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Satire Thrives in Times of Political Uncertainty

  • VOA Staff

A man dressed in American flag clothes holds a "Make America Great Again" hat before a campaign rally at the Ladd–Peebles Stadium, Dec. 17, 2016, in Mobile, Alabama. Comedians the world over thrive on slogans and this one has not remained unscathed.

U.S. President Donald Trump declared in his inauguration speech January 20, "From this day forward, it's gonna be only America first! America first!"

At the time, he probably had no idea he was touching off a viral video sensation that would inspire people in countries around the world to mock not only him, but their own countries.

A talk show host in the Netherlands started it. Comedian Arjen Lubach aired a video on his talk show extolling the virtues of the Netherlands in a bid for runner-up. It is narrated in English by Dutch-American actor Greg Shapiro, who imitates Trump's voice.

"We speak Dutch," the video says. "It's the best language in Europe. We've got all the best words. All the other languages failed." The video also calls the Spanish "total scumbags," describes a dike designed to protect the sea-level nation from flooding as "a great, great wall," and labels its banking system "the best tax-evasion system in the world."

The video's tagline: "We totally understand it's going to be America first. But can we just say the Netherlands second? Is that OK?"

Soon, German talk-show host Jan Boehmermann produced a similar video and challenged talk-show hosts in other countries to do the same. The German video called the Dutch "bad people" and touts the German tradition of Oktoberfest as "the best beer festival God ever created."

At Boehmermann's instigation, the trend became an organized contest called "Every Second Counts" and grew to include more than two dozen entrants. Non-eligible groups produced videos as well, notably one claiming to be produced by inhabitants of Mars who warn that Trump may trigger nuclear disaster. The tagline: "So, we know it's America first. But if America blows up -- second America on Mars?"

FILE - Saturday Night Live Weekend Update's Colin Jost (left) and Michael Che are seen at a T-Mobile event in Las Vegas, Nevada, Jan. 5, 2017. Saturday Night Live has seen its ratings soar during the presidential campaign as well as after the election.
FILE - Saturday Night Live Weekend Update's Colin Jost (left) and Michael Che are seen at a T-Mobile event in Las Vegas, Nevada, Jan. 5, 2017. Saturday Night Live has seen its ratings soar during the presidential campaign as well as after the election.

Rising ratings

In the United States, political satire has been growing in popularity since the Trump administration took office, with the live comedy-sketch program Saturday Night Live enjoying its most-viewed season in 22 years. On the show, popular comedians have mocked President Trump, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, among others.

Talk show host Stephen Colbert, whose The Late Show with Stephen Colbert specializes in political satire, has enjoyed five straight weeks of ratings success over his competitor Jimmy Fallon, who hosts the long-running Tonight Show.

Fallon has been criticized for being too easy on Trump, while Colbert has skewered the president and his administration, recently mocking Trump's use of the word "bloodbath" to quip that the new Republican health care plan "does not cover bloodbaths."

That the United States' polarizing new leader has inspired a surge of satire is not surprising to Sophia McClennen.

"Satirical mockery, political comedy, and 'laughtivism' are some of the most powerful weapons in our anti-Trump arsenal," wrote the professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University, in Salon last month. She said satire always emerges in times of political crisis because it helps expose untruths and combat a culture of fear.

FILE - Late Show host Stephen Colbert records a skit on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 17, 2016. Colbert is known to use his show to regularly roast President Donald Trump and members of his administration.
FILE - Late Show host Stephen Colbert records a skit on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 17, 2016. Colbert is known to use his show to regularly roast President Donald Trump and members of his administration.

Getting to know the players

Katie Hayes, editor of the student newspaper The Montage at St. Louis Community College in Missouri, wrote on February 22 that satire not only provides a pressure-release valve, it also helps to educate.

"People pay attention when you make them laugh," Hayes said. "Since Saturday Night Live has begun impersonating key players in our government, Americans are able to identify them."

A good example is Steve Bannon, the controversial right-wing figure who serves as the president's chief strategist. He has been portrayed on SNL as the skeletal figure of Death, silently peering over the president's shoulder in the Oval Office.

Kellyanne Conway, a presidential aide who was recently photographed kneeling on a couch in the Oval Office, was skewered on SNL by comedian Kate McKinnon kneeling on a couch on the sidelines of various skits.

Comedy also allows for the expression of dissent.

Christopher Irving, a humanities instructor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, said the primary reason for the surge in comic portrayals of current U.S. politics "might stem from the simple desire to be involved in the discussion about how well or how poorly [President Trump] is doing the job. The alternating current produced by a joke carries much farther than a bitingly critical observation, regardless of the medium."

Comedy for change?

Comic performers in Washington, D.C., are certainly having a satiric field day this year.

Robert Teachout, president of the political revue group Hexagon, says a Conway sketch may figure in this year's annual show, with an actress explaining Trump's actions through a popular 1960s doo-wop song. The show opens on Saturday and promises plenty of jokes about the president, Congress and current events.

FILE - Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon is seen during a recording of one of his shows in New York City, Sept. 16, 2017. Fallon, too, has taken on politicians but is seen as softer compared to some of his competitors.
FILE - Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon is seen during a recording of one of his shows in New York City, Sept. 16, 2017. Fallon, too, has taken on politicians but is seen as softer compared to some of his competitors.

"The best comedy is found in truth," Teachout says. "One of the songs I wrote is called It Doesn't Matter.... The whole premise of the song is how facts don't matter anymore in Trump's world.... I made the last line poignant, rather than funny, because these are serious times we're living in. You have to make some light of it to get by."

An ongoing question: Do these jokes have any power to effect change in the current political climate?

Mary Dalton, professor of communication, film studies, and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University, is co-editor of the book The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed.

"Satire is not just making fun of something, it's a way of pointing out what's wrong with a desire to lead to change as a correction," she said. She acknowledges that comedy is not the most direct method to effect change, but says, "If you lay the foundation for something, if you drive the message home often enough, sometimes things click into place."

Stress relief

Ken Rynne is a Washington, D.C., comic who runs a small satire outfit called Planet Washington. He writes and performs his own musical comedy shows. He calls the Trump administration "the new abnormal."

Rynne is vocal on social media about his opposition to many policies and people associated with the Trump administration. But at the end of the day, he says, his decision to leave a higher-paying job to skewer people in the political world - a transition he calls "my rags from riches story" - boils down to the most immediate results: stress relief, and fun.

"There's nothing that beats making people laugh," he said. Whatever the political leanings of his audience, Rynne says, "you should leave the show lighter than you came."

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