We’ve studied the generation that gets lots of its news from comedy shows and found that this makes them 23 percent more likely to feel cynical about politics. We’ve seen the alt-right use the veneer of irony to lend plausible deniability to the worst kinds of racism and anti-Semitism. (The mascot of neo-Nazism is no longer a skinhead or a goose-stepping soldier; it’s a smirking cartoon frog.) And we’ve all seen the “hedonic treadmill” at work: such an onslaught of jokes coming at us every day via advertising, binged TV, and social media that we no longer derive the pleasure from them that we once did. We might type “lol,” but we’re not laughing out loud. At best, we’re briefly thinking, “OK, that’s pretty funny” before clicking away.
We’ve had to grapple with political candidates and powerful institutions using larger-than-life clowning to distract from their own shortcomings. In 2016, Donald Trump’s rambling rallies and insult comedy were so popular with crowds that a visibly uncomfortable Marco Rubio tried adding spray-tan and penis-size jokes to his stump speech. It was difficult to watch without cringing.
I get the same queasy feeling when I see people interacting delightedly with the jokey online accounts of their favorite multinational brands.