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  • Norman Young

Politics and Comedy


You might remember, two years ago, when well-known comedians announced that they would no longer perform on college campuses because of the problematic political-correctness of easily offended students. You’ll likely remember, last year, when the cast of the comedy show “Hamilton” lectured one of America’s most decent politicians about civility. You may also be aware that, less than two weeks ago, comedian Jimmy Kimmel began using his late-night television platform to rant about healthcare. Kimmel was at it again last night regarding gun control.

In response to these and similar developments, political humorists Alfonzo Rachel and Michael J. Knowles recently asked themselves and their podcast audience, “Why can’t the Left take a joke?” Wrestling with and unpacking this partisan question spurred me to write about this topic. Pundits have endlessly discussed the intrusion of celebrities into political life, and about the celebrity status America gives its high-profile politicians. But few have discussed the intrusion of politics into comedy specifically, and the movement of comedians into political life. This issue, I think, deserves special attention.

In a previous essay on this website, I contrasted the character of Puritan Plymouth and Anglican Jamestown, using those cities as archetypes for American liberalism and conservatism, respectively. I described how many of America’s great reform movements have had a grave, Puritan character. Participants understood themselves to be involved in a cosmic battle with evil. And, like the Puritans, these reformers imagined a world without sin (or at least certain particular sins) and set out to bring their utopia into existence. The Anglicans at Jamestown were different. They had a more relaxed character, both morally and dispositionally. They tended to be conservative and were more concerned with their private capitalist enterprises than with working together to pursue high ideals. They laughed more.