Shutdown and debt limit offer comic fodder

Comedians Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel take on the shutdown

Hundreds of thousands of workers may be sitting idly by during the ongoing government shutdown, but comedians are working overtime to find the humour amidst the partisan political turmoil.

With the government completing a second week in partial shutdown and the deadline to raise the national debt limit fast approaching, senior officials warn of increasingly dire economic consequences.

But there's a silver lining amid the dark political clouds for comedian and radio host Jimmy Dore.

"Whenever there's something stupid happening in government that actually hurts people in a real way, I always say 'Bonanza for comedy!'" he says.

Partisan polarisation and paralysis on Capitol Hill mean plenty of fodder for Dore and his fellow comics.

Former television writer Evan Sayet says well known crises such as these mean he can cut to the chase much quicker.

"Any news story that permeates the nation the way this one has… is great fodder for a comedian because it means you need to provide less and less of a set up in order to get to the punch line."

After all, if some audience members don't fully understand how the US government works, it's OK. All they need to know right now is it doesn't.

"A government shutdown? How can you tell?" jokes Sayet.

But, amidst the wisecracks and pointed political barbs, Sayet and his colleagues take their jobs rather seriously.

"If you're a gifted comedian… you cut through the clutter," said Dore.

"The soul of wit is brevity, so you're condensing a great idea and you're touching a part of [a listener's] brain that normally isn't touched," he added. "You're touching the humour part or the irony centre, and people get it more."

Evan Sayet in an undated photo Sayet attempts to find the tough truths amidst the political rhetoric

A 2013 study in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research found participants had higher recall rates for political comedy than cable news, while a 2012 University of Michigan study found that exposure to political comedy was just as effective as the news in spurring discussion among viewers.

According to Emmy-nominated satirist Will Durst, political comics can also illustrate hard truths that politicians and mainstream media outlets fail to address. "We are the canaries in the coalmine."

Comedians are also able to do more straight talking, says Dore. "We have the freedom to call a spade a spade and a liar a liar".

"The beauty of comedy is you're an outsider," he added. "I'm not beholden to anybody or any party or any ideology. I get to make fun of all of it and show the ridiculousness."

For Dore and his colleagues, comedy is not about lampooning those when they're down but instead a chance to reframe complicated issues in new, more approachable ways.

And sometimes that can expose uncomfortable realities.

Table tennis paddles bear the pictures of key congressional leaders Furloughed workers played table tennis with faces of senior politicians

In a recent bit on late-night US comedy programme Jimmy Kimmel Live, Americans were polled regarding their preference for Obamacare versus the Affordable Care Act, unaware they were one in the same.

Participants overwhelmingly chose the Affordable Care Act and disparaged Obamacare, saying the latter was compulsory and "socialist".

"So The Affordable Care Act is more affordable than Obamacare?" queried the interviewer.

"Just the name says it all," one respondent said.

As politicians continue to debate the fate of Obamacare and the looming debt limit, Americans stare into a growing abyss of economic uncertainty.

A sign saying "Grand Canyon Closed" as seen on 3 October 2013 Many tourist attractions are closed

Obama has recently warned that breaching the nation's borrowing limit on 17 October could disrupt capital markets and undermine international confidence in America.

It's tough times like these that people could benefit from humour most, argues Dore, who thinks people need comedians more than ever when another recession could be lurking around the corner if Congress fails to act.

"Einstein said the only two things that are infinite are space and man's stupidity. And he said, 'I'm not so sure about space.' I think it could go all the way to horrible."

But, even then, there will still be room for comedy.

"When your neighbour loses his job, that's a recession," jokes Durst. "When your neighbour [steals] your dog for food, that's a depression."

It's all in good fun right now, he adds. "But on October 18th, it won't be as funny."

Follow @BBCNewsMagazine on Twitter and on Facebook

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.