New Power And Politics Of Comedy

Dr Benjamin Nickl, a humour expert from the School of Languages and Cultures, and his co-author Dr Mark Rolfe, Honorary Lecturer at UNSW, discuss the politicisation of comedy in the new academic book The Moral Dimensions of Humour.

Spanning topics from Trump memes to wokeness and canned laughter, The Moral Dimensions of Humour is an edited essay collection that navigates the relationship between comedy and morality by exploring humour’s role in challenging societal norms, questioning identities, and shaping political discourse.

“Comedy has pretty much all the answers today – whether we like the questions it raises is a different story,” says co-author Dr Benjamin Nickl from the School of Languages and Cultures.

The universal appeal of comedy

The Moral Dimensions of Humour positions comedy and laughter as a form of communication that is easily accessible.

“Humour has universal appeal – as entertainment, to break down complex information, and as a coping mechanism to navigate the challenges of everyday life,” Dr Nickl says.

“This affords humour as a social function the power to transgress social boundaries and engage mass audiences in a way that other forms of communication cannot. I’d say humour is the lingua franca of our age – while we all speak it with different accents across our lived experiences, or research areas in the case of this book, we can on some level all understand each other.”

The book explores the digital era as giving rise to a new virality of comedy, and how this grants humour even more accessibility and power.

“With an influx of online comedic content, consumers and creators, the idea of a centralised audience or a singular interpretation of humour is gone. Instead, humour has become a multifaceted, performative tool that can be experienced in many ways.

“Humour can foster connection and community, challenge assumptions and denounce injustice, and in doing so it reinforces a sense of belonging and identity, including political identity,” Dr Nickl explains.

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks during an election rally at Sunset Park in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 9 June 2024. Image credit: EPA/ AAP.

Humour as a political power play

The rapid adaptability of humour plays a hand in shaping social commentary and political discourse. Many humorous memes mocking Trump flooded the internet in the days after the former President’s guilty verdict in the hush money trial. But humour can be counteractive too, with many humourists instead casting Trump as a heroic, God-like figure who takes on ‘leftist evils’ such as wokeness and cancel culture.

“Trump and his supporters use humour as a rhetorical power play,” says co-author Dr Mark Rolfe, who penned the chapter Trump and the Heroic Gods and Monsters of American Satire.

By villainising and ridiculing the ‘woke’ left and nostalgically mourning a ‘great American past’, Trump loyalists use satire to appeal to the emotions and partisan identity of the right.

“Humour then becomes a strong moral motivator that reinforces political identity and strengthens what’s called ‘affective polarisation’ – that is, heightened distrust and negativity between the Democrats and the Republicans. And dislike or hatred of the other party is stronger than loyalty to one’s own party,” Dr Rolfe adds.

Two days after his conviction, Trump joined TikTok, a 24/7, crowd-sourced broadcast channel fuelled by humour, after previously trying to ban the app while he was in office. The move was seen as a revitalised effort to reach younger voters who aren’t engaged with politics or traditional news sources.

Artificial laughter – how does it work?

Who’s afraid of the laugh box? Image credit: Stable Diffusion AI/ author provided.

The rise of artificial intelligence further implicates the morality of humour. Canned laughter is an audio recording or a ‘laugh track’ used in comedy productions, where live audience reactions or artificial laughter (or a combination of the two) are inserted into a show or video to align with skits. This technological replication of what’s considered ‘funny’, that controls when we laugh and what we laugh at, becomes a question of entertainment ethics.

Dr Nickl investigates this in the chapter Synthetic Laughter Technologies of Humour Mediation and the Moral Issues of the Laugh Box:

“What we think of as human laughter is about 10 million years old. In the last 80 years, we’ve come up with technologies to bottle it up and release it at will. And that process is getting more automated and more refined each day.”

In a world of short attention spans and mass media consumption, what does the automation of humour mean for comedy, and for us as a society? Perhaps the answer is in the book’s innovative ‘sonic conclusion‘:

“How does research about humour ethics not die on the proverbial attention vine? We think our new idea of a sonic conclusion, a mix between audio play, podcast, reaction video and interview, is a good start.”

Moral Dimensions of Humour: Essays on Humans, Heroes and Monsters is available as open access through Tampere University Press.


Dr Benjamin Nickl is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature and Translation Studies in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sydney and the research coordinator for the Australasian Humour Studies Network. His areas of research and teaching include popular entertainment, culture theory, and technologies of humour. He is currently working on transnational television and film, questions of translatability, and the posthuman potential of comedy and laugh tech.

Dr Mark Rolfe is an Honorary Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. He has expertise in political language, propaganda, satire, political leadership, American politics, and Australian politics.

Hero image: AP/ AAP.

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