Art by Peau Porotesano
Envision a Sunday morning where the official Twitter account for the President of the United States has remained mysteriously inactive. The world waits with bated breath until, suddenly, an answer to the silence. Out of the 140-character void rings the proclamation that “’Saturday Night Live’ is the worst of NBC. Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television” President Trump’s reaction has just given credence to the words of a comedy variety show, demonstrating satire’s purpose as providing voice to the opposition through humor.
Political satire in American politics has a long and dynamic history, beginning with European satirical tastes until “19th century America itself was beginning to establish its own unique satirical tradition,” according to the article, “Satire and Politics—A Rich History,” published on Jan. 27, 2016 by EBSCO Post. American satirists “found their voice during the Civil War, when they deployed satire to both comment on the unfolding events … and also to provide the popular reading audience with some much-needed levity during such violent times.”Political satire allows two important processes to occur. Firstly, satire provides a sounding board for dissenting political voices. Secondly, satire promotes humor in difficult situations. In today’s political climate, with a sharply divided population and a widely felt sense of distrust, satire remains a vital segment of political discourse.
In fact, even the Supreme Court has historically supported the role of political satire in public discourse. Take, for example, the case of Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, in which a television personality and minister was negatively satirized in a pornographic magazine attempted to claim damages to his mental health. In a decision protecting satire to this day, “The Court emphasized the political importance of such satire,” according to Donald E. Lively and Russell L. Weaver’s book, “Contemporary Supreme Court Cases: Landmark Decisions Since Roe v. Wade,” published 2006. Although negative interpretations are “as welcome as a bee sting” to the person being portrayed, they have the important effect of giving voice to the opposition.
Additionally, this satirical voice is being widely heard. A surprising 6 percent of 18-to 29-year-olds use shows based in political satire as their primary source of information according to a study from the Pew Research Center titled, “About a third of 18- to 29-year-olds name social media as most helpful type of source for learning about the 2016 presidential election,” published Feb. 3, 2016. Additionally, 35 percent of the same demographic receives their news from social media, where jokes and clips of these very shows are spread.
President Trump has proven the impact satire can have by consistently responding to jokes made at his expense. There have been a number of other tweets written in anger about these political sketches. Reports have surfaced that President Trump was unhappy with Press Secretary Sean Spicer being portrayed by Melissa McCarthy and “was especially upset by a sketch that cast White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon as the Grim Reaper manipulating the president,” according to Ashley Parker and Phillip Rucker’s article, “Upheaval is now standard operating procedure inside the White House,” published Feb. 13, 2017 by the Washington Post.
Political satire is an important component of public discussion, giving voice to opposition while providing a sense of humor in an intensely divided political climate. Let us continue to engage with politics with our wit firmly in hand and listen for the potential indication of reality behind the laughter.
Follow Ryan Opton on Twitter @ryanopton