Hypothesis no. 3: Humor is subversive

The doctor Donald Trump says to the parents of a sick child: “Unfortunately we’re going to have to turn off the life-support machine.” “Is our son really so sick?” Doctor Trump: “No, but I need to charge my mobile so I can send another tweet.” American TV comedian Trevor Noah regularly lays into the US president with quips like this in his Daily Show. Noah is one of countless entertainers, comedians and performers for whom POTUS is the butt of the joke. Trump satires and parodies are everywhere, with the US top dog a seemingly inexhaustible source of ridicule.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is another leader who regularly has jokes cracked at his expense. In 2016, comedian Jan Böhmermann’s “Schmähkritik” (abusive criticism) of the Turkish president caused uproar in Germany and unleashed passionate debates about free speech – partly because Böhmermann ended up being sued for his satire.

Satire, jokes and parodies often go down less well with politicians than with the public. In 2017, Erdoğan brought around 300 charges against artists, satirists, comedians and bloggers who had made fun of him. “Autocrats usually have little sense of humor,” says Sylvia Sasse. The literature and cultural studies scholar is interested in political and artistic underground movements, especially in Eastern Europe and Russia. She also researches the strategic use of humor in art and politics. “Humor provides light relief and shows up the world’s inadequacies,” says Sasse, “and it reflects the balance of power in the world.” Seen from this perspective, laughter and criticism are closely linked.

Sasse researches a type of performance art that combines laughter with criticism – subversive affirmation. Questioning political positions by confirming them? Behind this term which on first reading sounds contradictory stands the idea of striking political opponents with their own weapons by exaggerating their arguments to such an extent that the ideology behind them becomes visible. Subversive-affirmative actions hit where it hurts.

An example was the art action “Ausländer raus!” staged by the since deceased director Christoph Schlingensief in Vienna in 2000. It was inspired by the popular TV show Big Brother, in which contestants lived together in a house and could be voted off by the public. Schlingensief installed portable buildings housing eight asylum seekers on Vienna’s Herbert-von-Karajan Platz. They could be voted out in daily online voting rounds – but in this case, being voted out meant they would be deported.

The buildings were plastered with posters of the xenophobic political party the FPÖ, which had become a governing party in Austria a short time before. As a “soundtrack”, Schlingensrief quoted racist statements of the then FPÖ leader Jörg Haider. “That was rather odd – neither those on the left nor on the right thought the stunt was good, everyone was annoyed,” recalls Sylvia Sasse. “But the over-the-top action did make people think.” That’s exactly what Sasse sees as one of art’s strengths: It can pull us out of ingrained patterns of thinking and make us reflect on our everyday perceptions – by using satire, parody and humor.

Sylvia Sasse grew up in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The Radio Jerewan jokes with their gentle political criticism were legendary in the country. The jokes consisted of the presenters from a fictional radio station called Jerewan answering questions from listeners, always with the same pattern: “Would it be possible to introduce socialism in a highly industrialized country?” Answer: “In principle, yes, but it would be a shame about the industry.” While in the former Eastern Bloc subtle humorous critique was widespread, in Europe and the USA today robust political humor is the order of the day. “Politics as a whole has become bawdy and over-the-top,” says Sasse. “There’s no need to bother hiding anything.
Trump for example says exactly what he thinks and what he wants without batting an eyelid.” Comedians and performers such as Sascha Baron-Cohen and others are correspondingly forthright and constantly try to outdo each other with ever-more unapologetically ribald sketches. Leaders like Trump and Erdoğan have heralded in a renaissance in political parody.

But such satire can also lead to legal complications, as Jan Böhmermann found out when he was sued for his “abusive criticism” of the Turkish head of state. Proceedings have meanwhile been dropped, however. “As long as it’s still possible to argue about satire, even in court, things are okay,” says Silvia Sasse. “Problems start when someone takes it upon themselves to dictate what humor may and may not say or do, which is often the case in authoritarian regimes.” Seen from that angle, the ability to use satire and humor is part and parcel of living in a democracy.