I am amazed by the success of Stephen Colbert. I never would have thought that people would “get” political parody. This impression was born of experience. Maybe that’s because the victims, er, audience, of my political satire were generally less self-selecting than people who tune in to a show on Comedy Central.
Influenced by Mad Magazine, Saturday Night Live, Monty Python and the Firesign Theater, I grew up loving satire. I also grew up to be a political activist. I imagined myself creating edgy political skits for Saturday Night Live. Throughout the 1990s, I recorded satirical audio and video pieces that I would send out to alternative radio and public access TV stations.
This video, Stuck Between Iraq and a Hard Place, was featured on Deep Dish TV’s Gulf Crisis TV Project.
Here Comes The Emir was its companion piece, recorded at the start of the 1991 Gulf War. Here is the written text of both videos. I produced ‘zines…and drew political and other cartoons poking fun at society.
I also sought out like-minded people for street theater and political pranks.
One of my first forays into organized political satire came in 1990 when I joined the Washington DC Pledge of Resistance. We produced parody issues of USA Today, which we called USA DECAY.
They were 2-sided full sized newsprints that groups across the country wrapped over actual issues of USA Today. It was difficult to know whether people who took the fake paper out of kiosks got the joke. USA Today didn’t seem to get it – they sent us a nasty threatening letter. Luckily we were too amorphous an organization to easily sue.
Z Magazine asked us to make an issue for them, and they printed it in their October, 1993 issue. But, in that context, we were just entertaining people who already agreed with us and were in on the joke….
When I moved back to Indiana, I hooked up with The Have Fun Club. They were a group of people with that rare combination of ideas and follow-through. When I met them they were planning a “Festival of Fools Parade” through town, holding signs like, “Change Fun Around,” and “Your Mom.” I enjoyed the randomness, but I wanted to inject a topical edge into the actions. The local political climate had been growing more & more anti-youth; politicians were trying to capitalize on fear of alleged gangs and the discomfort that some oldsters felt around punk kids. The Have Fun Club wanted to make sure the politicians knew we agreed that kids were the problem, so we held an Anti-Youth March. We chanted slogans like, “In the Pen Until They’re Ten!” and “Never Trust Anyone Under 30!” One mother in our group pulled her baby carriage through the streets wrapped in chains. Aside from general confusion, we received some angry responses from teenagers and parents who thought we were serious. I published a piece in a local weekly paper to coincide with the march. Even though I called the anti-youth group “Parents Angry Regarding Overzealous Dumb Youth (P.A.R.O.D.Y.),” the newspaper still received angry letters from readers who disagreed that, “Youth Equals Crime! Lock Them Up While There’s Still Time!”
We continued our political street theater with one of my favorite absurdist pranks, The More Life Coalition. The premise was that “right to life” didn’t go far enough; the More Life Coalition wanted to save all sperm and eggs, as well as any skin cell that could eventually be cloned into babies. When an out of town troupe of anti-abortion activists came by to protest at the local Planned Parenthood, the More Life Coalition was right there with them! To appear more conservative than conservative, I wore three ties with my suit. Our signs read, “Every Sperm is Sacred,” and “Breed, Don’t Bleed” (we were anti-menstruation, as it wasted eggs). This prank was the closest to perfect that I ever experienced: At first the anti-abortionists accepted us as their own. We marched around with them. Then, they noticed that something was up with our signs (“Death to the Infertiles!”) and they tried to walk away from us and argue about the bible. As per usual, the public was utterly confused; cars would pull up with angry motorists shouting that menstruation was not, in fact, murder, or that eggs were not “half babies.” But the icing on the protest cake came that evening when the Indianapolis TV news covered the protest – they showed our signs, which were much more interesting for TV, when talking about the Operation Rescue protest. Once again, no matter how hard I tried to go over the top, no one understood this as parody. But it was fun. To this day, the internet is confused about the More Life Coalition – a quick search finds pictures of us with angry comments from people insisting that menstruation does not “waste eggs.”
Here is some More Life Coalition propaganda:
- My evil cousin Eric Black on the access TV program Rox, singing “Masturbate 10 Times a Day” (starts at 33:07 in)
- Another appearance by Eric Black on Rox, includes protest footage and a PSA
After a decade of political shenanigans, I concluded that the public did not comprehend satire. People generally took things at face value and satire, no matter how over-the-top, was almost always misunderstood. When Stephen Colbert came on the air, I assumed he would meet the same fate. And yet, after eight years on the air, about 1.7 million viewers still tune in each night.
There is some question as to how many of Colbert’s viewers understand the show as satire. While both liberals and conservatives think the show is funny, conservatives are more likely to take Colbert at face value, believing that he really is a right-winger. A clip from the Colbert Report was even appropriated by the legal defense fund of ultra-conservative politician Tom Delay and presented as journalism, and a national anti-gay marriage organization publicly thanked Colbert for what they thought was his support.
Regardless of whether people understand the big joke, there’s enough brilliant humor and silly gags to keep people watching the show. If the program were written without any obvious jokes, and viewers weren’t cued in by the network’s name, would the public understand Colbert’s character, or just assume that Rush Limbaugh’s brother had been given a TV show?
Perhaps people have grown more sophisticated and can recognize satire now. I don’t think so, and I present my Twitter feed as evidence. Mostly, my tweets consist of random, Zippy the Pinhead statements like, “This tweet exists,” and “I don’t trust jello.” But not too long ago, my irrepressible urge to inflict ironic humor on the world bubbled forth in the tweet: “Don’t ya just hate kittens?” Now, aware that kittens are like gods on the internet, and that a cursory glance at my Twitter feed reveals that I have tweeted pics of cute kittens myself, I figured people might find this tweet funny. The tweet did generate a large number of responses, but not what I expected. Here are some typical examples:
When I produce satire, especially political satire, I’m attempting to entertain while expressing a point of view. It’s not my intent to trick or anger people. Perhaps the Colbert Report is acclimating the public to satirical humor in a way that will allow more people to enjoy it for what it is. Who knows? In the meantime, I’ll keep creating my own misunderstood political satire, not because it will educate anybody, but because, well, I just can’t stop myself.
Click the daisy to travel to some satire I wrote for this very blog: