FAS speakers examine the role of comedy in politics

By EMILY MCDONALD | March 1, 2018

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Patel, McClennen and Christoffersen kicked off this year’s FAS lineup.

The 2018 Foreign Affairs Symposium (FAS) hosted its first event, a panel discussion on comedy and politics, on Thursday, Feb. 22. The discussion featured Sophia McClennen, an expert on political satire and founding director of Penn State University’s Center for Global Studies; Carrie Christoffersen, curator of collections at the Newseum; and Saturday Night Live writer Nimesh Patel.

The discussion was moderated by Bentley Allan, an assistant professor of political science at Hopkins. The Program in Museums and Society and the Program in Film and Media Studies co-sponsored the event. 

McClennen explained differences in the ways people consume generic comedy versus the ways they consume satire. Generic comedy’s main aim is to make people laugh for the purpose of stress relief and catharsis. 

According to McClennen, processing satire has a different effect. Research also shows that people who regularly consume satire are better at cognitive processes such as problem solving, detecting lies and understanding social situations.

McClennen believes that this characteristic of satire makes it a particularly relevant medium for modern audiences. 

“Satire... is really about going after faulty logic, misrepresentations, misinformation, lies presented as truth,” she said. “In this particular moment, I think satire performs an especially powerful role, because we are sifting through so much false information.”

Patel explained how he sifts through that false information when writing a joke about a current event.

“To me, the best comedy is short and it helps you process something quickly, so when you have a tornado of nonsense, you’ve just got to get to the thing that is immediately funny about it to help you process it,” he said. 

Christoffersen noted that people often have differing reactions to satire, depending on whether or not they agree with the comedian. She believes that this is especially true in today’s political climate.

“Satire can incite people 

to have really intense feeling in opposition to that satire,” she said.

Christoffersen then explained the ways in which she considers comedy when choosing exhibits for the Newseum. Because of some of the more serious subject matter in the museum, such as exhibits on 9/11 and the prosecution of journalists, Christoffersen is careful when incorporating lighter material such as cartoons and clips from late-night comedy shows.

Christoffersen explained that the diverse audience at the Newseum influenced the ways she thinks about exhibitions.

“We are reaching out to a very broad audience, obviously, at a public institution like the Newseum, and we recognize the importance of not just the serious subject matter,” she said. “[Satire is] going to help them fully absorb all the rest of the serious stuff.”

According to McClennen, satire has a long history, including satirical cave paintings of Socrates’ criticisms of ancient Greek leaders. 

“It turns out that people like to make fun of people in power, especially when they are abusing the power,” she said. 

McClennen also discussed the effects of social media on satirical comedy today. According to McClennen, satire is much more accessible and widespread today due to platforms such as Twitter and Youtube, which allow people who are not professional comedians to share their ideas. 

Patel explained that when he writes comedy, his main goal is not political activism. Rather, he aims to make people laugh and to figure out what is funniest about a situation. 

McClennen discussed professional comedians who have used their platforms as a way of influencing politics directly, citing Stephen Colbert’s super PAC and Jon Stewart’s advocacy for the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which guarantees health care to 9/11 first responders. 

McClennen believes that today, comedy is a means of political involvement, instead of pure entertainment. 

“Satire isn’t just the thing you do at the end of the day so you can go to bed without wanting to kill yourself,” she said. “Instead, it’s the thing that makes you want to go ahead and join, and that’s a shift.” 

Sophomore Kiana Boroumand, the director of programming for FAS, explained the Symposium’s decision to host the discussion on comedy and politics.

“We thought that it was a really important phenomenon to talk about that is also really accessible to everybody, because everybody is consuming comedy, and everybody is consuming political comedy,” she said. 

Typical FAS events feature individual speakers. Boroumand explained that they hosted a panel for the event because comedy and politics are interdisciplinary. 

“Political comedy and satire is a field in which we’re talking about a lot of different things,” she said. “We thought that what would be conducive to a really good conversation would be having people with different backgrounds who could approach comedy differently.”

Boroumand explained that FAS reached out to the Program in Museums and Society and the Program in Film and Media Studies because of Christoffersen and Patel’s involvement in those fields. Because of these connections, organizing with the programs proceeded “very organically.” 

She also commented on how renovations to Shriver Hall, which is traditionally the venue for FAS events, have affected the planning for this year’s Symposium. 

“We’ve had to think more creatively about the spaces we want,” she said. “We sort of take for granted that we will be in that space, so mostly it’s just been a matter of putting in that extra effort and thinking what other venues are on campus.”

Boroumand said that she enjoyed the event and is looking forward to the rest of FAS’ 2018 lineup. 

“I think that having this diverse mix of voices was really unique, and I’m really hopeful and excited for the rest of our events in the Symposium,” she said.

Senior Tim Shieh attended the event because he was one of the executive directors of FAS last year. 

“I’m really glad that I came, because I think it was one of the better events that I’ve ever been to at Hopkins,” he said. 

Shieh said he enjoyed the diverse backgrounds of the panelists. 

“For me, it was interesting to watch an academic talk about comedy, and then watch an actual [comedy] writer talk about comedy,” he said. “With Carrie in the middle talking about museums, it was just the perfect blend of speakers.” 

Shieh also believes that the intersection of comedy and politics is particularly relevant today. 

“Especially today where everything’s media, I think it’s important to be satirical and ask important questions about the issues,” he said. 

Junior Emmanuel Osikpa attended the event because he was interested in learning more about comedy and political writing. 

“Because of the way our climate is going right now, I was really interested in how to effectively write about politics in a way that’s interesting to other people,” he said. “I just wanted to see what these professionals are talking about.” 

For Osikpa, one of the most intriguing parts of the event was hearing the panelists views on comedy about taboo subjects. 

“I personally feel like, especially in comedy, nothing should be off-limits,” he said. “Comedy is just one of the things that shouldn’t be restricted, because it can touch so many things in a different way.” 

Osikpa believes that comedy and satire can offer a clearer perspective on divisive issues in politics today. 

“I feel it should really be able to expose what’s morally wrong with an issue,” he said. 

Overall, Osikpa enjoyed the discussion panel. 

“It was really laid back and informational,” he said. “They come with a wealth of knowledge and experience.”

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