11 Jul 2018

Pollies and the power of humour

From Nights, 7:12 pm on 11 July 2018

Humour and politics have always intersected, but some politicians use it more effectively than others, academic Nick Holm says. 

Holm is senior lecturer in Media Studies at Massey University and specialises in studying humour its multiple forms.

“We could say that humour was really important to the rise of Trump,” Holm says.

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Photo: AFP / FILE

“The idea of ‘that was just a joke’, you can retract from things. It creates a flexibility, a permeability around acceptable ways of talking - acceptable ways of doing politics - which I think we can say set out the conditions for someone like Donald Trump to come along and do his thing.”

Boris Johnson and former prime minister John Key have also used humour effectively in their political careers, he says.

“We all want to be seen as having a sense of humour and politicians who tap into that can be very effective.

“We see humour is a sign of intellectual flexibility, to have a sense of humour is to be not too ideologically committed.”

What we laugh at is also changing, he says.

He told Nights' Bryan Crump the joke as we once knew it is on its way out.

“Jokes are a bit of a relic these days, it’s something we’ve moved on from … but the joke is no longer the central unit of humour in society.

“Stand-ups don’t tell jokes anymore; if you get up on the stage and tell jokes you’re doomed. They tell stories, they ramble, they perform, they do different things but they don’t just give you jokes one after another.”

He says the demise of the standard gag is the result of the “mediated humour” that surrounds us. 

“Before that we had to tell jokes. They were a way we could share humour, but the sitcom, the comic film: these things work in ways beyond just telling jokes.

“There’s pratfalls, there’s gags, there’s absurdity, there’s non-sequiturs, there’s cringe humour. These things don’t operate the way joke used to.”