Political satire dates back to at least the second millennium before Christ. What makes satire so instinctive across the millennia and how politically potent is it?
Satire is a way to combat power, especially when we believe it’s wrong – maybe that’s what makes it instinctive. Political satire can make a point but it can also make people laugh. When a critique of social conditions is coated in humour, that makes it easier to hear and then it relieves the stress of bad times.
That also answers the second part of the question: Is political satire effective? I think it can be very effective. And I think it’s more effective now that we’re all always barraged with information. Everybody’s got a blog, news never stops and it’s hard to get across anything that sticks. In times like these a satirical spin makes something cut through. Information with humour sticks with people longer than straight-up facts. One of the reasons why goes back to the point I made earlier – humour makes it less stressful to process depressing news. If there’s a laugh to it, it’s easier to digest.
What’s the secret recipe for successful satire?
Dash of paprika. No? I’d say the secret is that satire must be based on a genuine emotion. Sometimes, especially if you’re writing for a show, people satirise things they don’t care about. In my view, it’s much better when it comes from the gut. I also think that most of the time it’s better if satire mocks the powerful. Some right-wing comedy goes after healthcare for kids or veterans’ benefits. Really. The reason you haven’t heard it is because it’s less popular, because satire works better when it’s coming from the point-of-view of the exploited.
More young Americans get their news from satirical shows than from straight news programming, according to a Pew Research poll. Shouldn’t that worry us?
I think it’s a response to the fact that we aren’t getting the full story from our mainstream media. People are turning to comedy outlets to fill a void, and find out about issues that aren’t adequately addressed by news outlets. That’s why it worries me.
On the other hand, they are generally getting good information. Also, going to comedy outlets for news makes people think a little more critically. They know that some of it is comedy, but it’s based on truth. They have to think for themselves to figure out what is the truth in the joke. When people consume mainstream media they swallow it whole. They assume that what they’re being told is true – that’s a bad thing. So the fact that young people are getting their news from satirical shows forces them to think more for themselves. I think that’s a good thing for society.
And now for the books. ¡Satiristas!: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians seems like a good place to start. Tell us about this book by stand-up and television comedian Paul Provenza.
Paul Provenza has done many things. He was the director of The Aristocrats, the movie, and he was the host of a cable show called Green Room with Paul Provenza and he’s done a million other things – most of them very good projects. I can’t say enough good things about this book. That may sound egotistical because two pages in the book contain an interview with me. But even if you were to take that out, I still think this is one of the best books written on comedy.
It’s composed of interviews with comedians. For the most part, Paul is not interjecting his own opinions, he’s mainly trying to draw out the opinions of others. In my view, he talks to some of the best comedians of our time – George Carlin and Patton Oswalt and Janeane Garofalo and Billy Connolly. Legendary comedians like the Smothers Brothers. Brilliant satirists like Stephen Colbert and The Onion writers. It groups all of these amazing comics into this book and elicits their view on comedy. No other book has ever accomplished such a feat so honestly. I wish I had had this book to guide me when I was starting out in stand-up 14 years ago.
Now that you’ve read it, what is the cream of the crop? There are 62 interviews in total, including some of my favourites like Judd Apatow, Roseanne Barr, Andy Borowitz, Conan O’Brien, PJ O’Rourke and Robin Williams. What lessons about political satire do you draw from it?
It’s tough to say. One thing you can gain from reading it is that great comedians often have very different views of the world. Paul shows that comedy can come from all angles and all places. Some comedians are trying to get across a message and some aren’t. But pretty much everyone in the book understands the power of comedy.
What is the power of comedy?
I started as an observational comedian, a comedian who makes observations about life but doesn’t make a deeper point. I did that for years, and then I made a transition in my personal life and in my comedy to talking not necessarily about politics but mainly about important world issues – issues that are affecting society. I saw that when I talked about deeper issues people left the show with more than just a good mood, they left with a new understanding, or even if they disagreed with the point I was making, they left with new information.
That’s what I love about comedy. You can speak to a room full of every different type of opinion and they will not only listen but they’ll enjoy themselves too. People that disagree with me leave saying they enjoyed the show. If I were just up there giving a speech and someone disagreed with it they would walk out but with comedy people will pay attention and learn. It’s very powerful in that way. Like I was saying earlier, comedy is a shortcut into people’s minds.
In the book PJ O’Rourke says: “If we set out to change people’s minds it probably won’t work.” Do you agree? How do you walk the line between satire and advocacy?
In terms of the first part of the question, his point that advocacy comedy doesn’t work, I disagree. The reason why goes to the second part of your question. If a comedian is focused solely on influencing an audience, they’ll stop listening. I always remain conscious of keeping the whole room laughing during my stand-up act. That’s been really important to me because I feel like my gift, the thing I’ve worked at for so many years and the thing I’ve always wanted to do is to make people laugh. If I lose the laughter I’m just a speaker, and I’m a mediocre speaker. There are a million other people who could stand up on a soapbox. But as a comedian making a point I’m one of a small group. And if I’m doing it well then I’m near the top of that group that change minds while entertaining people. So I wouldn’t agree. You can definitely set out to change minds. Sometimes it’s going to work and sometimes it’s not.
Two of the comedians interviewed in this book are funded fellows at a libertarian think-tank in Washington, which is bankrolled by oil industry inheritors the Koch brothers, who famously fund Republican causes. Does the subsidisation of satire show that, at least on the right, political actors realise the power of satire?
The right does understand that there is power in comedy. Fox News attempted a comedy show. It didn’t work out. When the punchline entails foreclosure on the family home, it doesn’t sit right with most people, even Fox watchers. The right wing would like to match the left-wing comedy machine but so far it’s failed. Look at what happened to Dennis Miller. I was a huge fan of his stuff in the eighties and nineties. Then he became far right wing and his comedy became angrier and less funny. Now it makes me sad to watch him. Watching someone well-off trash the idea of helping people who are worse off is not funny, to me at least.
Do any left-wing organisations have famous comedians on their payroll?
No organisations as big as the Cato [Institute] but I work a lot with a group called Laughing Liberally. We do live shows and we’ve occasionally been hired by left-wing organisations like the American Prospect or SEIU [Service Employees International Union] to make videos that have a point but are funny. So we’re sometimes hired by left-wing organisations to get a point out, and if we agree with the point we make the video because we feel like we’re doing something good for the country and at the same time making people laugh. And that’s what we’re good at, so I don’t think I have a problem with that.
Next, perhaps the most famous satire since Swift – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. This book is a fixture on “best novels” lists and schoolchildren’s bookshelves. It is so celebrated that a 50th anniversary edition was issued last year. Please give us a précis and tell us why you chose it.
The plot defies summary. It follows Yossarian and his fellow airmen through the war and a series of insane events. It shows the insanity of war – from what the soldiers do day-to-day to the geopolitics. When Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 he was being satirical, but he knew it wasn’t far off from reality. The plot might seem unbelievable but life has imitated art. The United States now funds both sides of the war in Afghanistan – we pay the Taliban millions so that they will let our trucks through so that we can then fight the Taliban. Catch-22 is incredibly funny but it’s also a prophecy.
Normally you read it in high school, but I read it right out of college – it completely changed my view on comedy. It is an intense dark satirical book but at the same time hilarious. It made me think: If I could do something so funny about such dark topics in such a way that it makes people think, that would be a huge accomplishment. It’s probably the book that has had the biggest impact on my comedy.
In response to the news that the US was paying the Taliban to let supply convoys through, you claimed you were starting a movement to move Catch-22 to the non-fiction section of local libraries. How’s that going?
It worked all over the country, naturally! My starting of the movement consisted of announcing it on three videos. I probably personally moved Catch-22 a couple of times. I also moved Dick Cheney’s book to the “true crime” section of a bookstore. It’s a nice legal form of protest.
A collection of writing by Bill Hicks, a comic you’re frequently compared to, is your next selection. One poll of contemporary comedians ranked him as one of the top comics ever. Please tell us about Hicks and Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines.
He was a brilliant comedian. Although he was only moderately known in the US when he died, he’s become a cult figure and he was always better known in the UK, where they still worship him as one of the best comedians who ever lived and who did a lot of great satire and political comedy – very cutting stuff about war and America and commercialism.
Like Catch 22, some of his stuff seems so prophetic. If you watch the clips of the bits he did on the first Iraq war, they apply equally to the second Iraq war. He died before the second Iraq war but he was making jokes about the military or the US saying that we need to attack Saddam because he had weapons of mass destruction. “How do you know?” “Well, we have the receipts.” You feel like if people watched more Bill Hicks maybe it could have kept us out of the second Iraq war. But instead the things he was ranting about in 1990 just got worse. The book is largely his routines written down. It’s great stuff, dark and equally, if not more, applicable today.
John Lahr, who wrote a profile of Hicks for The New Yorker, called him “a disturber of the peace, a bringer of insight”. Are those two key to successful political comedy?
Yeah, I like those two. I think that’s important. Some might argue you don’t want to disturb the peace just to wreak havoc but when everyone accepts the way things are, when people unquestionably go with the flow, it’s usually not good. I think that being disruptive is useful – it can shock people into seeing the world the way it really is.
America (The Book) by Jon Stewart and the staff of the Daily Show is your next selection. I know this book still sells like hotcakes and has even inspired imitations by comedians from other nations, but I’ve never cracked its spine. If I did, what would I find inside?
There’s not much of a political agenda in this book, although I guess the writers are largely on the left, but it’s just fall-off-your-chair funny. They go through the entire history of America and satirise accepted mythology in brilliant fashion. It’s made up like a textbook. It’s so funny it’s almost too much for a book. There are 20 good jokes per page and it’s 400 pages long. By the time you make your way through you’ll be in awe of the ability of the writers.
The Daily Show is now almost a required stop on the American presidential campaign trail – in 2008 both McCain and Obama made appearances. Is this a surrender to satire?
I do think it’s an acknowledgement of the power of comedy and an acknowledgement of how many people turn to comedy shows to get educated about current events. Politicians want to be seen by people that are turning to the Comedy Channel for their news so they go on The Daily Show. Jon Stewart sometimes will take on these elected officials harder than you’ll ever see on a regular newscast. That’s another reason people tune in.
The Scottish newspaper The Herald compared you to Jon Stewart, “but with sharper teeth”. Do you see yourself in his image? Why do you think it’s important to have sharp teeth in satire – or do you?
In satire you have to go after your target full-on. I feel like soft satire falls short of funny. You really gotta cut deep. But I’m not modelling myself after Stewart – I actually think we’re very different. The only thing that’s similar about us is we’re both left-wing comedians. My tone and my outlook on the world is different but we live in a world that doesn’t have much satirical political comedy out there. Left-wing political comedians get compared to one another because there aren’t that many of us. But I can’t say I dislike the comparison. I love getting compared to Stewart or Hicks.
The Yes Men, Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, are the authors of the next book you selected. Before we get to it, please brief us on the real identity of this activist duo.
They are a prank group. They prank corporations in such a way that the corporations are forced to address the prank. A good example is a year ago they issued an authentic sounding press release announcing that General Electric would be giving back their billions of dollars in tax refunds to the government because General Electric is hugely profitable so didn’t need this huge tax refund. The media thought it was real – the Associated Press reported, “General Electric to return tax refund,” which forced GE to say, “Hey, that great thing you heard we were going to do, we’re definitely not doing it.” Another good example was the Yes Men announced that Dow Chemical would be paying the victims of the Bhopal chemical spill. Dow then had to come forward and say, “No, we’re not paying the victims who had their lives destroyed.”
The Yes Men do the best guerrilla satire. Andy [the alter ego of Jacques Servin] pretended he was a Dow Chemical representative. The idea of satire is taking the reverse point of view of what you actually believe. Like when the Republicans vetoed child healthcare, I said: “I agree because children are fucking annoying and we don’t need more of them around.” When Andy addresses the world as a Dow Chemical employee on TV, he’s living out a satirical role – I think it’s brilliant.
This book is basically this history of an elaborate prank involving the World Trade Organisation. Tell us about the book.
The book follows some of their pranks – I believe more than just that one. They were invited to speak at the World Trade Organisation so they went and announced they had a new business model for basically enslaving human beings. The businessmen they presented to were not horrified – some of them actually wanted the Yes Men to come and speak at their events.
They made the prank into not only a book but also a movie. You distribute some of your satirical work through video and podcasts and the pieces that comprise your recent comedy album, Chaos for the Weary, are available for sale as MP3s. It seems the outlets and formats for satire have multiplied since the age of Heller. Do you agree?
Yes, there are lots of ways to get material out now. That takes away the gatekeepers. I can do my podcast and nobody tells me what to do, what to say, how to say it. If I choose not to have advertisers, I have nobody paying me to have a certain point of view. The gatekeepers are gone. If you want to watch my stuff, you can just come to leecamp.net and see it. There’s no need to kowtow to big corporations and corporate media channels.
The unfortunate side is that it’s difficult for most podcasters to make a living. I may never be allowed to do my comedy on one of the late-night television shows, or at least I haven’t so far, because the topics I’m talking about are not safe territory. They want humour that’s easy to digest – they don’t want to offend anyone. If I was living in the seventies or eighties, TV would be my only way to reach people, other than live performance. Nowadays I can do what I do and still reach people around the country and around the world. And I can still make a meagre living.
Speaking of political punking, conservative prankster/political activist James O’Keefe has followed in the Yes Men’s footsteps, posing as a pimp in a meeting with a Planned Parenthood counsellor. His work was incubated in conservative “leadership institutes”. And he established a tax-exempt organisation to fund his work. Is political punking the same as satire? Should it be tax-exempt?
There’s a huge difference between O’Keefe and the Yes Men. O’Keefe took the videos of him going into ACORN [Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now] offices, as an example, and edited them in a misleading way. In one an ACORN employee humoured O’Keefe while he was posing as a pimp, but immediately after called the cops and tried to get him arrested. They have phone records showing he called the cops. O’Keefe leaves out that part of the story. What he does isn’t satire, it’s serial misrepresentation of organisations he disagrees with. That’s a huge difference. The Yes Men use true facts.
In 2000, George W Bush responded to a question about the Yes Men’s satirical campaign website by suggesting that “there ought to be limits to freedom”. What is the most idiotic response you’ve had from subjects of your work?
I frequently get people who say, “You shouldn’t say some of those things because they may upset people" — suggesting that if I really want to be successful I should only talk about things that everybody agrees on. I’d rather say the truth in my opinion and hope to have an effect on the people that are listening than be loved by everyone in the country. Watering down my comedy for mass consumption doesn’t interest me.
You began releasing the pieces that comprise your new book before the Occupy Wall Street began but it certainly seems to capture the OWS spirit. Tell us about your Moment of Clarity.
Moment of Clarity is a compilation of my three-minute video rants. People around the world can view the web series – I get emails from Japan and England and Australia from people who feel the same way about corporate pillaging. Now I’m reaching readers through the book.
I started the web videos in February of last year and I talked about a lot of things that Occupy eventually brought to the national spotlight. In June of last year, David Degraw, who helped create Occupy through his writings, asked me to make a video promoting a move-your-money-from-the-big-banks occupation. They tried again in September and that was the beginning of Occupy. I was lucky to be involved in the early stages. When Occupy really started in September I was able to bring my blend of comedy and activism to Wall Street and DC and Chicago and Montreal and all across North America. It’s been really fun. While the crowd might already agree with me, they’re occupying a square so they’re really in need of entertainment. So I got to help keep people jazzed up and ready to fight.
What’s the funniest thing you’ve learned by participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement?
That you can be pepper-sprayed for sitting still.
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