“Satirical humor only works if it is punching up. Humor that punches down is just mean. A joke about Trump’s brain is amusing; one about an Alzheimer’s patient is twisted and cruel.”
Playwright Neil Simon asserted that comedy is cruelty, a theme that serves well enough as a benchmark as long as we can figure out what it means. Sophia A. McClennen offers some definition, and while the point itself is reliable, whence comes its seeming obscurity? That is, McClennan offers a fairly clear standard, yet also incredibly simplistic, and in this case we ought not criticize the standard as wonder if the critic herself has somehow gaffed up.
The answer to that last, by the way, is no.
Still, we postulate the possibility because it really does seem like the sort of basic notion people shouldn’t need explained so simply. Why did the chicken cross the road? The audience suffers cruelty as the butt of the joke for overthinking it. The rape joke that isn’t a rape joke but instead a blonde joke or a cop joke? Pick your cruelty: Are all cops rapists? Are all blondes stupid? Are all women just there to stick your dick in their mouths? (Hint: “Not another breathalyzer!” is a rape joke.) There is the Sandbox Joke, ne’er to be repeated publicly, which heaps its cruelty on young children for having been born in dark skin.
Is dementia or Alzheimer’s humor ever funny? Perhaps there is an affirmative answer; the cruelty of how many surrealists it takes to screw in a light bulb is illustrative for its lack of abstract gravity―in the end, surrealists can’t complain and surrealism itself is inherently indifferent.
More directly, the heart of McClennen’s consideration:
Last October, Death and Taxes ran a piece wondering if Trump had dementia. They pointed to the fact that Trump’s father, Fred, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years prior to his death. They also highlighted Trump’s aggressive late-night tweets, his childish behavior, his name-calling and mood swings. They explained that it would be really easy for Trump take some tests and prove that he is mentally fit. “Because if Trump can prove he’s not suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder that has left him with a damaged mind devoid of all shame or self-awareness, he might just be an asshole.”
Now it may seem like I’m taking this in a flip manner and not respecting the real health challenges that face those that suffer these ailments. But that’s actually my point. I need to be reassured that Trump is indeed OK so that the jokes about him remain funny. Public mockery has been the only way to stay balanced this election. And, of course, the best jokes about Trump have come from political satirists because satire does more than poke fun. It encourages critical thinking in the face of blind acceptance. It doesn’t just make Trump look silly and stupid; it points out that he’s dangerous to democracy. It’s the difference between jokes about his orange face and jokes about his demagoguery.
Or, more directly:
Lee Camp’s Redacted Tonight reminded viewers that Trump speaks at a fourth grade level. That makes him, according to Camp, scientifically proven to be the dumbest candidate of them all. But Camp’s joke is only funny if Trump is talking that way to attract voters who respond to his simplistic rhetoric. It’s not funny if he really has lost the ability to speak like a healthy adult.
It is enough, to the one, hearing the people around me wind up their disgust: “He’s crazy! Why does Trump say these things?” And, yes, it would seem pedantic to suggest they answer their own question. Such as things are, the exclamation ought to carry some weight.
At some point, craziness needs to stop being the punch line. There are, for instance, his supporters, and then everybody else; it’s hard to discern the gray area, the in-between, the fence made for sitting. And everybody else seems to inevitably land at some version of Donald Trump being crazy. Perhaps it’s time we start taking the question of mental health more seriously? Not only would incompetence be, as McClennen notes, specifically not funny, it also seems a grave and necessary question in considering who should serve as president. The title “Leader of the Free World” might well be colloquial, but it also seems fair enough to expect the person we entrust with this duty should not be, at the very least, psychiatrically incompetent.
McClennen, Sophia A. “Maybe Donald Trump has really lost his mind: What if the GOP frontrunner isn’t crazy, but simply not well?”. Salon. 25 April 2016.