“It’s not like being Prime Minister, but it’s not that bad”: Gallows Humour as a Response to Crisis
By Robert Shaw
“It’s not like being Prime Minister, but it’s not that bad”: Gallows Humour as a Response to Crisis
Members of the British and American left have become experienced suffers of political defeats since 2015, part of a wider crisis in mainstream left-wing politics experienced against the rise of Populism.
In the face of these political defeats, in the context of crises of climate change, economic precarity and Western austerity, it would be easy to fall into despair or dismay. But alternative responses exist. Here’s an example of an exchange between a British, an American, and an Australian comedian in a February 2019 episode of the Bugle podcast:
Hari Kondobolu: Hey Andy, Hey Alice
Andy Zaltzman: Hello, so how’s America bearing up?
HK: Every time you ask me questions like that, I know you’re saying it with some kind of mocking tone or intent. It’s terrible Andy, it’s bad.
AZ: It’s not really mocking, it’s just in these difficult times we turn to each other Britian and America, we’re bonded
HK: That’s true
AZ: We’re bonded through history by various things and at the moment we’re bonded by our own political incompetence. We find shelter in each other
Alice Fraser: It’s the sympathetic hand clasp of somebody who you know has also shat themselves in public
Alice’s gag is a good example of what I’m referring to as ‘gallows humour’, that is, humour which comes from laughing at a precarious or dangerous situation that someone finds themselves in. While the example above is from professional comedians on a podcast, a key feature of gallows humour is that it is also found in everyday speech and conversation: it is social, and it brings people together in acknowledgment of shared experiences of defeat and loss.
Gallows humour has become a significant part of left-wing responses to the political crises of the second half of the 2010s. Humour has of course long been a way of challenging power, but gallows humour, as opposed to broader satire, has a particular form and use in response to crises.
The concept of gallows humour was first described in the 1940s by the Czech sociologist Antonin Ordblik, who had escaped Nazi ruled Czecholslovakia. He described the emergence of gallows humour following the Czech surrender:
“After Munich, when the Czech nation was crushed and bleeding, there was no place for humor, not even for the gallows-humor type. It was a short period characterized by the attitude of "let's stick together; every- body's sacred duty is to do his best so that the nation can survive." Yet, surprisingly soon, humor was heard again, this time mixed with biting irony which revealed the intensity of disillusionment and grief caused by the indecency and treachery of those few Czechs who, seizing the opportunity to satisfy their personal ambitions, were only too eager to cooperate with and accept orders from their German masters” (1942, p711)
Ordblik gives a couple of examples of the jokes that circulated in Czechoslovakia at the time:
“Do you know why Hitler has not invaded England yet? Because the German officers could not manage to learn in time all English irregular verbs”
“The Gestapo finally find a Czech supporter of the Nazis: “He was an old man walking up and down the street and speaking seriously to him- self aloud: "Adolf Hitler is the greatest leader. The Germans are a noble nation. I would rather work for ten Germans than for one Czech." When the Gestapo agent asked what was his occupation, this Czech admirer of Nazism reluctantly confessed that he was a gravedigger”
While contemporary political crises in the UK and the USA may not be on the same scale as occupation by a fascist government, feelings of disillusionment and grief have been common among those on the left following the election of Donald Trump and Brexit votes in particular, and similar forms of gallows humour have emerged.
But what purpose does gallows humour serve? I argue that gallows humour follows three steps in rejecting the current crisis, enrolling people together in shared exasperation, and beginning the process of creating new political capital.
Rejecting the Current Political Climate
The first step of gallows humour is to reject and denounce the current political climate or power structures. It does so in a manner akin to what Niall calls, in Deleuze and Guattari’s vocabulary, a ‘relative postitive deterritorialization’ in which “the process of change does not reproduce a pre-established assemblage, but does not yet contribute to or create a new assemblage either”.[i] In other words, the first moment of gallows humour is to laugh at the state of current politics, without necessarily demanding change.
We can find this humour in the rise of despairing and mocking protest signs, such as the examples below from the Women’s March against Trump and 2018 People’s Vote Marches against Brexit.
These signs eschew calls for action, in favour of humorous denunciations of those in power and their politics. While humour at protests is not new, the prevalence of such signs has increased. In particular, the third image – “Just, Ugh” – seems to encapsulate a gallows humour response which mocks current failures, but does not promote a new position.
Enrolling likeminded individuals
Orbdlik wrote that gallows humour spreads through word of mouth, and through this has the effect of enrolling people together in shared understandings of suffering. In this way, it overcomes the isolation and loneliness that may be experienced in the face of political defeat. In the modern era, gallows humour has spread particularly well via social media, which allows expressions of solidarity through sharing and liking of posts, images and videos. While it’s easy to dismiss the value of sharing, researchers exploring the #MeToo movement have found that participants get genuine satisfaction and solidarity from having their posts liked.
A good example of shared gallows humour in the UK can be found in the Daily Mash spoof news website, and its spin-off television show the Mash Report. Both the website, through its witty, succinct and crude headlines, and the show through short extracts that explore major current issues, have created content ideal for this sharing. 2 of the Daily Mash’s 5 tweets with most engagement (likes or retweets) from 2019 so far are forms of left-wing gallows humour:
The act of retweeting a Daily Mash story such of as this is to make a political statement, and through liking or retweeting on the sharer’s page, people can express a solidarity with that statement.
Creating new political action
The final step of gallows humour is to help use the newly generated connections to start to generate political capital. The quintessential example of this on the UK left is the unlikely political comeback of Ed Miliband.
Miliband was widely derided after the 2015 general election loss, in which he made a series of apparent PR errors while Labour leader, the result being that his political reputation was severely damaged. Since stepping down as leader, Miliband has cultivated a form of self-deprecating gallows humour, referencing his errors made as leader but using these to show learning and to regain political capital. This is evident in an extract from a December 2018 episode of his podcast Reasons to be Cheerful¸ co-hosted with Geoff Llloyd
Geoff Lloyd: You were a bit bah humbug last week
Ed Miliband: Yeah I know, well in order to take refuge from what was happening in politics, Christmas seems a good distraction
GL: Look, everything seems to be falling apart at the moment, but amidst it all you had a hit tweet
EM: That makes up for everything doesn’t it really
EM: Yeah it was my suggestion to Theresa May that if she didn’t survive the vote of no confidence, which she did, she would have a bright future in podcasting. The odd thing about it is, I though that there was an element of self-deprecation in it, but I think people saw it as more of a ‘burn’, as the young people say, than I intended it to be. I don’t think it’s that bad having a future in podcasting, do you see what I mean?
GL: Yeah, I’m quite enjoying it
EM: I’m quite enjoying it too. OK, it’s not like being Prime Minister but it’s not that bad
This final line is important for me – “It’s not like being Prime Minister, but it’s not that bad”. The new political collectivities produced by gallows humour clearly can’t replace, on their own, the power lost in defeats, but they can allow for some political change and activity. Miliband has campaigned to prevent Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of Sky Television, a move which collapsed; and he has used his platform to support causes including trans-rights; the 2019 Children’s strike against climate change; and press regulation. He hasn’t achieved this through gallows humour alone of course, but it has been an early and arguably necessary step in allowing him to continue to achieve political aims.
Dictators do not topple at the sound of laughter, and gallows humour does not undo the pain and suffering of crisis or defeat. But it can be an important step in rejecting feelings of loss and defeat, in favour of those of defiance and solidarity, which in turn can lead to new forms of political agency.
 Nail, T. (2017). What is an Assemblage?. SubStance, 46(1), 21-37
 Mendes, K., Ringrose, J., & Keller, J. (2018). #MeToo and the promise and pitfalls of challenging rape culture through digital feminist activism. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 25(2), 236–246
Robert Shaw is a Lecturer in Geography at Newcastle University. His research has explored multiple different aspects of the urban night, including the working lives of taxi drivers, changes in public and domestic lighting, nocturnal protest movements, and night-time mobilities. His 2018 book The Nocturnal City was the culmination of that work to date, arguing for a deeper focus on conceptualisations of the night when exploring urban governance. He has also published on non-representational theory, and concepts of assemblage and atmosphere. As well as his book, he has published in academic journals, blogs, newspapers and contributed to British and Australian radio programmes.
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