Thomas Schaller at Salon.com wrote an article on election day titled “The end of the satirical industrial complex?” in which he predicts that “An Obama era almost certainly promises to be less funny — at least in terms of satire.”
He bases this largely on the instant popularity of Tina Fey’s imitations of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, during a “very unfunny time for America” in which:
U.S. troops are fighting two very different wars in two very different countries, and neither campaign is succeeding as promised. Many Americans are uninsured, left to battle catastrophic illness on their own. Oh, and the American economy is in the crapper.
He goes on to quote James Downey, a writer at SNL and comedian Will Durst on what they perceive will be a difficulty in mocking Obama (Durst: “Until I can say ‘President Homey’ and get away with it, it’s going to be a little tougher.”)
In a way Schaller’s right. If your primary take on a President Barack Obama is that the guy’s skin is a few shades darker than George W. Bush’s hide, and you’re — in Durst’s words — “a white guy” or you’re SNL where the current brand of political humor barely penetrates to the skin-deep, then Obama might pose some challenges.
But the idea that political comedy and satire is about to enter a drought cycle for the next few years is in itself hilarious. And from an historical standpoint, it’s grossly mistaken.
Even if a President Obama was to do absolutely nothing mock-worthy over however long he holds the Oval Office (and here I’m just going along with Schaller’s apparent assumption that there are no funny conservatives who would be mocking Obama for doing something for which Jon Stewart presumably wouldn’t mock him, because I do agree that there are no funny conservatives), even if Obama is completely and miraculously unmockable, there’s a lot going on in the world that’s not going to magically change after Inaguration Day. Just the stuff the Bush administration has done is going to be with us for years; heck, David Letterman was still making Monica Lewinsky jokes on a regular basis in his monologues in 2006! Seven years into Bush’s administration.
But Obama’s going to do plenty of things that people will write jokes about. He’s human.
What really got to me is the utterly ahistorical tone of Schaller’s piece.
Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair and co-founder of the satirical magazine Spy, predicted “the end of the age of irony” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Roger Rosenblatt of Time simultaneously lashed out at “‘the vain stupidity’ of ‘ironists'” according to — and ironically — a 2001 article by David Beers in the very same online publication Schaller’s writing for.
Beers hoped for “a golden age of irony,” recalling the words of writer Randolph Bourne, who died in the 1918 influenza epidemic at 32: “The ironist is ironical, not because he does not care, but because he cares too much.” I don’t think that we’ve gotten the golden age of irony Beers wanted but I’m pretty sure that it hasn’t died off.
Carter, Rosenblatt, and their ilk were, of course, forgetting even their own lived history. The magazine Carter was editing a dozen years before 9/11 had — ironically enough — predicted irony’s overreach with the theme “Isn’t it Ironic?” and a picture of Chevy Chase pulling air quotes on the cover.
But more particularly, the idea that serious times and serious leaders are anathema to irony, satire, and humor in general belies a complete lack of knowledge of precedents. Think back to our American Camelot, with the tousle-haired, war hero, socialite, Pulitzer Prize-winner John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the White House along with his debutante wife and their wonderful children.
In the fall of 1963, the pilot for a new series ran on NBC. Henry Fonda hosted the first episode of That Was The Week That Was (abbreviated TW3), Mike Nichols and Elaine May were guests. Twelve days later President Kennedy was assassinated. Nonetheless, the pilot was picked up and began running in January. Among those who appeared on or contributed to the show were David Frost, Buck Henry, Alan Alda, Gloria Steinem, Calvin Trillin, and Tom Lehrer. It ran for sixteen months. I grew up listening to a collection of Lehrer’s lighthearted songs from the show, which covered the decidedly non-lighthearted topics of racism,
Cold War politics, pretentious folk singers, US militarism, pornography, pollution, nuclear annihilation, nuclear proliferation, and letting ex-Nazis run the space program, among other topics. And that’s just some of the songs from the show, which had plenty of other material, as well.
The same month that TW3 began its regular run, Columbia Pictures released Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, one of the greatest pieces of satire ever produced for American consumption.
Between 1960 and 1963, Nikita Khrushchev had famously pounded his shoe on a table at the UN, an American U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union, Nixon and Kennedy went at it for the Presidency, Eisenhower cut off relations with Cuba, Gagarin became the first man into space, Ike’s Bay of Pigs invasion blew up in JFK’s face, the Freedom Riders started their campaign, James Meredith enrolled at UMiss, the Cuban Missile Crisis came and went, George Wallace promised segregation forever in his inagural speech as governor of Alabama, a US nuclear submarine (Thresher) sank, Martin Luther King wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Bull Conner sicced dogs on African-American marchers there, a nuclear test ban treaty was signed, King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in DC, JFK was killed, and newly-minted President Lyndon Johnson promised more aid to the coup leaders in South Vietnam. Overlaying the whole thing was more than a decade of Cold War tension. You’d think that if there was going to be a somber pall cast over the country — and the world — that would be the time (although things had been seriously worse during the World Wars).
Working through those years of turmoil, Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George put together a crazy-but-plausible tale about the end of the world, in which an Air Force general subscribing to a “purity of essence” philosophy — and worried about the Commies flouridating the water supplies — intentionally triggers a nuclear standoff between the USSR and the US, leading, of course, to the explosion of a Soviet “Doomsday Device” which will make the surface of the Earth uninhabitable for a hundred years and necessitate — in the words of the title character, a former Nazi working in the US government — a group of humans to live at “the bottom of some of our deeper mineshafts.” Ideally, with a “ratio of, say, ten females to each male” to better propogate the species (there’s a logical problem in that assumption, but I’ll let you figure that out).
The idea that comedians, satirists, and ironists are going to be at a loss for material in the upcoming years is itself laughable. The 1960s — a period of assassinations, riots, civil rights struggles, the Vietnam War, and so much more — was a breeding ground for mockery of the government. It didn’t matter that the White House and Congress were controlled by Democrats for most of the decade, political comedy was on the rise. So far as I know, there weren’t any notable LBJ impressionists in the same way that there were of JFK and Richard Nixon, but he still got heat from comedians.
So I’m not particularly worried about not having anything to laugh about over the next four years.
OPE, by the way, was the code programmed into the decoder units of the bombers in Strangelove to authenticate any message to recall them from their targets, the message that Major Kong’s plane didn’t receive.