Panel picks apart humor in presidential election

by Monika Davis / Beacon Correspondent • October 27, 2016

To some, this election is a joke. For others, they joke about the election for a living. 

Last Friday, six comedy, politics, and communications professionals gathered for a panel moderated by associate professor Gregory Payne in the Bill Bordy Theater. The event was sponsored by the School of the Arts and the Center for Comedic Arts.

The panel, Comedy and the 2016 Election, discussed the role of comedy in politics and if comedy can be a game changer this November. About 100 people showed up to the event including other Emerson professors, students, and family members of the panelists.

The two-hour discussion consisted of an hour and a half of active dialogue between the panelists driven by the moderator, Payne, and a half hour of Q&A prompted by the audience.

The panel included alumnus Anthony Atamanuik, ‘97, a comedian and Donald Trump impersonator; Todd Belt, a political science professor at Wellesley College; Iris Burnett, a campaign strategist and affiliated Emerson faculty member; Amber Day, an associate professor at Bryant University and author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate; Virginia Sapiro, a political science professor at Boston University; and Daniel Wasserman, an editorial cartoonist at the Boston Globe.

Martie Cook, the director of the comedic arts department, said it took about two months for her and a faculty committee to plan the event.

“It was hard to find panelists with an expertise in these specific areas, like scholars, practitioners, and people in politics,” Cook said. “I wanted to put together a panel that was balanced.”

The conversation began with a focus on the power and influence of comedy in the election, as prompted by Payne.

“What is the power or influence of comedy in politics, and does comedy have the power to be a game changer?” Payne asked. 

Burnett, who has spent her career working on democratic presidential campaigns, responded first. 

“People listen to things that are funny,” Burnett said. “It’s always nice to have something [uncontroversial] to talk about.”

Sapiro made a comment about the ability for certain types of comedy that can make people look into certain issues. After, Day highlighted the impact of three-minute sketches on the political course of the nation.

“Although we aren’t so fickle as to change our opinion every three minutes, group opinion does change over time,” Day said. “Satire has the ability to shift the terms of debate. One three-minute sketch can’t completely change the way we feel about something, but it can bring peripheral topics into the mainstream.”

Belt moved on to talk about how the content that we are exposed to affects our voting choices.

“How we interpret media is really filtered through a number of different lenses: our predispositions, our ideology, what we already think about candidates,” Belt said. “We don’t come to the campaign as blank slates.”

“Comedy can help establish the way people feel about candidates,” Belt said. “That’s why Al Gore’s campaign staff made him watch the Saturday Night Live sketches about him.”

As a newspaper political cartoonist, he said he hopes he can “call out” some of these issues in his work, to change people’s minds about certain concerns in politics. 

“Visual satire can validate things for some people,” Wasserman said. “Comedy may just have changed the importance of the President’s Correspondent Dinner. In 2011, Obama made fun of Trump, and the humiliation he suffered may have spurred him to run for president.” 

The conversation shifted to how comedy affects the way people retain the news. Day credited what she calls the “satirical renaissance,” something that occurred shortly after 9/11 when the press became subdued and avoided questioning the Bush administration. 

“You see satirists rising up to fill that void,” Day said.

Wasserman called out other media outlets like The New York Times for not challenging Trump’s lies. He claimed that cartoonists did not have that problem. 

“It’s an odd situation where cartoonists are saying something that the mainstream media and journalists are reticent to saying,” Wasserman said.

Belt later highlighted the way we share our news and how the information environment is changing rapidly. He said that tracking the way people consume news has only become harder and more complicated.

“People circulate news stories and the common citizen has become the gatekeeper to the news,” Belt said. “The sharing of news has become a public performance of their own identity, giving people the ability to pick and choose what goes on their newsfeeds.”

Zoe Sansanowicz, a freshman comedic arts major, said she enjoyed the event because she felt like it inspired students to perfect their craft.

She said sees comedy as a way for her to create social change in the future. 

“I think this was an important discussion because a lot of the comedy they talked about can affect politics and the media, and it has the ability to combat social issues,” Sansanowicz said. 

Freshman comedic arts major Noah Bender said there’s no better way to learn than to hear from professionals in the field.

“I liked this event in the sense that it’s made of experts from their own niches,” Bender said. “It highlights different facets of comedy instead of just gathering a bunch of comedians.”

“This was a legitimate discussion about the realization that comedy plays a large role in our education of the news and politics, highlighting how it plays into our lives,” Bender said.