex Worker

The stigma against black sex workers can reinforce stigmas against all black women and all sex workers.


September 22 • 9:54 AM

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.


September 22 • 8:00 AM

The NFL, the Military, and the Problem With Masculine Institutions

Both the NFL and the U.S. military cultivate and reward a form of hyper-violent masculinity. The consequences of doing so have never been more obvious.


September 22 • 6:00 AM

Zombies in the Quad: The Trouble With Elite Education

William Deresiewicz’s new book, Excellent Sheep, is in part, he says, a letter to his younger, more privileged self.


September 22 • 4:02 AM

You’re Going to Die! So Buy Now!

New research finds inserting reminders of our mortality into advertisements is a surprisingly effective strategy to sell products.



September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


Follow us


On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

The Big One

One in three tourists to Jamaica reports getting harassed; half of them are hassled to buy drugs. September/October 2014 new-big-one-4

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.