The Delightful Distraction of Bernie Memes

It was the Meme Seen ‘Round the World, the Perfect Distraction We all Needed

This post comes to us from comedian Ben Fort:

On January 20th, 2021, Americans set aside our many differences and united around one of our most cherished values: the Internet meme. At Joe Biden’s inauguration, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders managed to upstage both the incoming and outgoing presidents without a speech, tweet, or comment. He perched, and sat, and nothing more.

The memes began with a simple picture of Bernie Sanders sitting socially distanced at the inauguration. His enormous mittens were an aesthetic, his folded arms a mood. Photoshoppers started placing him in movies and historical events, and within hours there were apps to place him anywhere. It spread like wildfire. Anyone could join in because there was nothing to “get,” just a bundled-up man in surprising places. The fun was both national and local, with families and neighborhoods bringing Bernie home.

Memes come and go, but this one was remarkable for being about a politician without being political. The jokes starred a staunch progressive but involved no position, no allegiance, no heroes and villains. My conservative friends enjoyed playing along without worrying about “sending a message.” It was nothing more than a delightful distraction, and in today’s political climate, that feels like a small miracle.

At the height of the 2020 George Floyd protests, comedian W. Kamau Bell spoke with NPR about the role of humor in the midst of turbulence. He said “some people right now need comedy that distracts them from all this stuff … And then there’s a kind of comedy that helps you process what’s going on in the world.” In the midst of difficulty, humor can give us a break from the darkness or name it.

2020 was an objectively hard year, and TV audiences were drawn to both distracting and topical humor. The feel-good Schitt’s Creek dominated the Emmy Awards, and the breakout hit Ted Lasso reminded everyone that Apple TV exists. Those shows gave us a break from the darkness while Dave Chappelle openly wrestled with it. After addressing America’s racial tensions on his 8:46 Netflix special, Chappelle hosted the first Saturday Night Live after the presidential election. He was brought in specifically to talk about it, scheduled before any votes were cast.

But some humor manages to offer neither escape or insight. If you’re a Trump critic, Alec Baldwin’s SNL impersonations were a kind of purgatory, reminding you of your stress without lifting you out of it. His caricature was an opinion rather than a person. At first it may have been satisfying, even cathartic, to see the president overtly played as a villain, but the persona went unchanged and had nothing new to say for four long years.

If you wanted an escape from thinking about Trump, late-night wasn’t the place. By one professor’s count, out of the 6,337 late-night jokes in 2017, 49% were about the president (for reference, there were 1,700 late-night Clinton jokes in 1998). That ratio just doesn’t reflect our lives, which are spent mostly with our weird selves, workplaces, families, friends, and churches. National politics is just one part of life, but it has ballooned into a disproportionate part of our laugh lives. Between TV, memes, and Twitter snark, we’ve had too much political humor with too little of it offering relief.

It hasn’t been a relief to write these thousands of jokes. One late-night writer told Vulture that writing Trump jokes is like drinking poison, and another said, “I don’t remember the last time I laughed at a Trump joke on any show, including my own. … I can write jokes and hope that someone else finds the humor, but none of it’s funny to me.” The head writer for Jimmy Fallon — the least political of the late-night hosts — exited the show with a vow to never write a Trump joke again.

For these professional jokers, a new presidency is a fresh start and a chance to change the ratio. Late-night’s head writer wants to “talk about the new movie that came out and make fun of that for three days.” The Daily Show wants to cover more topics like “racism, sexism and misogyny,” which are weighty but a change from the presidency. They want a better mix with more escapism, more naming of the darkness, and less that does neither. We’d do well to follow their lead and adjust our own ratios.

The Bernie meme reminds us of another option: we don’t have to avoid politicians to have silly fun. It’s okay to view them as people instead of ideas, to just giggle at their huge mittens without making a point. It’s been done with recent presidents, like Key & Peele’s “Anger Translator,” which played with the limits of Obama’s chill demeanor. Past SNL presidents have been more playful, like Will Ferrell’s charmingly aloof George W. Bush, and we almost got four years of Kate McKinnon’s hilariously awkward Hillary Clinton.

This kind of delightful distraction reminds us that politicians are more than politics. They sometimes sit weird and dress weird. They have peculiar habits and strange interactions with friends, family, and coworkers. Yes, we need breaks and need powerful people to be kept in check, but the more we can see (and laugh at) politicians as people, the better.