Humour and politics have been invariably intertwined ever since politicians discovered the power of comedy both to convey their message memorably and to discredit the opposition. The best jokes are often the shortest and easiest to remember, forcing politicians to find concise ways of expressing their ideas.
Winston Churchill is a famous example of a politician who used humour to devastating effect. In the early 1930s, fellow conservative Nancy Astor told Churchill that if he was her husband, she would poison his tea, to which he replied, “Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it”. This ability to think wittily on his feet cemented his reputation as a capable wordsmith and a charismatic leader.
In addition to providing evidence for cleverness, humour can humanise otherwise one-dimensional characters on a television screen. When politicians crack jokes, we tend to see them as friendly and more trustworthy, thus increasing our tendency to vote for them. Boris Johnson is a politician who uses this to his advantage and plays up the “bumbling lovability card”. Many of us remember the hilarious moment during the 2012 Olympic Games when the mayor of London got stuck on a zip wire, waving two British flags and yelling, “Get me a ladder!” While the press had a field day writing about Boris’ zip wire mishap, he gained popularity and public interest and David Cameron even described the moment as “an absolute triumph”.
However, although conservative Boris Johnson seems to be the politician who most usually comes to mind when the subject of comedy is brought up, the tactic of humour is frequently attributed to the Labour Party, which has included such comedians as Tony Banks and Dennis Skinner. Labour MP Stephen Pound jokingly attributes this to the fact that, unlike, for example, the conservatives, Labour Party members need to hold fundraising dinners and the like in order to pay for their campaigns. Therefore, they need to be able to hold light, fun conversations so that people would be more likely to pledge money to them, a skill which involves a good sense of humour. Additionally, he argues, it is easier to be subversive and tongue-in-cheek when one is left-wing as there is less reverence for the “status quo”.
Another left-wing politician who uses humour to his advantage is President Obama, who frequently appears on late night shows such as “The Colbert Report” and “The Tonight Show”. Famously, at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, he announced that he was going to show the video of his birth and then proceeded to show a clip from the beginning of Disney’s The Lion King. This sense of humour also promotes him as a young, liberal president, lending him strong support from the younger demographic.
Unfortunately, using humour in a political context can be a double-edged sword. Thomas Corwin, an American politician from the 19th Century, once said: “If you would succeed in life, you must be solemn, solemn as an ass.” Humour can be construed as insensitive or even cruel, especially when discussing issues with which people are politically invested. Indeed, recently, David Cameron has been heavily criticised for his cutting remarks towards Ed Miliband. Many Labour representatives have even compared the prime minister with fictional bully and anti-hero “Flashman” from The Flashman Papers by George MacDonald Fraser. Political commentator Mary Ann Sieghart argues that this overbearing attitude may be losing him the conservative vote, especially from the female demographic.
Furthermore, humour can prevent the public from taking a politician seriously. Many journalists and political theorists are of the opinion that, although Boris Johnson can credit much of his success to his comic personality, there is a limit to what he can achieve if no one views him as a serious candidate. If he were to run for Prime Minister, for example, he may have some trouble getting the public over the comical persona that he has cultivated over the years.
However, political humour does not entirely belong to politicians! With the rise of social media and comedy television programmes like “Have I Got News For You”, political satire is even easier and more popular than ever. According to George Orwell in his essay Funny, but not Vulgar, “Every joke is a tiny revolution”. Making fun of those in power is invaluable for ideological independence. Humour gives more power to the people and also brings another, lighter dimension to our everyday political discussions.