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Why isn’t IR funnier?

September 21, 2021

In recent weeks, I’ve been debating with a colleague the relative dearth of International Relations (IR) comedy and what we, as pedantic unfunny academics, can do about it.

I grew up on Jon Stewart’s iteration of the Daily Show and still watch quite a bit of political comedy, including stand-up and shows like Last Week Tonight and Mock the Week. And even though my PhD program tried its best to suck the life out of me, I still get a kick out of joking about politics. In many ways, political satire is what drew me to studying politics.

Still, while I’d say the state of political comedy is relatively healthy, the same can’t be said of international political comedy. Political comedy focuses predominantly on domestic politics—mocking characters like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and George W. Bush, or the most extreme factions of the right- or left-wing. Though international politics makes an appearance—typically in the form of mocking foreign policy and foreign policymakers—this strikes me as a tougher sell. IR comedy, whatever that phrase might mean, is virtually non-existent.

What might explain this ‘comedy gap’? Is it a figment of my imagination or a real problem?

In recent days, I’ve been weighing three possible answers, though my hope is that by posting this piece I’ll get either pushback or a few more.

First, my colleague argues that international politics is dominated by tragedy. Local and domestic politics gets lower stakes quotidian issues like whether San Clemente city council should build a statue of Paul Walker on the pier or whether the Secret Service should keep George W. Bush away from pretzels. But IR tends to pay most of its attention to issues of war and peace, which aren’t really laughing matters.

Now, I can’t argue with this logic, as my book is premised on the idea that mass violence is our discipline’s primary subject matter. But IR scholars do write about lots of other stuff. Even if we set aside issues of political violence, couldn’t we joke about IPE, the UN, or why the UK, despite inventing the sport, stinks at international football? Couldn’t we at least poke fun at academics’ self-seriousness or the awkwardness of conference happy hours?

A second possible explanation has to do with our discipline’s aversion to character development. Domestic politics has much more room for eccentric individuals, whereas IR tends to focus on corporate actors like states or institutional structures. (Counterpoint: I have argued that, for good reason, we IR scholars tend to construct states as anthropomorphic characters.) Making fun of people tends to be more fun than making fun of abstract norms, institutions, or structures. This explains why no one at the bar ever asks, “have you heard the one about nuclear non-proliferation?”

Third, and finally, IR’s comedy gap might stem from the way we’ve cordoned off the discipline from neighbors like foreign policy analysis or cultural studies. As an intellectual project, Western IR has often emphasized delineating itself as a rationalist, intellectual enterprise interested in nomothetic covering laws about statecraft. This has marginalized the study of messier everyday issues of foreign policy debate, transnational social movements, or even pop culture and prevented the flourishing of a more vibrant ecosystem of non-academic commentary in which comedy could emerge. Perhaps IR would be funnier if we opened the field up to more intuitive discussions of relations between groups of people, rather than defending the hegemonic project of ‘the study of sovereign states navigating anarchy.’

As these three points make clear, I don’t have a great answer to the IR comedy question. Nevertheless, I know IR comedy is possible. And since this post clearly doesn’t have much of a ‘point’, I can at least offer two examples that both prove my point and might serve as inspiration:

  1. The late/great Norm MacDonald on Germany

2. A clip from the Australian series Utopia

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Adam B. Lerner is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and Deputy Director of Royal Holloway's Centre for International Security (RHISC).