It can feel a bit sour-faced to discuss the ‘purpose’ of humour. The primary purpose of humour is, of course, to make people laugh – to help us relax, bond, and bring enjoyment to a stressful day. But in the political sphere humour has another, arguably more important role – to puncture the pomposity and propaganda of the powerful, and challenge the stories they tell about themselves.
Stephen Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a near-perfect example of this. In character as ‘Stephen Colbert’ (a right-wing not particularly good television propagandist) he challenged the contradictions and hypocrisies of the Bush administration, right in the heart of Washington with the world watching. The performance is hilariously funny, but also serves a useful social purpose in challenging the Bush administration’s presentation of themselves as strong and wise protectors of the American people. Really ruthless political satire of this sort draws drawing attention to the emperor’s nudity, reframing him from a strong, dynamic leader into a small, pitiful creature worthy of contempt.