The Highs and Loh of Political Humor

Mirthmeisters keep USC crowd laughing during a funny forum on comedy and politics.
By Anna Cearley
Writers Mark Evanier and Sandra Tsing Loh

Photo/Alexandra Bissonnette
A panel of comedians explored the use of humor in politics during a USC forum full of wisecracks and witty comments.

Mark Evanier, a comic book and television writer, said that humor is funnier when it’s aimed at people who are perceived as being at the top. And for many people, he said, that’s the Republicans.

“You want to go after the guy at the top … you want to go after the guy who will slip on the banana peel,” he said.

Sandra Tsing Loh, a USC College alumna, writer and performer, said that Democrats are harder to poke fun at because their party has made a greater effort to paint themselves as more inclusive.

“You have the essence of them as having a big tent, as being the party of many,” she said, though she acknowledged that there is hypocrisy in both parties.

“Comedy and Politics Laugh ’Til You Think” was held Oct. 14 and presented by USC College’s Master of Professional Writing Program and the USC Master of Liberal Studies Program. The panelists were Evanier, Loh and Michael Price, a co-executive producer of The Simpsons.

“We wanted to delve into the deeper questions of what makes us laugh and how does that impact our perceptions and actions,” said Susan Kamei, associate dean for advanced and professional programs at USC College.

“What better way than to juxtapose humor with all the comedic interpretations of the current presidential elections.”

Price said that Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin might make herself open to jokes because of what she says. But it’s also the comedian’s responsibility to use humor to focus beyond the more obvious winks and gaffes.

“With her, there is a lot of humor based on her appearance, but I think there are funnier things to say about her that are more political,” he said.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama seems to present a challenge for many comedians, panelists said. Price said that he doesn’t repeat “my friends,” like Republican presidential candidate John McCain. And he doesn’t wink like Palin.

“He doesn’t really fit easily into a certain caricature,” Evanier said.

Loh noted that most comedy gets its fodder from “big news” items such as presidential elections.

The performer, whose book and solo show Mother on Fire describes her real-life experiences of trying to find a public school for her eldest child, said comedy could be used more effectively to target less scrutinized social subjects public schools, for one.

“This kind of local politics doesn’t have a Daily Show,” she quipped.

Humor, the panelists noted, can be controversial. When The New Yorker published a cover with Obama and his wife dressed as a Muslim and a terrorist, it was heavily criticized for improper satire.

Price said the cover was intended for an audience that presumably would “get” the humor based on an exaggeration of stereotypes. Evanier said the humor was misinterpreted.

“It went over a few too many heads, and everyone was trying to rewrite it,” he said.

Panel moderator James R. Kincaid, the Aerol Arnold Professor in the USC Department of English, teaches a class on the “Culture of Comedy” for the USC Master of Liberal Studies Program.

He said he hoped the conference made people think more broadly about the role and use of comedy in forming ideologies and solidifying or undermining our belief systems.

“We are using the current presidential campaign as a starting point to make people think about humor in reference to politics,” he explained, “but the discussion is also meant to prod us to consider thinking more generally about how comedy works and about the mechanisms of laughter in our life.”