Q: Is political humor always anti-establishment?
A: Only if it’s funny.
Humor tends to be diminishing. When it diminishes others, it reflects poorly on the character of those who deliver it—unless they are professional comedians. And even then, it can be received poorly.
Whether political or not, humor directed at people who are weak, unfortunate or unpopular comes across as cruel and demeaning. Not that this kind of humor has not always had an audience… how many offensive racist, sexist, and ethnic jokes have you heard in your lifetime? Imagine how often they were used before harassment laws were enacted.
There is a bit of an exception to this position: the jokes about enemies. Stereotypes of fat sausage-and-sauerkraut-eating Germans and near-sighted buck-toothed Japanese may have helped the Allied WWII efforts by further defining the “Us against Them” scenario.
In the absence of war, this kind of humor still tends to perpetuate the Us against Them values held by racists, sexists and xenophobes.
On the other hand, when humor is directed at oneself—self-diminishing humor—it tends to show an appealing side to the self-diminisher’s character. You’re going to like me more if I make myself the butt of a joke rather than you.
You’re going to like me more if I make myself the butt of a joke rather than you.
There’s always room for self-deprecating humor from the Establishment. The endearing enduring jokes from political heroes tend to be mocking of themselves:
“I have often wanted to drown my troubles, but I can’t get my wife to go swimming.”
“I have orders to be awakened at any time in the case of a national emergency, even if I’m in a cabinet meeting.”
“I’m glad I’m not Brezhnev. Being the Russian leader in the Kremlin, you never know if someone’s tape recording what you say.”
“I have opinions of my own – strong opinions – but I don’t always agree with them.”
—George W. Bush.
“Politics is supposed be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”
“You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jellybeans.”
“People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”
Considered by many to be one of our best Presidents, Lincoln was certainly one of our best Presidents with a punch line… and this was before the era of Presidential joke writers.
Here are a few more of Lincoln’s most famous lines:
“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”
“If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”