If I May: The State of Political Comedy
Recently, I watched an episode of “Patriot Act,” the Netflix show hosted by comedian Hasan Minhaj. By many accounts, the show has succeeded in its goal. It was picked up for a second season, and the few episodes I have seen were certainly well done. Minhaj delves deeply into just one topic during each episode, which allows him to address the nuances present in a given issue.
The structure of “Patriot Act” is similar to that of “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver’s HBO show. Both comedians choose topics that are less mainstream than the general news. Oliver has highlighted televangelism and robocalls, while Minhaj has covered the streetwear brand Supreme and the Indian election system. This is not to say that the two shows are identical. Both hosts have distinct points of view, and the aesthetics of the shows are different. However, the premises of the two shows are similar. This similarity points to the fact that there are too many political comedy shows on the air.
In the age of Trump, people are clamoring for political commentary. Oliver and Minhaj’s shows are just the tip of the iceberg; “The Daily Show” and “Full Frontal” are both political shows, and late-night television shows, specifically “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” have become political since Trump’s election. In a vacuum, a surplus of political commentary comedy shows is not a problem. However, to me at least, we are currently in a bit of a rut. When watching these shows, I get the same feeling of incredulity from the hosts. The hosts know that their audience already agrees with them, and so when they present these issues, it seems less about satirizing and more about sharing in a communal horror of our current situation.
This leads to something that many have called “clapter.” Clapter occurs when the audience briefly laughs and then begins to clap and cheer rather than laughing more in response to a joke, usually an anti-Trump joke. When I watch clapter, it almost creates an eerie effect. Clapter feels forced, like the audience is desperate to latch onto a criticism of Trump. It makes the whole show feel a bit cultish, even though I agree with the anti-Trump sentiments. However, I think far too often, hosts take the easy way out by making jokes designed to generate clapter for their audiences instead of truly commenting on the issue at hand.