McCarthy: Making political satire great again

When things get tough, the tough get funny.

Kate McCarthy

My job as front-of-house staff at the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre is one of the best parts of living in Minneapolis. I spend every weekend in the back of a darkened theater, watching my favorite sketch comedians play their hearts out in shows that range in goofy name from “Booty and the Beast: A Tinderella Story” to “Lady and the Trump.” In its long tenure, BNW has focused on producing relevant, satirical, and often politically sharp entertainment for a mainstream audience. Last weekend, I went in for my first shift of the semester, and left pondering how we can most effectively use satire in troubling times. 

I prepped for the 8 p.m. show with my coworkers, most of whom are around my age, many of them fellow college students or recent grads. But the audiences we see filtering in tend to be mostly older and white. It’s relatively well-known that theater-going audiences tend to skew older. One reason, as the aptly named 2012 Boston Globe piece “Theater Audiences Are Growing Older” puts it: “… the millennials, so financially strapped that they’ve been dubbed ‘Generation Debt,’ might well feel that they’re in no position to be regular patrons.” And of course, Minnesota bears an 85 percent white population, according to the 2016 census estimation. This is the audience for BNW’s political commentary.

I hunched in the back of the theater for my first viewing of “Guardians of the Fallacy: Executive Disorder,” which opened July 8. The show is almost exclusively political, and opens with a humorous admission from the cast: we tried to think of other things to talk about, but there’s really nothing. And it’s true. In such tenuous and violent times, each day brings a new blow to safety or democracy in the U.S. No one person or comedy sketch show should be exempt from actively critiquing and advocating right now. However, as the show got underway, I couldn’t help but feel that I had been there before. It felt like I was seeing slight variations on the same set ups and punchlines about our current administration that had come up over and over again. That, in combination with this rarefied audience, was starting to make political comedy look bleak.

When political satire or commentary isn’t as truly challenging, innovative or relevant as it can be, it’s that much easier for viewers to dismiss it, bow out entirely and pursue more apolitical entertainment. With the advent of programming like The Daily Show or Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, political humor has become our news. It carries a huge amount of power, and can be harnessed to politically engage people. So while the attention is there, keep it, use it, challenge it. Take a cue from something like The Daily Show, which features a diverse staff of writers and correspondents. Put more power in the hands of minorities to make authentic and truly biting commentary on the state of these times. 

Scrubbing tables later that night, I mulled this over. BNW is full of hard working, smart comedians who are chipping away at inequality, injustice and — most importantly — ever evolving and improving with each new show. Maybe that’s why it’s one of my favorite places.