Public Service Announcement: If by some chance you actually haven’t seen “Melanianade” yet, here ya go. Go ahead and watch it. I’ll wait.
I first became attuned to political satire after 9/11. I remember searching for the Saturday Night Live video of a comedian playing George W. Bush telling Osama bin Laden “You screwed up, buddy,” because “you messed with Texas” after hearing my friend Seth describe the sketch. I was vaguely aware that SNL mocked politicians (and that they were equal opportunity mockers) and was wondering how they were managing to approach a national tragedy as a comedy show. (I thought they walked the line incredibly well, but I suppose that’s no surprise. SNL has, throughout its history, been written by very, very smart people.) Of course, I never got to see these political sketches as they were actually airing, because I am way too old and lame to stay awake that night, and that was also true when I was twenty.
Backing up for a minute, though – it was not actually SNL that started my love affair with political comedy. It was this man: my favorite comedian of all time and longest-running crush, the incomparable Jon Stewart. There was a period in my life when I got 100% of my news from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and that period coincided with me being better informed about the political process and our governance than I ever have been before and since. I mean, who can resist the patented Jon Stewart Smirk? You know the one, where he’s just reported some crazy but true news item about rampant Congressional stupidity, and he turns his face to the camera and gives a look as if sharing a private joke with his viewers, asking them, you find this as ludicrous as I do, right?
That’s the one. And also this:
(Please excuse my present tense when writing about Jon. I’m still in the denial stage of grieving his decision to leave The Daily Show.) Of course, one can’t talk about Jon Stewart without also talking about his counterpoint and foil:
Steven Colbert, who I adore almost as much as Jon Stewart. The days when The Colbert Report immediately followed The Daily Show on Comedy Central really were the golden days of political satire. I don’t care what the Greek philosophers would say to that. It’s the truth.
These are scary times that we are living in. We’ve been buffeted by hateful rhetoric for months, listening to a candidate for the highest office in our country spew sickening comments about women, immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims, the disabled, and basically every group of people other than his immediate family. We’ve watched hate crime after hate crime unfold in a twenty-four hour news cycle – mass murders at nightclubs and churches, and death after death of unarmed black men, women and children at the hands of out-of-control renegade police and angry vigilantes. From early in this Presidential election cycle, there were comparisons with Adolf Hitler’s rise, and those comparisons started looking more and more apt as time went on and we all started to fray at the seams. And now the worst has happened and we are left to wonder – what went wrong, did I do enough to prevent it, and how on Earth am I going to explain this to my daughter?
We have reason to worry about the behavior that was exhibited in political rallies, about the tightening of restrictive voter laws, about the fact that rampant hate and bigotry was elected last night. I can’t fault anyone who grabs for a life raft in these stormy seas. And this is the life raft that I am grabbing for – that I always grab for – satire and parody.
You may say, Jac, it’s just comedy. But it’s not – it’s more than that. The people who mic up and go into battle, eyes blazing, against the forces of absurdity are performing a necessary public service. They are fighting for America and Americans using the most basic of liberties: the First Amendment. They are proving that we are still a democracy, and we will be a democracy as long as they are around. Because when we lose the right to make fun of our Presidential candidates’ hair, we lose our humanity.
No, I mean that. I am completely sincere when I say that the right to laugh at Alec Baldwin in a Donald Trump wig, to wipe tears of mirth as Cecily Strong sings “You’d just be that guy with the weird hair” and then declares “I wrote that all by myself!” in Melanianade, to giggle at Kate McKinnon as she assumes the roles of both Hillary Clinton and Kellyanne Conway – these are fundamental American rights, as important to our democracy as anything else. And I believe that the fact that we can do this, laugh and mock and point out the ridiculousness – this makes us strong.
Donald Trump has, unsurprisingly, laid into SNL for its portrayals of him and his campaign. Trump has proven again and again that he can’t take a joke, that he doesn’t recognize the importance of parody and satire in our discourse, and I believe that is the tendency that would cause him to try to strip away our American freedoms one by one. Contrast this with Sarah Palin, who threw her hands up in the air, did a “raise the roof” move and busted out an admirable duck face when Amy Poehler rapped “All the mavericks in the house put ya hands up!” in 2008. I was not a fan of Sarah Palin in 2008, and I’m not a fan now, but there’s a difference there, and I gained some respect for Palin when I saw the sporting way in which she sat and laughed along as Poehler teased her in rhyme. Yo yo, my name is Sarah Palin and you all know me, V.P. nominee of the GOP… McCain got experience, McCain got style, just don’t let him creep you out when he tries to smile. ‘Cause that smile be creepy! But when I’m V.P. all the leaders of the world gonna finally meet meeeeeeee! (And who could forget my favorite line from the Palin rap: My husband Todd lookin’ fine on his snow machine.”) But it’s not just about being a good sport. It’s about sending a message: This is part of our political tradition, and I understand that. If I’m elected, you can make fun of me all you want – you can even point and laugh – without fear that you’re going to be thrown in prison or shot. Because this is America and that’s not who we are.
Satire and parody. These are weapons to expose the soft underbelly of politics, and all its attendant ridiculousness. Satirists such as Jon Stewart also eviscerate the mainstream media for its flaws, and in that way, they preserve a tradition of robust debate that dates back to the founding of our country. (Wouldn’t A. Ham be proud?) These are the reasons why it is important to keep political satire alive and well.
Some may say that promoting comedians to a role on the front lines of preserving our freedoms assigns them too much responsibility and importance. I disagree. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate their importance to our democratic discourse, to our freedom to debate and disagree. And they keep me optimistic that we’re going to be okay, in the end. As long as Alexandra Petri is skewering Washington insiders in the pages of the Post, as long as Seth Myers is ripping into the collective insanity that has gripped one of our major political parties, as long as the Harry Potter Alliance is selling “Granger / Lovegood 2016” tote bags for those who want to vote third party… I can have some hope that we’re still America and we’re going to be okay. We can’t be a dictatorship, we won’t be a dictatorship, as long as someone like Kate McKinnon can poke fun at the ruling elite and do it with impunity and without fear. The political comedians and comediennes are shielding the rest of us with their audacity.
Jon Stewart. Steven Colbert. Tina Fey. Amy Poehler. Seth Myers. Kate McKinnon. Emily Blunt. Cecily Strong. Alexandra Petri. They are our laugh warriors, keeping us free.