With the rise of Trump so too came the rise of internet trolls, and then critics began lamenting the death of comedy. But Slate’s Andrew Kahn sees it differently: In his cover story, “Trump Isn’t Killing Comedy,” he wrote about how it’s not that comedy is dying, but it’s that our current definition of what is funny is changing.
In this Slate Extra podcast, which is exclusive to Slate Plus members, Kahn talks more about the history of trolling, why trolls aren’t actually as politically powerful as we think, and where he thinks comedy is headed now. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Chau Tu: Was there something in particular that prompted you to write this piece?
Andrew Kahn: I’d been thinking about comedy for a long time. I was in a comedy group in college that continued for a few years after college; I still write comedy. And as Trump was becoming an important figure last year, I started to see more and more critical discussion of comedy in the news and was very dissatisfied and grumpy about what assumptions people were making, about what comedy consisted of.
The specific thought that I think prompted this piece—it went through a lot of different incarnations—but I think the very first incarnation in my head was just about fake news. This was when that term still referred specifically to news that had been manufactured to deceive people and had played an important role in the election, not the current meaning. There had been a number of interviews with people who were making fake news and they had a variety of motivations. Some of them were Macedonian teenagers who realized that they could make a lot of money from publishing stories that satisfied peoples fantasies of what they wanted to click on. Other people seemed to be genuinely convinced that they were producing satire. A lot of these sites were producing stories that were satirically critical of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and they had been massively magnified, and their creators sort of didn’t get what the problem was. They thought that they had just been making a joke.
Around the time this was in the news, I was starting to read a little bit about Jonathan Swift and realized that apart from the satires that we recognize as satire is he did a ton of press hoaxes.
Who is Jonathan Swift?
Jonathan Swift was a major English language satirist during the 1700s. He wrote A Modest Proposal, which is the famous satirical essay about eating babies as a policy proposal that you may have heard of. He had done a ton of newspaper hoaxes and in fact the satires that he had published, including the ones that we now recognize as indisputably ironic, had been received in certain quarters as serious. Some of them had had profound effects. There was a contemporary English political theorist named Edmund Burke, who was not known as a satirist but also wrote satire. He had written a brutal satire of sort of all human institutions, including religious institutions and governmental institutions, which did not express a position that he believed but was meant to caricature people who had lost faith in all institutions. That satire that Edmund Burke wrote was then cited, admiringly, by the thinkers who founded modern intellectual anarchism as an ideology. They looked at these texts, which had been intended as satire and they thought, “Hey, these make some good points,” and it was part of their motivation to articulate a whole school of thought to justify anarchism.
That’s a long way of saying that I was starting to recognize some parallels between people who we now recognize as authentically ironic, important figures in the history of satire, and people who we think of as like stupid, idiot, inconsequential trolls. That led me to consider what it would mean to think about somebody like Jonathan Swift as a troll, as a prankster, and to think about the meaning of that word, and then finally to identify the assumptions that we all have about what humor is and how we got there.
You do talk about trolls in your piece; how would you define a troll?
Like every word, it doesn’t have a stable meaning, and this word in particular is used by a lot of different people to refer to a lot of different things. Sometimes people use it in a sort of admiring way, particularly when the troll is doing something that aligns with their ideology like “senators trolled Donald Trump,” “John McCain trolled Donald Trump,” but it’s usually used as a kind of slur. It’s not offensive in the same way that other slurs are offensive, but when I say it’s a slur I mean that it conveys two things at the same time. One, that the troll is powerful in some way, they have some kind of internal defect like a disease that you’re going to catch, but also that they are fundamentally weak, that they have a weakness of character. There’s an aspect of sort of both fear and defense against the fear in calling somebody a troll.
The way that I use it is slightly different and broader, and it’s kind of an artificial definition, but I think that it’s conceptually helpful to recognize that there’s a large body of comedy, laughter, humor, whatever you want to call it going back thousands of years that involves people straight up lying to each other, deceiving each other, acting in really confusing ways. Most of the comedy that we experience and all of the comedy that we choose to experience is by definition stuff that we know is comedy. You turn on the TV, you watch SNL, and you know that it’s comedy and that there are going to be jokes and that you should expect jokes at a certain rate, every few seconds. It’s very clearly labeled, but not all humor functions that way. A lot of humor is not labeled and consists of Person A tricking Person B, and there maybe a Person C who knows that it’s comedy, but Person B doesn’t know that it’s comedy and it’s still comedy, definitionally.
You mention in your article that the panic surrounding trolls has little to do with their actual political influence because there actually isn’t that much influence going on, and a lot of it has to do with our fear that shittiness and humor might be compatible, so what do you mean by that?
The first part is a reference to the research that I’ve seen recently about the political impact of trolls, which is much smaller than people tend to make it out to be. The group of assholes on Twitter and Reddit and 4chan are not a massive crowd of people. It’s a small group that is just extremely vocal and unpleasant. After Trump won, that group was absolutely overjoyed, like orgasmically overjoyed, and believed that they had memed Trump into office, that they were responsible for his victory, and that it was the power of their pranks that had put them there, that they really had a role. There is no evidence to support that whatsoever, but a lot of critics, a lot of writers have written about trolls as a kind of menacing cultural phenomenon in a way that fed into these delusions that the trolls have, that they’re powerful, that if they keep harassing people, and if they keep being assholes online they’ll be able to put more Donald Trumps in office.
That’s what the first part of that refers to. As for shittiness and humor being compatible, there’s sort of a matrix of our ideas about humor where you have two axes. On one axis is whether or not you find the joke to be truthful in any sense of the word, truthful, powerful, just, important. Then on the other axis is whether you find it funny. If you find the joke funny and it’s powerful that’s probably because it’s speaking truth to power. If you find the joke funny and it’s not powerful that’s because it satisfies some escapist urge or it’s a poop joke; it’s a banana peel joke.
Then we’re going to look at the other column, when you don’t find it funny. If you don’t find it funny but it’s powerful, then it’s probably a form of mass social manipulation, or trolling, it’s not really humor, instead it’s some other kind of social tool. If you don’t find it funny and you don’t think it’s important you probably just dismiss it as something random or absurd or a bad joke, it’s stupid, it’s dumb, it’s trivial.
It is often very difficult for people to acknowledge when somebody like Trump says something that is indisputably shitty, but that is also definitely meant as a joke where the intention is humorous, but in general when somebody makes a joke that is unpleasant you need to be able to acknowledge that somebody could make a joke, that somebody could say something with the intention to amuse or entertain or cause laughter, and that that thing could still be an ethically negative speech act.
That’s kind of the gist of your piece. There’s arguments that Trump has killed comedy, but your argument is that he’s actually helped to save it.
Yes, in a way. I mean, I think comedy will be fine. And part of the reason for that is that whenever comedy changes it’s usually the definition of comedy that is changing. Across time, people recognize that it involves laughter, but people have different ideas about what does cause laughter, what should cause laughter, and how we should organize our society, our resources, our economy to create laughter. Those ideas change over time. The current ideas that we have about those things are 50, 60 years old and they’re being switched out for new ones. Some people have understood the article to mean that laughter is dead or that comedy is dead. I would urge them to read the headline of the piece, which is “Trump Hasn’t Killed Comedy.” Really what I want people to understand is that what we think of as comedy and what we seem to believe very strongly as comedy, the kind of truth-based, stand-up, and satire that consists of breaking taboos at breakneck speed, that idea of comedy is very new.
Comedy just goes through different phases then and we’re just embarking on a new phase?
Comedy goes through different phases and there is something unique about the most recent phase, which is that—and I don’t say this with great confidence—but it seems quite rare to me for comedy to have as central a role in our culture as it does right now. One element of the history that didn’t make it into the piece is how comedy relates to other art forms. The transformation that elevated comedy to its current status was a transformation that happened in the whole culture. At the time that the first comedy boom was booming in the mid-’70s that was a period in which other art forms that people had looked to for insight into the human soul were rejecting that expectation.
Composers were not composing sweeping emotional music in the way that they had before, they were composing drones and beeps. Painters were painting squares. There was literary minimalism as well. Novelists were writing sprawling ironic novels that were more about the culture as a whole and lampooning the culture as a whole than they were introspective portraits of what it’s like to be a person. There were diatribes written around this time by people who were concerned that the fine arts were giving up on the project of understanding society and understanding what it’s like to be a person, which was a function that they had served for several hundred years.
Comedy sort of became the receptacle of all of those expectations. Comedy sort of became the ocean into which all of those rivers flowed where people were talking about themselves and were talking about their own experiences in what seemed like a very unfiltered and raw way that you couldn’t find in the experimental art that was coming out of the ’60s and ’70s at that point, and that you couldn’t find in other mass culture, which may have felt kitschy or inadequate in other ways. It’s unique for comedy to have such a central oracular role in our culture right now and I think that the feelings people have had about it lately demonstrate the role was not sustainable.
Are there any comedians that you feel are sort of leading this charge and this new sort of comedy?
I am a hypercritical person and so I don’t want to praise anything. [Laughs.] There are people who I think are tending in this direction. Tim and Eric—in my piece I call it “dumb comedy”— they made this masterpiece of dumb comedy, the series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, which is just a brutally cynical portrait of American mass media. Some people hate it, I really love it, I still love it, but it is an undeniably cynical and nauseating show.
After they did that, well actually while they were doing it, they founded a production company called Abso Lutely. That production company has been producing projects for a lot of young comedians now and has, I think, moved a little bit away from the sensibility that animated Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
Where do you see the future of comedy going now?
I think that one direction that comedy might go in is towards things that are, you could call them more abstract in that the humor does not come from some kind of content being exposed that would normally be taboo, but from the form in which it’s exposed. That is an abstract way to put that. We have certain ideas for how humor is structured, they’re very simple ideas compared to other art forms. We know about setups and punchlines, that’s one form that jokes can take. If you’ve ever written a comedic sketch, somebody has told you the sketch generally, not always, but generally has three beats, it hits three escalating moments of absurdity. People generally don’t think of comedy as an art form that you can think very abstractly about, the way you could think abstractly about geometry and painting, or choreography, or music. Music is probably the best example: You can develop extremely complicated mathematical systems for how to make music and set a lot of rules. People don’t do that with comedy.
However, you can think about comedy as rules. Sometimes those rules succeed, in which case you’ve made good comedy which is funny, and sometimes those rules fail. If you’re being candid that you’re using rules and you put your rules in the foreground it can be really funny to see the rules fail, so that’s one direction that I think comedy can go in.
I think that there is more room in comedy to embrace the ambition to create beautiful things. Over the last 50 years, comedy has developed a tendency to be hypercritical of artistic ambition, which is seen as pretentious. There have been parodies for millennia and people have made fun of pretension for millennia, but it’s newer to make fun of even the ambition to create something beautiful. One of the comedic sketches that you will see over and over and over again if you watch a lot of comedic sketches from the ‘60s to the present are honest art museum tours where somebody goes through an art gallery and says all the modern art is crap, that sort of thing. Comedy and beauty, or at least the ambition to create something beautiful, are not mutually exclusive and I find that today it’s often much funnier and much more unexpected to see a comic honestly, sincerely, without irony, attempt to create something beautiful, formally beautiful than it is to see them mock the ambition to do so.
I don’t mean beautiful in the sense of Master of None has a beautiful Italian landscape. I mean beautiful in its shape as a dance, as an abstract form. You can see that in mime and in clowning and in some vaudeville, the way that some vaudeville is structured. I’m not saying that we should return to those forms, but it’s often wonderful and funny when that kind of abstract, ice cold beauty emerges at a comedy show in my experience.
Do you have a favorite joke from the Trump era?
I was visiting Slate’s offices in D.C. and I was walking down the street, and there was a sign outside of a parking garage, and it was a big metal sign—it had clearly been very expensive to make—and there was an extra R in garage before the second G. It was “gararge.” That’s my favorite joke from the Trump era.