How Do You Make Fun Of... That?

So... that happened.

The guy everybody in their right mind agreed should never be let near the oval office just won it. The USA are soon going to be run by a bully with the apparent temper of a four-year old who doesn't want to eat his lettuce. This shouldn't be as much a surprise as it was because if you look at the last eight years, that's pretty much how the GOP has been acting all along.

Anyway, it happened and everybody - at least everybody I'm aware of - is pretty upset and bummed out. Me, too.

But I'm a comic artist. Sooner rather than later, I'm supposed to get up, brush myself off and get back to doing something funny.  This is more difficult on some days than others.

Luckily, the thing that you need most in these situations is exactly the thing you're looking for anyway: humor. But there's weak humor and strong humor. The cartoon on top of this page is about the fifth or sixth idea I had for this topic, but it's the first I drew because the others didn't feel like they could transcend my frustration. And there's nothing less funny than a joke that only expresses that something's wrong. If you can't bring anything new to the table, you might as well have stayed on Facebook with your opinion.

Here's What I Do, In A Nutshell:

I try to view the bad thing from a variety of different angles. And I try to exaggerate and twist them until they're silly. I think of it as exposing their inherent silliness.

I try to think beyond the immediate situation and try to view it from a less immediate perspective. What will this mean next week? How would it look from space? What are the consequences that nobody can foresee? There are more techniques - turn it around, turn something large into something small and vice versa. Either way, find a new way of looking at it. One that can help you look past and beyond it for your own sake, too.

Part of this process is to think the bad thing through analytically. As a sociologist by training, I tend to do that anyway. It also helps with sorting through all those thoughts going through your head when in shock. Think of what led to the thing, of the perspectives different groups will have on it, of the public discourse right now and what's missing from it.  Two years ago, after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, I shared some of these thoughts as starting points in an article much like this one but in German.  See below (way below, for your own protection) for my thoughts about how we can deal with this.

Often it helps to not look at the bad thing itself but at something completely unrelated and how it is affected by the bad thing or something similar. That's what I tried with the cartoon above. This is particularly helpful if the thing you're looking at would just drag you down or is inherently unfunny.

I don't mean you need to detach yourself from your subject and be all zen about it in order to write good jokes. Just the opposite: Most good satire comes from a place of anger, from a need to speak the truth to power. The podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour had an episode about political late-night comedy recently that points out the importance of having a point of view, but also something new to say.

But This Is Just Not Funny!

Donald Trump is really hard to make fun of directly. Everything he does is already dialed up to eleven, so you can't get him with exaggeration. You can't out-Trump him. Whenever you think of something particularly ridiculous he could be doing in your cartoon, you open the paper and find he's already done that for real.

People have tried the grotesque approach by making fun of his hair and his hands and his skin color and his grandparents' German name, but that's about the weakest form of joke because it only works if you already share all of its implications. What are tiny hands supposed to signify? And ask yourselves: would this be funny if it was about, say, Hillary Clinton? Making fun of her hair? The hair thing is pretty much the only joke German comedians came up with during the first year of Angela Merkel's government. Why? Because they couldn't think of anything inherently funny, so they defaulted back to their first idea. But while unflattering appearances do play a role in humor, just calling somebody's appearance unflattering is not a joke, it's - at its core - nothing but an insult.

Saturday Night Live are pretty much the only ones who managed to nail Trump in sketch comedy. They did it not by exaggerating but by actually mimicking him so closely that the mechanbics of his act showed. Jon Stewart got him, too, when Trump called him out on Stewart's originally Jewish name in one of his Twitter rants. There's a video of it here. It's hilarious. At least it was last week… Stewart could have gone for the easy mark by calling out Mr. Drumpf on not embracing his heritage, like John Oliver did. Or by calling out the antisemitism that's in there somewhere. Instead, he just made fun of the whole thing - and by playing this on the lowest level he was capable of, he pulled Trump down with him. That was funny. Because it showed us exactly what Trump was made of. (Hint: Sophistication, it was not.)

Good humor exposes the truth behind the thing you're aiming at. Not some factoid. The truth. Preferrably the truth they are busy trying to hide. And that's why it's so hard to do really well: you need good aim for that. And sometimes you have to dig deep to find it.

(There's more to it than that, but this is already a pretty long article. So I'm leaving out the part where real good humor is about us rather than them for now.)

All of this, thinking about how to make fun of it, about the mechanics of funny in general, doesn't just lead to the kind of jokes I want to make. (Actually, that's still a bit hit-and-miss.) It also helps me cope. Take control of a situation, if only symbolically and in the aftermath. Apparently, I'm not the only one. I've seen Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah (and their respective wirters, obviously) struggle to formulate their spins on the election. Watching them, by the way, helps as well. Is there a stage of grief in the Kübler-Ross model that involves watching comedy specials about it?

So, some Perspective?

This is where it gets political. That's why I've put the thoughts right at the end of the article. If you think this will only upset you, feel free to move on. This is the analytical part I mentioned earlier. The thinking that led to the cartoon above. And to me being more calm than I have any right to be right now. Thought you'd like to see that. 

I think we can all agree that blaming people for voting for Trump or other people for not voting against him doesn't lead us anywhere. What I've seen in most of my American peers is a need to move on as well as to find the strength to face their fellow Americans who, when they're not busy putting ill-tempered bullies into power, are friends and colleagues and can't just be shunned for four years. 

As you can see in the above cartoon, I tried to shift my focus away from Trump himself, too. That's partly because, as I said, he isn't funny, and partly because my focus generally isn't on politicians - it's on regular people. (And monsters. I promise I'll get back to the monsters soon.) Mostly, though, I think the main damage Trump can do and to a large degree has already done is to the political culture and debate. That's us. 

To be more precise, Trump is as much a catalyst as a symptom of the culture he promotes, but he's not the origin. One could say he's the culmination of two strains of political savagery that have been prominent for a while now: On the one hand, the internet with its haters and trolls and alt-rights and men's rights whiners. On the other hand, the Republicans as dominated by the Tea Party whose political culture during the Obama administration largely consisted of blocking everything and filibustering, which is the parliamentary version of sticking your hands over your ears and shouting 'LA-LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU' for a very long time. That sound like anybody you know? Maybe even elected?

Politically, I'm confident that Congress and finances will keep at least some of the excesses of what Trump promised in check. He's probably not even planning to really build that wall. I mean, he's been lying about everything, why would he tell the truth about that? There's still a lot of damage he can do by isolating the US diplomatically and ignoring climate change, but then again, so did Bush. Okay, that may be less of a consolation than I intended. What we've seen of Team Trump so far seems bad enough: a creationist who ignores the last 200 years of science in charge of education, the guy who turned New York into a police state in charge of justice. Okay, I'm shutting up now. 

But, political culture. It's even more broken than the US election system with its electoral college. People who should be peers don't talk because they're on different sides and those sides are so far apart you can't hear them above the shouting. Worse, people are shutting themselves away into their little filter bubbles where they can shout everybody down who even as much as acknowledges doubt. It's certainly happening on the right and if the right are justified in their complaining, it's happening on the left, too, although I have my doubts about the justified bit, at least as far as some of those whiners… NO! That's just the kind of thinking that got us here! They feel like we're censoring them, so the least we can do is … well, I guess the least we can do is explain again what censorship is. But the seond-to-least thing is where it gets uncomfortable.

I don't want to listen to xenophobic rants any more than the next guy who's not a racist. But I must accept the fact that a lot of people do. They may not buy into the entire ideology but they accept it as a small price to pay for getting taken seriously. Or at least getting somebody to say they do. Politicians keep saying we need to listen to people's anxieties and take them seriously. Only, more often than not, they can't be trusted to draw the right conclusions from that. That's how Germany went from being open and almost enthusiastic about welcoming fugitives to making shabby deals with a Turkish demagogue. 

Here's where psychology is our friend, actually. There's a way that listening can help. It isn't so much about listening to them but about making them listen to themselves. David McRaney of the You Are Not So Smart podcast is working on a new book about changing your mind and he found that changing other people's minds really doesn't seem to be about arguing as much as about listening . So there's that. But most of what we're hearing aren't arguments. They're sound bites. What we need is to get them to really formulate their own thoughts. And then ask them again if they really think immigrants are trying to turn us all into Muslims. 

That's a lot of work, though, and the results are fragile enough to likely get shattered by the next sound bite. Also, it's something we can't just blast into the masses. So we're at a massive disadvantage. Oh well, what else is new, right?