Anyone watching Saturday Night Live’s parodies of US electoral campaigns in recent years has likely noticed its particular humor no longer works so well. Its treatment of recent events in the presidential primary competitions, especially on the Republican side, is a lot less funny than the news coverage of the campaigns themselves.
The behavior displayed by the candidates as they travel around the country courting voters and debating each other seems to have more entertainment value than the sketches mocking it. Vine and Youtube videos made over the past few months by the comedian and video editor Vic Berger IV, on the other hand, distill some of the absurdity of this election season by highlighting what is too marginal and granular to capture with scripted caricature. His videos of the candidates and their campaigns home in on moments of particularly awkward behavior. They illustrate something of Henri Bergson’s argument about comedy, that it results from finding rigidity where one would expect there to be organic elasticity, “something mechanical encrusted on the living.”
The effectiveness of political sketch comedy, it appears, decreases as the gap closes between the rhetorical skills that allow people to be successful in politics, on one hand, versus televised comedy on the other. Donald Trump is such a dramatic parody of himself that any parody by others is more or less redundant. Just as political campaigning has transformed by adapting to changes in the broader media environment, the locus of the most incisively humorous treatments of the current national election cycle has moved to a different technological register thanks to tools for editing and sharing digital video.
Berger’s comedy is not concerned only with exploiting candidates’ stumbles and strategic miscalculations, or the “gaffes” that seemed to define the narratives of the last few presidential elections. It focuses instead on cracks in the candidates’ branding and messaging by magnifying the bizarreness that already exists in the margins of his source content before he manipulates it. Of Jeb Bush, the subject of his most well-known material, Berger told Vice:
I see this painful look in his eyes whenever he is interacting with everyday Americans. That’s when the nervous blinking starts. I always think he is on the edge, seconds away from freaking out and punching people to escape the situation.
Instead of focusing on Bush’s purposely conveyed message and what might be ridiculous about it, Berger tunes into what is latent in the material, amplifying what is not said.
For his “short version” of Bush’s candidacy announcement, Berger rearranged into a continuous sequence the moments before and after the musical performance preceding the main event, extending the shuffling and squeals of feedback and removing the event that would have made them mere bits of context. When Bush finally begins speaking, the focus of the video moves away into the crowd, zooming in close to individuals’ faces, becoming preoccupied with the one enthusiastic audience member showing his support by tapping together two inflatable rods. By the video’s end, it achieves a kind of lurid, phantasmagorical effect.
“Marco Rubio’s Awkward Speech” reveals a stiff, mechanical aspect of the Senator by focusing on a couple of odd, painful mispronunciations. In the context of a speech viewed in the usual linear manner, it is not too difficult to recover from these kinds of slips. They can be promptly pushed out of the viewer’s attention with the delivery of the next sentence, but in Berger’s hands, Rubio seems like a robot suffering from a glitch in his software. Of course, the factual content of the material remains unchanged, but by altering the temporal flow of Rubio’s speech, Berger disrupts the synchronization between the meaning of what is being said and the medium of sound and syllables, which is supposed to remain in the background but momentarily intrudes into the foreground when the performance is thrown off balance.
As the candidates campaign across the country giving speeches, debating, posing for selfies, and performing their enjoyment of local food, surveilled all the while by armies of recording devices constantly prepared to feed the crowded mediascape, more information is generated and proliferated than any campaign or institution can shape into an authoritative narrative. When something outrageous happens at a rally, the world sees the video of it before the event is over. The attendees may, in real-time, check in on the competing opinions of commentators on the very event in which they are participating. The qualities that help a politician thrive in this situation are the ones that help to anticipate and strategically pivot for the next violent swerve in the national conversation.
The success or failure of a politician, under these conditions, seem to have little to do with cultivating an inoffensive image to then market to the electorate. Such images have lost most of their credibility, perhaps because the audience for them has already learned that the more conventionally disciplined and civil a candidate tries to appear, the more serious will be the disparity between image and events contradicting it that will inevitably be documented. Even the most focused and universally appealing self-presentation imaginable will be subject to immediate and continuous reframing and revision, and will be compromised from the moment it is launched. This is probably why it is no longer as funny as it once was to target a candidate’s overall message with sketch comedy satire. That the things people who are running for office say are absurd is a foregone conclusion, so it is difficult to use this realization for comedic value by emphasizing it with satire.
We have come to expect politicians to be relatable in order to win our support, meaning that we want them to act less like politicians and more like “regular people.” So their task has become to prove to us that they are not distant, special people, and may not even be especially “good” people. At the beginning of the 20th century, Bergson, explaining the historical discontinuities in things found to be humorous, pointed out that fashionable clothing was not a popular target for comedy because people had become so used to it that it rarely occurred to anyone to distinguish between individuals themselves and the clothes they wore. People and clothes were fused into indivisible entities. When someone eccentric dressed in outdated clothing, however, it became possible to comically contrast “the inert rigidity of the covering with the living suppleness of the object covered.”
Has the lack of integrity in what candidates say with respect to the really “serious” matters of politics become such an obvious feature of elections that we have come to accept it as an unremarkable fact of our politics in general? Our society seems both less impressed and less amused than it used to be by the authoritative institutions of American party politics. We want to know who the candidates are, not as boring robots from the world of politics but as living personalities as they would be on reality TV. What Berger’s video editing shows is that the more content we have about them, the stranger they seem.