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).

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Politics and Laughter in the U.S. and U.K.”

  1. As for US humourists who are not on the left, what about Trey Parker and Matt Stone? You can argue about how funny they are, but they do at least seem to have some awareness of absurdity on both sides of the fence.

    1. They are funny, mostly libertarian. PJ O’Rourke and Christopher Buckley are also funny (although neither writes as much as he used to). Senator Bob Dole was very, very funny when he was on the national stage.
      But I was making a statement about the general pattern of funniness at the moment in the US.

    2. You can reasonably describe Parker and Stone as “not liberal,” but they ain’t conservatives by any reasonable definition.

  2. Is the British political system really “currently working better” on metrics of results other than laughs? The US system was designed to have many veto points; the British has evolved from a similar starting point to have hardly any. So Cameron and Osborne have had a free hand to pursue a really dumb experiment in austerian economics. What may well be true is that here are more areas of policy, including Keith’s, where there is no real ideological divide and more room for listening to experts and facts. There are others like fisheries where all the parties prefer listening to lobbies.

  3. James: My linked post embedded above gives my analysis of why and how it’s working better in the UK.

    1. I read the embedded post and don’t think it modifies anything James said. The efficacy of a system has to be measured by its outputs. As poorly as the United States has done lately, the British have done worse, at least in a big-picture economic sense.

      Collegiality is over-rated. If Obama et al decide to drive the U.S. into a ditch – as Cameron has done in the UK – nothing would be improved if politicians had fun in the process.

      1. You are entitled of course to your own view that if the economy is bad, politics are bad (though I think your views of UK economic possibilities would not stand up to scrutiny either if one looks at the Brown period or if one recognizes that the US has a reserve currency and the UK does not or if one looks at how much governments can really control the economy). Even conceding your perspective for the sake of argument, there are other things people care about, for example health, education, crime, immigration, foreign policy etc., and the UK political class addresses them better these days than does that of the US.

        1. I think there’s a strong case in general for the argument that the UK political system is better designed than that of the U.S., and certainly by my own measure – the outputs – I cannot help but agree that the UK system – over a period of decades – has produced many excellent results.

          But I think you can see that it’s a bit of an oversimplification to characterize my argument as “if the economy is bad, politics are bad.” In fact, I’m specifically asserting that Cameron’s results were the obvious, predictable – and indeed predicted – byproduct of his policies. The fact that Brown was also a poor steward of the economy suggests that the UK has a serious institutional problem that goes beyond the failings of specific politicians and parties.

          the US has a reserve currency and the UK does not or if one looks at how much governments can really control the economy

          This is a necessary fallback position for Cameron apologists, but only recently, the defenders of austerity were claiming that the Cameron program would grow the UK economy. Governments control some things. Other things they don’t. In places where policy could have made a difference, the U.S. was less awful than the Brits (who, to be fair, were less awful than the Europeans.)

  4. Just two words for you, Keith: Florence. King. Granted, she’s an odd person out in the conservative movement, qua self-described monarchist, Episcopalian, misanthrope, and lesbian. But she certainly scans as leaning heavily towards the Right, and I’ve practically expired with laughter whenever I’ve read anything she’s written.

    But I agree regarding the general trend: American politicians are less funny than British ones (In my snarky campaign slogan contest, I blamed a mix of “Midwestern Nice” and Puritan moral outrage), and when it comes to commentators the Left is much funnier than the Right.

Comments are closed.