Critics have often been stumped by satire. This seemed again the case this week as puzzled TV reviewers wrestled with George Clooney’s superbly astringent rendition of Catch-22. Shouldn’t there be more laughs in satire, some asked? Ironically, I revisited this question as I paid a visit to the Comedy Store (a guilty pleasure) and heard a grumpy young comic complain, “The only people getting laughs any more are politicians –and they don’t even mean to.”
He was half right. We are laughing at politicos these days, but they like it that way. A stunning number of elections around the world are being won by professional comedians. Even Donald Trump thinks he’s funny. But so does the new president of Ukraine, the prime minister of Slovenia, the president of Guatemala, the onetime mayor of Reykjavik in Iceland, and the man who will likely be the next prime minister of the UK.
This unlikely cast of characters – one-time stand-ups – has even earned a new name, cometician, and found a new purpose: to disrupt the established political order by making it seem funny.
Indeed, cometicians likely would admire Catch-22 (on Hulu starting this week) because it captures the insidiously subversive tone of Joseph Heller’s revered 1961 novel. Its core message is that neither war, nor life for that matter, makes much sense, which reflects the subtext of the politico-comics. “Every joke is a tiny revolution,” George Orwell once wrote. It was not a laugh line.
The crossover between comedy and politics has become an important weapon for the new populists, notes The Economist, hardly a repository of humor. Hence authoritarian leaders like Trump or the UK’s Boris Johnson “control the demolition of their own dignity” (Johnson, like Trump, graduated from TV). Even the very unfunny Barack Obama once joked that Trump might turn the White House into a casino with a Trump sign on top. Obama would have liked Iodymyr Zelensky’s line (he was a Ukrainian stand-up) that his rival needed a second presidential term “so he wouldn’t get a prison term.”
In its unexpected commentary on cometicians, The Economist affirms that the new breed are mostly insurgents bent on destabilizing the opposition. Thus Italy’s populist chief Matteo Salvini often wears a Putin T-shirt. “When the going gets funny, the funny gets going,” observes Jon Gnarr, the comic who was mayor of Reykjavik from 2010-2014.
Trump’s brand of humor, of course, is rooted in profanity-based put-downs (calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahantas”), but his extremes have nurtured the approval of his base. Some of his overseas admirers have even aimed lower: Guatemala’s president Jimmy Morales sometimes performs in blackface playing a character named Black Dragon Fruit.
Given all this, it’s likely that Catch-22 will find a receptive audience around the world. International viewers should relish Clooney’s raucous performance as a general who demands that his troops march in ever tighter formations. On the other hand, if Clooney had cast Alec Baldwin in the role, his comedic intentions might have been further sharpened..
For that matter, given international trends, why isn’t Baldwin running for office?
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