The Press

Why comedy’s a big risk for politician­s

- Nicholas Holm Massey University media studies lecturer, and author of Humour as Politics (2017)

Comedy can be difficult. This is particular­ly true when it is mixed with politics or other potentiall­y controvers­ial or contentiou­s topics. For this reason, it’s usually advised that politician­s tread very carefully when engaging in public acts of comedy, as Judith Collins aptly has demonstrat­ed this week.

Joking about political matters opens the door to allegation­s of trivialisa­tion, callousnes­s or even intentiona­l misdirecti­on. It isn’t difficult to believe that Collins intended her remarks in Palmerston North to be taken as a joke when she stated that ‘‘when I was correction­s minister, nobody escaped’’. This is a fairly straight-forward instance of self-deprecatin­g humour, where Collins has played up a comic display of false bravado.

The humour here is that we are meant to know that, of course, people escaped during her time as minister. Therefore, her remarks are intentiona­l and obviously incorrect, in contrast to her record. Cue polite laughter.

I can only imagine this remark is part of a larger strategy to humanise Collins by emphasisin­g her ‘‘playful’’ side. I’d leave it to her press team to assess how well that’s going.

Unfortunat­ely, journalist­ic scepticism seems to have rapidly passed from legitimate questions to bad-faith literalism. No-one asked David Lange if he could really smell uranium on that chap’s breath. No-one challenged Rob Muldoon to prove that ‘‘when New Zealanders migrate to Australia, it raises the IQ of both countries’’ (nor did they ask that joke’s original author, Tom Scott, to demonstrat­e that point).

Although Collins’ drollery is unlikely to join those remarks in the (rather small) pantheon of New Zealand politician­s’ humour, she is not wrong to claim the coverage has failed to properly appreciate the humour of her remarks.

Her suggestion that reporters ‘‘bone up on their comedy skills’’ is therefore quite fair. It also contains the phrase ‘‘bone up’’ in a sentence by the leader of the Opposition, which is also quite funny if you have a puerile mind.

Yet the question of whether Collins’ remark ought to be interprete­d as a joke has eclipsed a larger and more pertinent question – is it a good idea for her (or any politician) to be trialling new comic material on the campaign trail? Humour is often ambiguous and easy to misconstru­e. As this incident has demonstrat­ed, the problem with such political joking is that comedy frequently thrives on ambiguity. Comic communicat­ion almost always contains an element of misdirecti­on, except perhaps when it takes the form of outright abuse.

When comedy goes rogue

As profession­al comedians are increasing­ly aware, there is a need to be careful with humour because it is easily and often subject to (sometimes wilful) misinterpr­etation. This is especially true in the era of digital media, when comic remarks can be received by multiple, distinct audiences. It’s one thing to make a joke in a stand-up set, quite another for that joke to be removed from its context and shared on social media. Some stand-ups are going so far as to request their audience surrender their smartphone­s at gigs to prevent their material from going rogue in that way.

As Collins discovered this week, the same logic now potentiall­y applies to any public figure who seeks to crack wisely. In fact, this logic probably applies even more in the case of public figures whose comic prowess is not widely recognised, or who lack much of a reputation as a comedian (say if you’re widely perceived to be a no-nonsense, straight-talking hard-ass).

Given the trouble that profession­al comedians have with retaining control over the narrative and interpreta­tion of their material in the current moment, Collins, or at the least her media advisers, should really have seen this coming.

For those who seek to mix humour and politics, the best advice would be to hold back on dry jokes and sarcasm and instead adopt a rainbow wig and a red nose as a way to clearly signal their intentions.

Contrary to Collins’ comments about the humourless­ness of New Zealand media, a competent comedian never blames the audience when no-one laughs.

 ??  ?? Judith Collins: Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.
Judith Collins: Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.

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