Past event

"From Tramp to Trump: On Screen Comedy and Sovereignty" Film Studies Department Speaker Series with Dr Paul Flaig

In recent years, both critics and scholars have anxiously observed that the subversive force of satire, jokes and gags on screen has become not only toothless, but positively exploited by populist leaders and political demagogues. If, in television critic Emily Nussbaum's words, comedy has gone from being a “rebel stance” in the face of “humorless” leaders to the very stuff of authoritarian power, “how”–if one is a comedian–“do you fight an enemy who's just kidding?” From Silvio Berlusconi to Donald Trump, Boris Johnson to Jair Bolsonaro, the figures of the sovereign and the court jester have merged into what Michel Foucault, in a prescient, passing phrase, called “grotesque sovereignty.” In this paper, I want to build on Foucault's concept to situate this recent entanglement of comic subversion and sovereign power within a wider genealogy of screen comedy stretching from early cinema to Chaplin's great dictator, Duck Soup to The Thick of It. Indeed, if sovereignty has, over the last century, become defined by a grotesque excess it has been, in large part, through the mediating power of screens, whether cinematic, televisual or viral, and which have produced, in turn, comic forms of satire and parody as inevitable blowback. Yet far from understanding sovereignty and comedy in opposed or polarised terms, I emphasise their often shared status as states of exception in which sovereign and clown appear as inverted images of one another. I begin by tracing the presence of comedy within theories of sovereignty (Hobbes, Agamben, Virno) as well as the importance of sovereignty within theories of comedy (Freud, Bakhtin, Bergson) before going on to explore a few key forms of grotesque sovereignty across the history of screen comedy: the bureaucracy or apparatus of sovereignty; the sovereign corporation, and the sovereign's double.