Comedy and Presidential Debates

During the International Debate Symposium I recently attended, courtesy of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) and the National Democratic Institution (NDI), I got the opportunity to interact with Martha Raddatz. Raddatz, together with Anderson Cooper, moderated the 2nd Presidential Debate. In the process, she has earned more than a few plaudits for keeping the candidates on-topic and for not having any of the mansplaining.

Talking to the delegates via videoconferencing, Raddatz fielded questions from the debate organizers from 28 countries around the world. Appropriately, many of the questions revolved around the challenges of moderating and maintaining control of the debate. Because our own #PiliPinasDebates2016 had issues with this sort of thing – as you can see for yourself here – I listened intently.

One of the more indelible takeaways from that part of the Q&A was Raddatz’s observation that being a parent helped her tremendously. Apparently, knowing how to keep children in line requires the same skill set as keeping Presidential candidates on-message.

But more than just focusing on the many aspects of debate organization and staging, I was also very interested in the environment that debates inhabited. More specifically, I was curious about the value of comedy in helping voters coalesce their own opinions about the candidates. So I asked her.

Comedies, Raddatz said, indeed played a role in shaping elections – from how candidates would actually go on late night talk shows and engaging with comedians.

“(The influence of comedy) has been pretty profound. What comedy can do is go right for a person’s perceived weakness … they go right for what people are talking about, right for what those candidates are probably working on right now to correct. I think (comedy) has played an important role and the candidates know it as much as we do.”

That’s some wisdom right there.

Comedy as a Diagnostic Tool

One of the biggest problems with debates is that they can very easily morph into massive press conferences. While it is true that debates are intended to present the electorate with a window into the candidates’ platforms,we must accept that lectures and speeches aren’t the only way to bring the point across. In many cases, comedy can actually help ordinary people to better understand the ramifications of policy. And who are debates televised for? Yep, for the ordinary voters. Not the pundits, not the political science experts, but the millions of people who will put pen to paper and vote.

Debates also provide an opportunity for the watching voters to form their own personal opinions of the candidates, and this can be just as important. As a rule, candidates cultivate the public persona that their handlers tell them will resonate best with the electorate. By definition, that public persona is a fabrication – clothes that hide the nakedness that is their true personality. How a person reacts to needling therefore, is just as telling as how well he has memorized his talking points. And that’s what comedy does. It goes under the candidate’s public skin and tries to expose the raw nerve. This is important because once a person is in power, it is that raw nerve that will decide his actions.

Political Comedy in the Philippines

To a certain extent, we saw this in the last elections when our own candidates did appear on variety shows more often than they ever did, in any previous election. But I would posit that those appearances were carefully calculated to burnish their images, rather than brave forays into the no-holds barred world of true politically flavored comedy where the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hold sway.

That is hardly surprising. I can hardly imagine local politicians striding willingly onto a set where they know they will be skewered for everything from ridiculous policies to personal quirks. I simply don’t see our candidates being that tough. It would be great, though, if they were. As Raddatz pointed out, comedy goes for their perceived weaknesses, and if there’s anything powerful people need megadoses of, it’s a reality check. Speak truth to power, right? And oftentimes, truth – while being funny to everyone else – can sting like a bitch.

On the other hand, it’s not just the politicians that need to step up to comedy more. Local comedians also have to up the ante something fierce. Right now, very few comedians are willing to take on active political figures, opting to send up veritable institutions who already occupy secure niches in the political pantheon, for good or bad. In other words, they go for the soft targets. Which is a shame because, by and large, those safe targets are nowhere near as relevant as the ones on the front lines – the ones who need the most reminding that they are accountable to the people whose votes they are courting.

swnkel There are a few comedic acts that are worth noting, of course, but as far as I can tell, they have yet to really cross-over into the awareness of the mainstream (although they have been trolled many times, I don’t consider that as having crossed over into the mainstream at all). This means that, as sharp and insightful as their humor may be, they address only a very limited audience. What use is a lantern if it only allows you to see a few inches in front of your nose? I envision the future of comedy as more of a searchlight – a powerful beam of awareness that can cut through the clouds of obfuscation generated by public relations fog-machines. Just like the beam from a lighthouse, for instance.

Comedy and Presidential Debates

Don’t get me wrong. I am, in no way, advocating making our debates funny. They end up that way too many times without any outside help anyway. I am speaking of the environment in which the debates take place. I am saying that, as gratifying as it is to have the candidates up on stage, focusing only on the debates themselves means that we aren’t maximizing the potential of such face-offs.

A healthy comedy environment must also exist outside of the formal debate structure; an environment that wears skepticism like a badge of honor and wields irreverence like a sword; a forum where laughter is a product of comprehension rather than the goal of ignorance.


Many thanks to the Commission on Presidential Debates and the National Democratic Institute for inviting me to the international debate symposium and making it exposing me to insights that will now be forever a part of the Philippines Commission on Elections’ voter education tool box.


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