The then Federal Counsellor Johann Schneider-Ammann’s 2016 speech recommending laughter as a way to deal with illness is mostly remembered for his dour presentation. The straight-faced Swiss German didn’t crack a smile while extolling humor. Numerous parodies of the laconic recitation went viral, so much so that the initial message was forgotten. The importance of the role of humor was overwhelmed by the deadpan delivery of the messenger.
How is laughter pertinent during the current pandemic and economic downturn? Schneider-Ammann’s presentation was given on March 1, Switzerland’s celebration of the World Day of the Sick. Given the number of victims of Covid-19, is humor possible during the grave consequences of the pandemic?
When the New York Times stopped publishing political cartoons in 2017, I wrote: ”The Geneva cartoonist Patrick Chappatte published a cartoon with the words ‘Without humor we are all dead’ after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in 2015.” At the same time, I quoted the political theorist William E. Connolly “Let us laugh together, on principle.”
In Geneva, we are fortunate to have several venues for humor. Chappatte continues his precious political satires. Hermann regularly gives us reason to smile in the Tribune de Genève. The two Vincents loyally satirize the Swiss and Swissness on television. Yann Lambiel is a marvel of talent beyond his vocal imitations, although current politicians don’t measure up to his imitations of Calmy-Rey, Brélaz or Couchepin. Thomas Wiesel, Laurent Nicolet and others are excellent stand-up comics.
In the United States, Joe Biden’s presidency has seen a marked decline in political satire. Saturday Night Live, Stephen Colbert, Andy Borowitz and the John Olivers have lost their favorite punching bag. To paraphrase Richard Nixon’s last press conference: “They don’t have Trump to kick around anymore.” Trump was so easy to make fun of. The Biden family and its history is too tragic to satirize. Joe Biden doesn’t have orange hair; Jill Biden is far from Melania. There is no Ivanka to parody. Don Jr. and Eric were perfect foils. Hunter Biden is a pathetic figure. Beau Biden is remembered only with praise and reverence.
Can one be humorous about the transition from Trump to Biden? How to make us smile in going from the Trump roller coaster to the seriousness of “Sleepy Joe.”? Gregg Robins, an American of long residence in Geneva, has published a book of limericks. The essence of the transition is captured in the introduction:
“A patient man named Joe
Watched Trump refuse to go
He kept his cool
And ignored the fool
So desperate to steal the show.”
Two of my favorites are on the difference between Trump and Biden. On Trump:
“Trump demands the vaccines bear his name
While ignoring the hurt and the pain
One more glaring delusion
Leaving zero confusion
‘bout a man who just cannot feel shame.”
“There was once a man from Delaware
Who’d been hearing Trump whine but didn’t care
He followed his course
Without any remorse
As he knew, one day soon, Trump would not be there.”
All of the above is political satire. It is reassuring to see that following the decision of the New York Times and the events surrounding Charlie Hebdo, political satire continues. Robins’ limericks are another form. But the line between satire, humor and actual events is thin. The pandemic and its consequences are no laughing matter. Schneider-Ammann’s suggestion can only go so far. So let’s enjoy what we can laugh about. As best we can; “Let us laugh together, on principle.”