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Beyond a Joke: Is Political Satire Dead? Or Have We Found a Pulse?  

When the truth is already a joke, what’s left to joke about? Rolling Stone's James Shackell dives into the rise and rise of political satire.

The day reality jumped the shark, some say, was November 7th 2020, when former New York mayor and Trump lawyer/fixer Rudy Giuliani faced the waiting cameras in front of a small business called Four Seasons Total Landscaping in northeast Philadelphia, just down the road from a sex shop and a crematorium (two separate businesses, it should be stressed). 

Sandwiched between mask-wearing heavies, Giuliani grimaced slightly as he approached the mic, teeth sucked back into his head, hair dye gently oozing, perhaps aware of the absolute ridiculousness of what was happening. Clearly some campaign peon had been told to book Philadelphia’s luxury Four Seasons Hotel, rather than a local gardening business. They knew they fucked up. The media knew they fucked up. They knew the media knew they fucked up. But Trump’s team soldiered on anyway, studiously avoiding any mention of the surrounds, as if the garage door of Four Seasons Total Landscaping was a totally normal place for a presidential press conference. And their refusal to acknowledge the mistake somehow made the mistake even more absurd. Almost beautiful. 

This is a thing that happened. You very specifically couldn’t make this shit up. One journalist likened the whole event to Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, ranting from his golf cart under a giant umbrella in 2011. It was one of those moments when reality felt unhinged, like a glitch in the universe’s normal programming.

It was also a challenge for the world’s political comedians. How do you actually make fun of something so obviously funny? When the truth is already a joke, what’s left to joke about? And it started people thinking: where do comedians even go from here? Is political satire, for want of a better word, dead?  

“At the time, during the Trump years, people were saying satire is dead, but those were actually our salad days,” says Charles Firth, co-founder of Australia’s satirical news engine, The Chaser. “To an extent, the comedy wrote itself. It was like how satire under the Soviet Union became the dominant form of social critique. The actual grim reality of what was happening was so awful, it had to be couched in something that would make it fun.” 

Charles’ colleague and fellow Chaser co-founder, Dom Knight, nods in agreement. “With Trump, I always thought it was like that Al Franken book, The Truth (With Jokes),” he says. “Comedy under Trump was simply saying what happened today, with some jokes off the back of it. The invention became closer to reality than it would usually be, maybe, but satire wasn’t dead. It was the dominant narrative. More of a smorgasbord than a drought.” 

Knight and Firth cut their comedic teeth in the late Nineties and early Noughties, when The Chaser was just gaining traction. In those days, George Bush was the obvious target. Ridiculous in his own way, maybe — a bumbling, wind-up toy — but still recognisably human. Just. “Here’s what happened, in technical terms,” Firth says. “Comedy always relies on having a straight person, and it flipped under Trump. With George Bush, he was always trying to be serious and intelligent. He was the straight man. But Trump was the wacky guy, so the satire had to be straight. That’s where the comedy was created. Comedy is the distance between the straight and the absurd.” 

Knight agrees. Modern satire might be less invention and more straight-up reportage with jokes attached, or following some nut-job policy through to its logical conclusion, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t thriving, or funny. 

“The beauty of satire is that it lets you mask your self-righteousness with humour,” he says. “In the Noughties, the war in Iraq was one that really got us worked up. The justifications for that war were so sketchy, and we were being told all these things that just seemed wrong. So satire let us express that frustration without lecturing people. You saw it with Colbert under Trump, and ditto John Stewart under Bush. Those guys came back night after night razor sharp, because they had so much stuff to work with.” 

Trump is the name that looms large over the whole satire-is-dead debate. Depending on who you ask, he either marks the demise or the rejuvenation of political comedy. Maybe both. Certainly late-night liberal talk shows blossomed under his reign, in the same way that political cartoonists made hay under the Soviet sun. On the other hand, he was a tricky, fast-moving target. You couldn’t joke about him, at least not in the normal way, because he was so clearly already a joke. 

Still, he’s the orange face that launched a thousand careers. British comedian Tom Walker — AKA fictional journalist Jonathan Pie — is one of them. 

Walker first came to most of the world’s attention in 2016, right after Trump’s victory over Clinton, as a spoof TV journalist (Pie) explaining to his long-suffering cameramen (Tim) why this horrible thing had just happened. “Hillary Clinton… what were the Democrats thinking?” he moans in the clip. “Don’t get me wrong, I wanted Hillary to win. I would have personally voted for Lucifer over Donald Trump. Trump: the pussy grabbing, wall building, climate change denying, health care abolishing, tax dodging, shit spewing demagogue. How shit do you have to be to lose to that?” 

Pie is Walker’s creation. His alter ego. He’s what happens (or what we like to imagine happens) when the news cameras stop rolling. It’s as if all the simmering anger and indignation and disappointment of an entire country — at least that half of the country that gives a shit about things like affordable healthcare, moral decency and human children getting food — were funnelled into the mouth of one man. The result is a high-pressure stream of superheated political napalm. 

“Trump and Brexit, I guess I have to thank them for my career,” Walker says. “That video after Trump won really went global. I was obsessed with him for about a year; we’d never seen a politician like that in the English-speaking world before. He was actually very difficult to satirise, because he’s mad. He was so larger than life, such a caricature of himself, that you couldn’t exaggerate. So you ended up going, ‘Here are some shit tweets that he’s written. Look, he can’t spell’.” 

Walker’s carefully scripted diatribes on YouTube eventually caught the attention of The New York Times, who made him (well, Jonathan Pie) their ‘UK Correspondent’. A very angry correspondent, it has to be said. The underlying emotion behind Pie’s comedy seems to be rage. He’s just really, really, sincerely, honestly pissed off. Pissed the fuck off. Pissed off at conservative politicians for blatant corruption and lies and incompetence without consequence, and pissed off at liberals for letting them get away with it. This is scorched earth satire. Not even bacteria are meant to survive. 

“I think Pie is definitely left wing,” Walker says, “but what makes him angrier than right-wingers being cunts, because he’s used to that, is when the left becomes awful at making arguments, and winning elections. When the left fucks up, that gets him mad. The reason Trump won that election — he was a terrible candidate, I mean fucking awful — but Hillary was worse. And that’s definitely true, because Trump won the fucking election.”

As a comedian, when you sit in the centre, you effectively double your targets. But you also double your critics. This doesn’t matter to Walker. He seems to be genuinely curious about opposing political views, in the same way that scientists are curious about unsolved natural phenomena. His satire is driven by one question: why?. Why do you think that way? What makes you say those things? Can I persuade you to see another point of view, or — the horror — can you show me what I’m getting wrong? 

“I did a documentary about Trump in the midterms,” Walker says, “and I met loads of Trump supporters for real. And I was amazed by how smart many of them were, how up on policy. And most of them were saying, ‘My god, he’s such a dick, but he’s the best candidate we’ve ever had’. I copped a lot of flak for that documentary; people saying I’m a Trump apologist, and so on. But all I really want us to do is get back to a reasonable political discourse.”

Satire’s traditional goal is exposure and ridicule, not reconciliation, but still there’s an optimism behind Walker’s white-hot political comedy, buried way, way down. Maybe that’s true of all comedy. “People think satire is cynical,” Dom Knight says, “but it’s not. Cynicism means you give up, but satire actually comes from this massively idealistic place. You think a better world is possible. Even though it never is. You keep punching up. In hope.” 

Let’s play a game. Here are some newspaper headlines. Your job is to decide which are real and which are made-up, satirical bullshit.

“Pennsylvania representative re-elected despite being dead.”

“Republican who shouted ‘Heil Hitler’ apologises by saying she actually meant to say ‘Mein Fuhrer’” 

“White House threatens to fire anyone who tries to quit.” 

“A cat has been appointed mayor of an Italian town and will remain in office for a year.” 

We’ll stop you there. They’re all real headlines. You can find them on popular subreddit r/nottheonion, which gathers real-world news so ridiculous that it sounds unreal. The name comes from the infamous satirical newspaper, The Onion, which, like The Chaser, has been specialising in ‘fake news’ for a long time. But then fake news went mainstream, and everything got more complicated. How do you lampoon reality when reality becomes ridiculous?  

“Satire gets harder as things get crazier”

“Satire gets harder as things get crazier,” admits political cartoonist, Cathy Wilcox, President of the Australian Cartoonist Association and resident scribbler for the Sydney Morning Herald, “and the thing that vexes me most, which I suppose has grown since the Trump era, is questioning the media, questioning the truth. When there’s a lot of people out there believing an alternative narrative, it’s actually quite disturbing. That’s the hardest thing we’re dealing with in satire at the moment. We’re not all coming from the same perspective of reality.”

This might be Trump’s biggest contribution to comedy, in the long run. Throughout history, even in the dark times, satirists could rely on most people subscribing to the same reality channel. But not anymore. If you’re making a joke about something half the country thinks isn’t true, or even real, it’s pretty hard to find the funny side. It’s like two teams are playing football, but only one acknowledges the rules.  

You can see this change reflected in the evolution of satirical news sites, like The Onion. Early articles might have tended towards witticisms and wordplay (“Jurisprudence fetishist gets off on a technicality” from 1998 is a good one, or “Supreme Court rules Supreme Court rules”), but modern-day satirical headlines feel less satirical and more… well, real. The joke has become: here’s a thing that is happening right now. Seriously, just look at it. We’re not making this up. 

There are examples everywhere. “World’s richest man begs Twitter users to cough up some cash”, (The Chaser, November 2022). “‘Cancel culture is out of control’, complains man who regularly murders people for having opinions he doesn’t like”, (The Chaser again, neatly skewering Putin, July 2022). Or The Onion’s most famous recurring headline, wheeled out every time there’s a school shooting in America: “‘No way to prevent this’, says only nation where this regularly happens.” 

We saw it again after the 2022 US midterm elections, when Democrat John Fetterman sensationally beat Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz to take out the Pennsylvania senate seat. In the wake of the result, Fox News commentator Steve Doocy, in the tones of one who has crunched the numbers and can finally reveal the surprising sum of two and two, put it this way: “When it comes to the state of Pennsylvania, why did Dr. Oz lose? Well it looks like, according to the exit polling, it’s because Fetterman won!” This was such a face-slappingly stupid thing to say, and say sincerely, that late-night hosts Steven Colbert and Seth Meyers didn’t even bother to satirise it. They just played the clip and smiled. Reality had done the work for them. 

“It’s a weirdly therapeutic role we play these days,” Wilcox says. “People need to know, am I crazy, or do other people see things this way too? As a cartoonist, you have a responsibility to capture reality, to hold it up to the light, even if it’s just going, ‘Did he really say that?’”

Walker says his comedy operates in the same way. It’s an outlet for people who feel the world is broken and wrong, but can’t quite express that feeling in words. “I’m not going to reveal great truths that have never been revealed. This isn’t 1984,” he says. “Like with Boris Johnson, there’s nothing to expose. We all know, the electorate already knows, he’s a liar. But what I can do is articulate what people are feeling. Their frustration about his lies. And I think that’s a valid thing.”

The whole satire-is-dead argument might seem kind of pointless — the fact there are all these very successful political satirists around suggests a pulse, at least. But maybe satire has changed. And analysing that change is important. Because political commentary isn’t just laughing at our tyrannical overlords; it’s actually a barometer for society. How free is your speech, really? Can the powerful be held to account, or at least mocked without fear? Why don’t we pay more attention to corruption and hypocrisy? When the gulags start filling up with political cartoonists, that’s usually a good sign you’re next.

“Satire is the ultimate indicator of the state of your democracy,” Wilcox says. “If you can criticise not just politics but the powerful. When you don’t see satire going on, or when it’s forced to go underground, that’s a sign that you either don’t have a democracy, or that it’s on its knees.” 

Most of the world isn’t at that point, yet, but given the general state of things, it’s hard to argue we’re sliding in the right direction. “It’s certainly true we’ve seen a lot of progress, in terms of battles won,” says Knight, “but are we moving away from a world run by rich powerful white men? Not at all. But politics and comedy are two different things.”

What Knight’s getting at is this: the worse things are, the better the comedy tends to be. That’s been true in most civilizations throughout history (only in the most hardcore police states does comedy tend to wither and atrophy completely). If that’s true, and given the way the world’s trending right now, political satire isn’t dead at all. In fact it’s probably entering its golden age. Every silver lining has its cloud. 

“The world seems to be in a dark place right now, maybe even darker than when we started in 1999,” Knight says, “but that’s actually the perfect breeding ground for political comedy. They’re the inverse of each other. If the world became peaceful and happy tomorrow, we’d be out of a job.”

Firth grins, but there’s not much humour in it. “Let’s hope the rot continues for a while.” 

Rewind to that strange day. November 7th 2020. Standing in front of Four Seasons Total Landscaping, halfway through his rambling screed about poll watcher manipulation, Rudy Giuliani was interrupted by a reporter, who announced that all the networks were now calling it: Biden had won the election. Giuliani looked to the heavens ironically, arms outstretched, sweating like some monstrous ham. “All the, oh my goodness, all the networks. Wow! All the networks! Come on. Don’t be ridiculous.” 

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