Politics and Laughter in the U.S. and U.K.

Musings about laughter and politics from the fireside on a London evening just parky enough to keep me indoors.

A vivid political memory: I am listening to an erudite speech by a highly distinguished, venerated member of the U.K. House of Lords. His weighty topic, thoughtfully engaged from a Christian perspective, is the role of religion in the nation’s political life. At the close of his oration, another noted worthy rises.

“Your Lordship’s speech recalls to my mind that I once chanced to meet the Bishop of Norwich and took the opportunity to ask him whether God has a sense of humor. His most reverend self responded: ‘That’s not funny’”.

The room rocked with the laughter, with his Lordship, completely unoffended, howling along with the rest.

Another memory: I am in a committee meeting in the House of Commons, and the MPs come to agreement on some bill or another. One MP, in that public-school-look-what-I-know way, mentions that the idea in the bill is not original, but was in fact presaged in the writings of a 16th century French political theorist.

The chairman of the session soberly intones “Well, ladies and gentlemen, we seem after 500 years to have finally found something on which we agree with the French. I will adjourn this session now so that you may all go purchase Lotto tickets”.

Explosive guffaws, widely shared — Tories, LibDems and Labour MPs grinning ear to ear.

Politics and public policy are serious concerns with serious impacts. Yet some people in the business find humor in their work when they can. As I reflect on why I have lately much more enjoyed working on policy in the UK than in the US, I realize it is not only that the political system is currently working better here. British politics are also — as trivially appealing as this may sound — much more agreeably funny.

To spend a day in Westminster is to laugh hard at least once, and usually several times. In contrast, Capitol Hill has become less mirthful than a funeral home crossed with a prison, which is perhaps how some of the occupants experience it. The dour, bitter miasma is so consuming that even Al Franken, author of one of the most hilarious books ever written about Presidential campaigns (Why Not Me?) virtually stopped being funny once he was elected to the Senate.

The higher absolute level of humour in UK politics is not the only difference with the US. The US has a humor gap: The left is simply much funnier than the right these days, for whatever reason. Jon Stewart is the cynosure, but he has plenty of company among left-wing laughmakers. There are a few funny people on the US right, but for the most part the jokes from that direction seem grumpy and mean-spirited to the extent they come at all.

It was not always this way in the US. In the 1980s many a liberal was perceived as too serious and grim in debates with sunny, funny conservatives. I remember seeing Jerry Brown speak at a local bookstore during the liberal reversals of the Reagan-Bush era, and most of the small crowd seemed to appraise him as a washed-up lightweight: Governor Moonbeam from the 1970s, now out of work and good for nostalgia value only. But I had the intuition both that his career wasn’t over and that he had something to give the then-dispirited left, based entirely on the fact that his speech was incredibly funny. In his remarks and discussion with the audience afterwards, he made people laugh and smile, and didn’t react to other people’s witticisms by remonstrating them as was the fashion in some liberal circles at the time, e.g., “This is too serious to joke about — you need sensitivity training.”. Today of course he remains a guy who can crack a joke, among many other ascendent progressive politicos.

The left-wing dominance of political humor in the US is not characteristic of the UK. Indeed, the humor advantage probably edges slightly to the right. In many homes of Radio 4-type Labour voters, you will see a copy of Prospect on the coffee table (where it can be noticed, but not in a way that suggests too obviously that the owner is trying to have it noticed). But in the bedroom, perhaps hidden under the mattress, you will find the conservative Spectator. As one Labour supporter said slightly shamefully to me “I feel I ought to read Prospect like I ought to eat my peas, but I read The Spectator for fun”. Spectator is indeed consistently witty, irreverent and droll in a way that most UK progressive and US conservative magazines are not. And of course the Spectator’s former editor, London Mayor Boris Johnson, remains the most consistently funny political figure on the UK scene, drawing laughs even from people who detest his Tory politics.

There are books I want to have written, but don’t want to write. One would be on why political parties and their leaders stop being funny and how they start up again. Perhaps humorlessness comes at times of decline, when electoral defeats suck all amusement from life. But if a party in hard times can find a way to be amusing again (a la Jerry Brown), maybe that facilitates a comeback. If someone out there will please study these questions more thoughtfully than I will ever do and write a book about it, I promise to buy it (As long as it includes some good jokes).

[Originally posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.