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Political Satire as Old as Politics

  • Deborah Block

President Barack Obama (L) laughs while listening to host Jimmy Fallon on the set of the "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," at NBC Studios in New York, June 8, 2016.

The comic playwright Aristophanes was ridiculing Athenian leaders more than 2,000 years ago in Greece. The "Mother Goose" rhymes of the 1600s were veiled commentary on the social and political events of Tudor England. Benjamin Franklin, one of America's founding fathers, was known for his humorous writings that satirized political issues of the period.

While people can be imprisoned, or even put to death for political satire in some countries, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enacted in 1791, protects it as free speech.

An American tradition

“Political satire has been used throughout American history as a more gentle way of commentary,” says Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. She is the author of a book called A Conservative Walks into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor.

Political satire became popular in the American colonies in the early 1700s, as the colonists fought for independence from Britain. Since many people were illiterate, cartoons provided important commentary against British rule.

From the mid to late 1800’s, editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast criticized the political corruption of “Boss” Tweed and his Tammany Hall political machine that controlled New York’s government.

Boss Tweed depicted by Thomas Nast in a wood engraving published in Harper's Weekly, October 21, 1871
Boss Tweed depicted by Thomas Nast in a wood engraving published in Harper's Weekly, October 21, 1871

During this era, humorist Mark Twain was acknowledged for his wit and satirical humor on issues like slavery.

In the early 20th century, entertainer Will Rogers poked fun at politicians and mounted his own mock political campaign.

Cartoons remained popular in newspaper and magazines in the 20th century, with Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Herb Block leading the way with biting political satire. For more than 70 years, until his death in 2001, Block’s cartoons provided commentary on government policies and scandals including President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

A 1973 Herblock cartoon of President Richard Nixon awash in his office.
A 1973 Herblock cartoon of President Richard Nixon awash in his office.

Political satire became more visible on television starting in the 1960s. Stand-up comedians poked fun at the American political system. Colorful comedian George Carlin was known for taking punches at politicians with lines like “In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem.”

Poking fun at the president

In recent years, political satire has been especially prominent on late-night television. Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, often impersonates President-elect Donald Trump.

“Donald Trump was the target of more jokes than anybody in any other presidential campaign,” says Robert Lichter, a communications professor at George Mason University in Virginia. Lichter collaborated on a book about late-night TV shows called Politics Is a Joke: How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life.

Saturday Night Live, which debuted in 1975, changed the way a president could be portrayed on TV, he says, pointing to comedian Chevy Chase, who did a bumbling impersonation of then-President Gerald Ford by dropping papers and even falling over a Christmas tree.

Jay Leno, host of The Tonight Show for 17 years, from 1992-2009, broadened the appeal of political satire on late-night shows. Other show hosts followed his lead.

In the 1990s, political satire made late-night shows a place where Americans could expect to be entertained and hear the juicy stuff about politicians. “Comedians start to go after scandals, private lives, sex, drinking, subjects that were taboo earlier in television,” Lichter says.

Politicians also came to realize that appearing on these shows was good publicity and helped them get their views heard. “They soon discovered that they could actually go on these shows and show that they were regular guys . They could laugh at themselves,” explains Lichter.

Donald Trump appeared on Saturday Night Live twice, most recently in November, 2015. In recent weeks, however, Trump has been critical of his depiction on that show, tweeting that actor “Alec Baldwin’s portrayal can’t get any worse.” He also called the award-winning show “not funny, unwatchable and totally biased.”

Actor Alec Baldwin portraying President-elect Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live. The general was eager to hear about Trump's “secret plan” to destroy ISIS.
Actor Alec Baldwin portraying President-elect Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live. The general was eager to hear about Trump's “secret plan” to destroy ISIS.

VOA contacted a representative for Saturday Night Live to find out if the show would handle Trump’s portrayal differently once he becomes president, but did not get a response. However, if the past is any indication, SNL will continue producing skits making fun of politicians.

Trump better get used to all the jokes about him, says Alison Dagnes, because “the president is 100 percent of the time the most satirized figure in American politics.”

She notes that political satire is surging on the internet with people emailing videos, photos, cartoons, and political commentary to one another or posting it on social media like Facebook.

In this age of political negativity, Robert Lichter thinks political satire is needed more than ever to make people laugh.

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