How Does Satire Influence Politics?
The Intersection of Politics and Satire.
A Moment Symposium
Political satire is ridicule dedicated to exposing the difference between appearance and reality in public life. The justification for this mockery, going back to Aristotle, is that by holding bad behavior up to ridicule we might, as it were, “laugh folly out of existence.” Syllogistically, a la Aristotle, it might be put something like this:
1) Politicians behaving badly will be mocked.
2) Politicians don’t like to be mocked.
3) Politicians will stop behaving badly.
Now, how did that pan out? More than two millennia later, political folly is still as much with us despite the fact that political satire reaches more of the populace than ever before, as part of the entertainment industry. There’s now a veritable satiric-industrial complex. Furthermore, that populace is no longer just a passive recipient of Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Onion or an occasional New Yorker cover or cartoon, but is actively participating by blogging, Twittering and Facebooking their own material. Don’t get me wrong, I like political satire and would like to think that it has some effect other than tweaking the mighty and getting laughs. But I think that would be confusing appearance with reality.
Robert Mankoff is a cartoonist, cartoon editor for The New Yorker and founder of The Cartoon Bank.
I’ve viewed our political system as a form of entertainment for a long time. When I go to the political conventions, I look around at all the real reporters and think, “What the hell are they writing? How can they possibly make this appear to be serious?” To be ponderous about it, most people have a pretty strong sense of skepticism about the people who claim to want to run the country for the benefit of the people. Skepticism is a good thing for the most part, and the tendency to mock the people posturing for us is probably pretty healthy. I’m always amazed that people can look at it any other way. Satire has probably gotten a little more vicious, immediate, constant and more partisan than it used to be. There was a time when political satirists tended to make fun of the whole process of politics, and that’s where I still feel that I am. Political satirists aren’t trying to do good—it’s just better than having a real job.
There’s a vast literary tradition that says satire is inherently conservative because it holds the manners of today up against the standards of the past. If you look at Jonathan Swift or Horace or traditional satirists, their general theme was to look at how heroic we used to be and how stupid we’ve become. Today, the people who most famously do satire are purportedly liberal, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but they are objectively very conservative, because what they do is pick out the stupidest things happening in any given day and make fun of them, and for the people who watch, especially college students, politics is just one long parade of stupidity. As a result, college students begin to unconsciously distrust government and politics. I’d say the two cultural institutions that have contributed to mistrust of government are 60 Minutes—for 30 years it has been telling one story after another of institutional failure—and the Comedy Central guys, realizing that is the opposite of what they intend to do. If you want to elect libertarians and Republicans, it is pretty good: You have generations who don’t believe in government or government solutions.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist and author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.
Political comedy is primarily the mark of the underdog, which is why we have such a rich history of Jewish political comedy. It’s the jester speaking truth to the king. For that reason, you often have political comedy coming from the left, because comedy is essentially a complaint against oppression, and in the case of Jewish political comedy, it’s a complaint against the power structure. There’s something very anti-establishment about it. Asking the question “Can we do better?” is the hallmark of political humor. You have some conservative comedians, but they are few and far between and they’re not always successful. Fox’s The Half Hour News Hour, which was supposed to be a conservative version of The Daily Show, was canceled after 17 episodes. The reason it didn’t work was because it tried to be conservative first and funny later, whereas The Daily Show is funny first and liberal second, and it works. Political comedians aim their guns at everyone—they think that both sides are facacta, that both sides suck.
Alison Dagnes, teaches political science at Shippensburg University, and is the author of A Conservative Walks Into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor.
The first use of satire in the Jewish tradition goes back to the scroll of Esther, which is a satire of the Persian court. It’s a very old technique that comes from the Greek theater tradition. In a simple way, satire done well speaks truth to power and is a process of getting to a deeper truth that may not be visible on the surface. And that’s why satirists are applauded in some societies and seen as a danger in other societies. One of the great contributions of Jews in the United States has been that the Jewish sense of humor has become American humor. It comes out of urban places like New York and Los Angeles. It’s knowledgeable and informed—perhaps overly informed. That’s the reason Jews are upset all the time—they know too much. Jewish humor has a lot of language jokes, the way things are said, and using humor to puncture pomposity, to give someone a jab and let the air out of people who see themselves as all-knowing and all-powerful. Jewish humor likes to show that the emperor has no clothes.
Moshe Waldoks is the rabbi of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Massachusetts, a stand-up comedian and co-author of The Big Book of Jewish Humor.
From the very beginning of modern Yiddish literature, some of the most important material was satiric—this kind of comic criticism plays a huge role in Yiddish culture. There was a Yiddish satirical weekly magazine called Der Groyser Kundes [The Great Prankster] that started coming out in New York in 1909. If you combined Mad magazine and The Onion, and translated it into Yiddish, you would have something like it. It had lots of political cartoons, stories and poems and all kinds of satirical criticism of the Jewish politics of the day. It was the only place you could find caricatures of Jewish cultural and political figures. It also satirized American local and national politics, but it had this unique aspect of being focused on the Jewish community. One of the funny things they did that’s similar to The Onion or The Daily Show was always a column of weekly news in rhyme, in which they’d satirically distill the news in a kind of extended comic poem. The only thing that’s really like Der Groyser Kundes in the Jewish community today is Eli Valley’s cartoons in The Forward. It’s almost as if that’s the continuation of this Yiddish satire, this internal cultural and political criticism told from an insider’s perspective.
Eddy Portnoy, a contributing editor for Tablet, teaches Yiddish language and literature at Rutgers University.
Satire is a very effective way of exposing the falsity of positions issue by issue and politician by politician. But too many satirists now take the position that they should satirize the whole enterprise of politics rather than particular positions or individuals. I think that’s a mistake. It gives young people the notion that all positions are the same, none of them are any good, and ironically it becomes a very powerful force for the status quo, because the people who are most dissatisfied with the status quo and most attracted to change are told there’s no point in even trying, they’re all bums. What it does is encourage a kind of negativism, and it particularly hurts people on the left. It has a very corrosive effect, which is the opposite of what I hoped it would do, which is to sharpen the critique.
I’m skeptical about the claim that political satire can actually change things. Besides, the last thing I want the president to do is make a decision based on what someone like me says. The role of satire is to help people deal with the political reality, it’s to keep them from being depressed and anxious. No politician has ever said to me, “What you said made me rethink my actions.” But lots of people have said, “That funny joke you made helped me cope with the fact that a jerk like that is in power.” Also, the neutrality of news is fading in importance—just look at CNN with its attempts at objectivity. In many ways, satire has taken that role. Jon Stewart’s biases are pretty obvious, but his real bias is toward what is funny, and there’s an honesty to that. Our goal is to be funny, and we don’t sit down to attack only one side; that is refreshingly neutral.
I like this quote by Will Rogers, which sums up how little satire has changed. He said, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.” There is never a shortage of material no matter who is in power. People are always going to be hypocritical and craven. I believe that politicians’ behavior is no worse than it ever was before—it’s just now we have camera phones. We have so many ways of getting it out faster. Now unfortunately, people like me have to live tweet debates so we have to be the funniest we can be in a nanosecond. It probably results in a lot more misfires. We remember Mark Twain for having these brilliant one-liners about politics and human behavior in general, but he at least had the benefit of a little time to reflect.
Back in 2005, when I helped start The Colbert Report, we noticed that underneath a lot of what was being said politically was the idea that we should trust instinct more than reason. Stephen called this idea “truthiness,” and there was a lot of comedy in deconstructing it. The same thing happens in everyday culture. When you see something you suspect is a big put-on, some political statement or performance that feels intended to confuse everyone or make us focus on the wrong things, and you expose it and you are funny at the same time, that is very satisfying. But I think comedy writers really shrink from the idea that their work is important. Generally we’re in it for the laughs, not for an impact on society. There’s a lot of freedom in being funny rather than important—you can be absurd, you can editorialize, you can become a participant in the story—and no comedy writer wants to lose that.
Allison Silverman, an Emmy Award-winning comedy writer, was the former head-writer of The Colbert Report, and has written for Portlandia and The Office.
Walter J. Podrazik
We forget that political satire has played an important role in other American eras. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Will Rogers was a true multi-media personality—film actor, stage performer, New York Times columnist, radio commentator—with an international following. He said, “All I know is what I read in newspapers,” and then he would go off and riff on absurdities and contradictions and silliness of the financial panic, joblessness, the legality of alcohol and issues of war and peace. When I watch satirists like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart today, I see them doing the same thing. Four decades after Rogers, the country was experiencing generational confrontations over issues of race, law and order, and the war in Vietnam, and this formed the core of the political satire on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS from 1967 to 1969. The program’s resident mock commentator, Pat Paulsen, delivered topical observations with a knowing deadpan, essentially winking to the audience saying: I know what I said is ridiculous, you know it, but that’s what passes for dialogue today. Predating Colbert, Paulsen took his persona directly into the 1968 presidential campaign with his candidacy as satirical performance art, crisscrossing the country holding rallies and seeking votes. David Frye, a brilliant impressionist, took on President Richard Nixon, beginning with his 1969 comedy album I Am The President. Frye’s dead-on impression of Nixon captured a man who, after years of struggle, had finally attained his dream, but still felt besieged and under attack by his perceived enemies. Just as Tina Fey helped to define Sarah Palin, Frye’s take had a lasting impact on Nixon’s legacy.
Walter J. Podrazik is the co-author of Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television and curator of Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications.
The fifties and early sixties were when political satire assumed a more respected place in public discourse, particularly among liberals who saw satire as way of expressing dissent from the Cold War order. And over the years there have been concerned voices about satire not reflecting well on the body politic and others who have argued that it serves as a tonic or safety valve for America. What’s new today is how politicians themselves are engaging in political humor. Previously, presidents were limited to telling jokes at the Al Smith dinner or the Gridiron Club dinner. This election, for example, Obama used the term “Romnesia,” which elicited laughter. What was interesting was Obama’s willingness to engage in such tactics that before may have seemed unbecoming.
Stephen Kercher is the author of Revel Without A Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America.
The Colbert Report has shown me how effective satire can be to convey political ideas and messages. What is new about the Colbert method is that he engages his audience in the participatory method of learning. He takes viewers inside a field of knowledge or experience and gives them the feeling of being a participant. The only other person I know who conveyed information that way was George Plimpton, who wrote about unusual experiences by engaging in them. That is what Colbert does very effectively on camera. I know that in Colbert’s view, there is a difference between describing something as an observer and showing it through the lens of participation. I think his Super-PAC has been highly successful at doing this. I have lots of people come up to me and say, “I didn’t understand Super-PACs before and now I do.” And I continually have people say they’re really interested in what is happening with his Super-PAC—it has created a narrative that people are paying attention to. It seems to me that this is not the kind of reaction we would have if he was just talking about Super-PACs in a monologue on the show.
Trevor Potter is the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and attorney for Stephen Colbert and his Super-PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.
I don’t think this political season has been hugely ripe for satire. The 2008 election was different, where we saw incredible political satire and the classic Tina Fey caricature of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. The greatest skit was with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler portraying Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, respectively. This very brief, funny, cartoonish skit actually conveyed a huge amount of the complicated truth about how we perceive gender and power. Hillary Clinton had been in the public eye with intense gender scrutiny about her looks and sexuality for nearly two decades, and then Sarah Palin came in and became a big superstar. If you watch that skit, it says more about the history, dynamics and very complicated ways we perceive women in power than I’m able to say in the whole book I wrote about it. That’s the power of satire: to distill certain truths and convey them to us in ways that are not only digestible but simple and enjoyable because it’s comedy.
Rebecca Traister is a journalist covering politics and gender for Salon and The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of Big Girls Don’t Cry.
There are a lot of different kinds of satire nowadays. There’s the instant gut-check feedback of Twitter and the broader worldview stuff of The Onion, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which take a more analytical approach. Satire continues to play the traditional role it has for centuries, which is to critique not only the establishment but any sort of authority, often including media. But nowadays it’s also become a release valve for people to work off frustration. People today feel that society is very egalitarian, but at the same time politics and the media seem run by shadowy interests, so satire is a way for people to vent about that. One interesting thing is the live tweet phenomenon, where people watching debates, speeches or live events chime in on them together and riff off each other. The drawback is there’s not really space for much interchange. It’s like having a discussion during a Robert Altman movie, or Thanksgiving with my family, where everyone is talking at the same time.
Rob Kutner is an Emmy Award-winning writer for Conan, who tweets at
Sometimes there are gross oversimplifications, but satire can be a great arrow in the quiver of dissent. Remember Laugh-In? That show was so brave and so funny and so relevant, and honestly, I think it could pat itself on the back for at least a portion of the wave that ended the Vietnam War. You couldn’t say now, on network television, the stuff that they said. And they fought hard with the censors, who used to drink at a bar across the street from the studio. I think they would come away from Laugh-In and just be so exhausted from the struggle of trying to be the censor, that they would just have to go get liquored up. It really was a very courageous show. [But] I always feel really uncomfortable when people say to me, “I get my news from Jon Stewart.” They say it with pride. Not because I don’t think that that’s a funny and great program, but because as a single source, it worries me.
Paula Poundstone is a stand-up comedian, panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, and author of There’s Nothing in this Book That I Meant to Say.
Satire can be a way of expressing the truth in the most blunt and accessible way: You are unrestrained and unburdened by the gravitas of supposedly being objective. It’s an enormously powerful tool. I’ve written many times that Vice President Dick Cheney was Satan, that he was a harvester of souls. I’m exaggerating, of course, but on some level, I’m not. The facade of humor lets you state a truth while not being subject to attack for being unfair. Much of it is deeply entertaining, one-sided and highly cynical, but I think it’s wonderful. I’ve said before: “I’m so liberal that I should be tried for treason and executed.”
Gene Weingarten is a humor columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning feature article writer for The Washington Post.
Politics can be depressing—the level of deception and the lack of new ideas—so the ability to laugh at it makes it more bearable. Whether it’s in memes such as “binders full of women” and “horses and bayonets” or just to call something out in a way that’s funny, satire calls everyone on their bullshit—media, politicians, everyone. It’s not as if satire, or comedic influence in general, is going to radically change someone’s mind. No one says, “Oh, I heard this joke and I’m not a Republican anymore.” At the same time, humor has a new measure of influence in politics. Barack Obama was essentially on a stand-up comedy tour in the final two weeks of the campaign, and jokes were an important part of his stump speech. Because of Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, etc., you see people who aren’t professional comics, with no “formal training,” contribute satirical commentary to a wide audience. During the debates, Twitter became the bleachers with everyone yammering at the same time. It’s a real-time assessment of how people are reacting. In previous eras we had to wait for “official” comics or shows—Letterman, Jay Leno, The Daily Show—to tell us what was or wasn’t funny. But now you can say anything without asking for permission.
Baratunde Thurston was director of digital for The Onion before launching the startup, Cultivated Wit. His book is How To Be Black.
One of the most palatable ways of getting a point across is through humor. People always want to be around the funny person. Once you make them laugh, you’ve disarmed them, and then you go in for the kill. It is such a powerful position to be in. You’re like the orchestra conductor and they’re your orchestra—you’re guiding them. Even though I can’t stand the guy, Mitt Romney had some great jokes at the Al Smith dinner, and I thought, “Oh my God, he’s human.” Before, I thought he was like the annoying boss who everyone dreads, the one who comes into your office and makes stupid jokes that you feel obligated to laugh at. But he poked fun at himself—he beat you to it. How can you not like a person like that? Or at least want to hear more? When you take yourself too seriously, you’re done. When you make someone laugh, you’ve got them in the palm of your hand.
Judy Gold is a stand-up comic and an Emmy Award-winning writer for The Rosie O’Donnell Show.
Television Satire Goes Global ——————————————————————————————————————————-
Television shows that mock government and authority and expose societal foibles have proved to be popular around the world. Israel has Eretz Nehederet [A Wonderful Country], often described as a cross between Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show, which has outraged some viewers with its willingness to turn its lens inward on Israeli citizens. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—the show is extremely popular, especially among young people. Egypt, too, has its own Jon Stewart in the form of dashing heart-surgeon-turned-comic Bassem Youssef who stars in Al Bernameg [The Program], a Daily Show-esque satire. The show, which takes jabs at political leaders and societal conventions, debuted online as The B+ Show in March 2011, in response to the Tahrir Square uprising, and was picked up by the Egyptian television network ONTV later that year. Saudi Arabia has Tash ma Tash [No Big Deal], on the air since 1992, which parodies Saudi culture and has addressed sensitive issues such as terrorism and the place of women in Saudi society. Aired on the government-run network MBC, new episodes run only during the month of Ramadan. Russia had a weekly television show, Kukly [Puppets]— that was on the air from 1994 to 2002 and used puppets to portray and mock Russian figures, particularly political leaders. Any given episode attracted more than half of the nation’s television viewers. Kukly was taken off the air in 2002, after a Vladimir Putin-led state takeover of NTV, the channel that aired Kukly, and the 2000 imprisonment of Vladimir A. Gusinsky, the network’s owner.
What Studies Say About Satire —————————————————————————————————————————————
• Satire does educate audiences: A 2007 Pew Research Center poll shows that regular viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are among the most highly knowledgeable news consumers in the country. Fifty-four percent of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert audiences rank at a high knowledge level about current events, compared with 51 percent for NPR, 41 percent for CNN and 35 percent for Fox News.
• Satire is a major source of news for young people: A Pew Research Center poll found that in 2004 one in five young adults said they learned about current events from satirical news shows such as The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. This is nearly the same number of young people who regularly read daily newspapers or watch nightly network news.
• Satire does affect how viewers perceive candidates: A 2012 study by researchers at the University of Delaware shows that watching The Daily Show influenced viewers’ perceptions of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who was seen to have a strong chance of winning the Republican nomination, but not the presidency.
• Satire may discourage political participation: One 2008 study published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research finds that watching political comedy shows such as The Daily Show or The Colbert Report “may dampen participation by contributing to a sense of alienation from the political process.”