Finding the funny in the presidential campaigns



Comedians get ready to take the stage at The PIT LOFT for Electoral Dysfunction, their weekly improv show. Photo: Justine Cabulong.

Spectators spill into the gallery of The PIT LOFT on a warm Saturday night. Red string lights line the gallery’s perimeter as the crowd mingles in the pews. A light hangs atop the entryway of the main room. At 7:30 it ignites and Electoral Dysfunction has begun.

Onstage, a six-person panel faces an almost-full house, with just a few of the 40 seats empty. The room erupts in a nervous laughter at the opening question: “How the [expletive] did we end up with Donald Trump as the nominee?”

“He is sadly, but legitimately the candidate. From his supporters, I’m seeing a side of America I didn’t know existed, or maybe I didn’t want to admit it,” says panelist Justine Cabulong, a comedienne who has worked for both Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show” after managing media for the United States Marine Corps in Afghanistan. 

Cabulong is a part of a rotating six-person roster, organized by Electoral Dysfunction producer Tom Brennan, affectionately known at the improv theater as the “pitizens” and devoted to political satire. She considers humor a survival technique during the current election cycle.

Sometimes it’s as simple as forcing people to understand that a discussion needs to take place because that makes these issues more valid and more real, whether it’s the rate of young black men being shot and killed by police or women feeling they can’t come forward to talk about being sexually assaulted,” said Cabulong.

Brennan is proud of the platform he has created in four years. A collaboration with friend and comedian Nate Starkey, Electoral Dysfunction sits at the intersection of humor and political discourse. “He has the comedy contacts, I have the political contacts… We originally pitched it as Real Time with Bill Maher meets Who’s Line is It Anyway,” says Brennan.

But how do you find the funny in adversity? According to Cabulong, it’s comedy’s job to bring light to the ridiculousness of the situation. “It makes you angry and makes you want to figure out what you can do to change it.”

“Personally, I support a comedian drawing their own lines and letting the jokes fall where they may. You can’t have an honest conversation about politics in America without ensuring women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community have a voice in the conversation,” begins Brennan. “But political diversity is important, too. I’m proud to do a political show in New York City, as liberal a place as it gets, that will generally have two to three conservative guests per week.”

The panel tackles everything from Gary Johnson’s inability to identify Aleppo to Hillary Clinton’s “deplorable basket” comment.

Host Brad Stuart challenged the group on whether or not comedy has a code of ethics. Just a few days shy of Walmart taking down its display of soda cans resembling the Twin Towers, were Americans rightfully outraged? The political pundits passionately discussed dissenting opinions about where they draw the line for the 15th anniversary of September 11.

Robert A. George, the self-described “only Black Republican comedian in New York,” serves as a columnist for The Daily News and co-producer of Electoral Dysfunction. George recalls Miracle Mattress, a Texas-based company that ran an ad of their “Twin Towers Sale” using two employees who collapsed on a mattress.

“I’m sorry, but I laughed,” said George. “It literally looked like a Saturday Night Live sketch–except it was funny.”

One audience member laughs the loudest throughout the show. He sits near the aisle with a headful of long brown curls and wears wire-rimmed glasses. Blogger Eric Kleefeld is a regular here, and he draws a strict line of demarcation for where comedy stops being funny and starts being offensive.

“It’s kind of like, are you punching up or are you punching down?” asks Kleefeld. He says if the jokes are only funny to one group of people at the expense of another, the comedian is more than likely punching down.

Andre Thompson, a 25-year-old rising comedian and freelance photographer says that one thing links his comedy and his candids: the Black experience. “We help to keep the conversation going and to escalate the dialogue,” he says.

Thompson stopped by The PIT to get a better sense of improv. He’s only done it once.

“Comedians give their point of view and people take what we say and form their own opinions,” he says. All we do is attempt to make people laugh while speaking of substance.”