In early August, Fox News and Facebook organized the most watched primary debate ever, in Cleveland, Ohio, where 17 Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in two debates in hope of emerging as the star of the field. The pundits are still out on who exactly ”won” the debate, curiously there seems to be something of a correlation between the ideology of the pundit and whom they declare the winner. Among much post-debate think-pieces, media bickering, and inappropriate comments by Donald Trump, the perhaps best, and certainly funniest, piece was a bit by Funny or Die featuring kids reenacting the debate.
Since presidential debates became a staple of the election season following the 1976 debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, they have been the source of much comedy fodder. Saturday Night Live has over the years, since 1976, provided such gems as this Bush-Clinton-Perot debate, focused on Arkansas as backwater, this Gore-Bush sketch, Will Ferrell as Bush became a long-time favorite, and the instant classics of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, like this. The Funny and Die bit, however, highlights the inherent humor in the actual debates. For while it might be more fun to just catch Dave Letterman’s recap of the debates than actually watching hours of political posturing, even the politicians drop some funny lines.
Historically, the presidential debates debuted with the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, but as both Lyndon Johnson and Nixon then avoided debates in their 1964, 1968 and 1972 runs respectively it wasn’t until the 1976 campaign they returned. Since then they have been a crucial part of any election cycle, including the primary cycles. The humor in presidential debates consists mainly of inadvertent gaffes or advertent zingers. The perhaps foremost example of the first category dates back to the 1976 debate where incumbent president Gerald Ford claimed there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Max Frankel of the New York Times, serving on the panel of moderators, can barely conceal his grin as he in disbelief asks if the president is actually saying Eastern Europe is not within the Soviet sphere of influence. The blunder by Ford enhanced the impression of him as somewhat dim, and was used to great extent by the Carter campaign. A more recent example of a humorous debate mistake would be Rick Perry’s inability, in a Republican primary debate in 2012, to remember the third government agency he would do away with if elected to the White House. Falling back on his Texan charm Perry tried to brush it aside with a nonchalant “oops”, which only made the whole exchange sillier. Speaking of silly, Mitt Romney’s attempt at humor when proposing to cut funding to PBS, saying that he likes Big Bird (of Sesame Street fame) but would still axe it, also misfired as it gave more than ample ammunition to editorial cartoonists, meme-ers, and comedians all over the country.
When the candidates in the debates are consciously humorous it is more often by a joke on the opponents account, a zinger. These certainly seem to have decreased in recent years, and the defining debate zinger remains one from 1988. Irritated of continuing criticism of his inexperience, vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate explained that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy had when he sought the presidency in 1960. His opponent, long-serving Texan Senator Lloyd Bentsen, saw his chance for a put down and clearly took pleasure in delivering the zinger of the century. “I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”, Bentsen replied with a smile hardly hidden. Increasing the comedy, Quayle’s face dropped to the floor and clearly hurt he said the comment was uncalled for. Bentsen’s comment was immediately viewed as bold; if he wasn’t crossing a line he was at least approaching that line. The risk with crossing the line is that you come off as mean, which is a reason most of the best zingers hail from vice presidential debates – the designated hatchet men. Back in 1976 Republican vice presidential candidate Bob Dole showed off a sharp wit, repeatedly making cracks about his opponent Walter Mondale and presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. Viewers found Dole lacking in seriousness and coming off as a wisecracker, making him unappealing.
Ross Perot, debating with Bush and Clinton in 1992, similarly highlighted his comedic chops with repeated jokes and zingers. As a candidate from outside the political establishment the strategy was risky, it was crucial for him to appear presidential, and ultimately a failure. “It’s nice that someone has some humor and lightens things up, but now it seems like every opportunity he had to speak he had a quick one-liner”, was the verdict of one focus group. The risk of not appearing responsible and mature enough for the White House actually led the naturally witty John F. Kennedy to tone down his humor in the 1960 debates. As Kennedy was struggling with the perception of him as too young and his reputation as witty aldready widely appreciated the strategy seemed good. Still, sense of humor remains a key factor for voters in determining the character of a candidate, not to mention likability. Moreover, a well delivered zinger or joke is almost certain to reach a larger audience by making it to post-debate coverage – especially on television and today YouTube. To find a balance is vital, yet difficult.
The only president who ever truly mastered humor in presidential debates was Ronald Reagan. “The Great Communicator” had a good sense of humor and a background in delivering lines and presenting himself appealingly. In 1980, as Jimmy Carter laid out his case against Reagan, he smiled confidently and good-naturedly said “there you go again” before defending himself. The almost laughing Reagan uttering the “there you go again” is as close to iconic as presidential debate moments get. It was a part of Reagan’s debate strategy to throw Carter off with humor and smiles. When facing Mondale four years later, Reagan delivered another classic when he ironically answered a question by promising not to make his opponents age an issue of the campaign – his own age was of course what had been questioned in recent weeks. The joke not only drew large laughs from the crowd but from the moderator and Mondale, again highlighting Reagan’s affable personality. By mixing self-deprecation with irony and a message, Reagan showed off presidential debate humor at its best; if even the opponent is getting a good laugh you know you’re doing something right. Apropos irony, we still have some twenty debates in the 2016 cycle to look forward to!
For more commentary on the 2016 elections, check out the interdisciplinary election podcast Campaign Context at www.campaigncontext.wordpress.com.
Last Saturday the Washington glitterati gathered at the Washington Hilton for what has become a major political event; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The draw has over the years become the president doing a stand-up bit followed by a professional comedian roasting more or less everybody in the room. This year’s invited host was Cecily Strong, a Saturday Night Live cast member known for playing The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With. Strong, only the second female to host in the last 20 years, did not go soft on those attending, pun intended. In twenty minutes she made sure to joke both left and right. My personal favorite was when she went after Obama: commenting on criticism that Senator Elizabeth Warren is “too idealistic and her proposed policies are too liberal,” she told people to look at President Obama “people thought the same about him and he didn’t end up doing any of that stuff.” Obama’s jokes also hit home, especially his jab at Hillary Clinton: “I have one friend, just a few weeks ago she was making millions of dollars a year and she’s now living out of a van in Iowa”. Indeed, the White House Correspondent’s Dinner has become something of a comedic highlight of the year for those interested in politics, giving it the nickname “Nerd Prom”.
The modern classic of the annual dinners is from 2006 when Stephen Colbert appeared as his signature parody of a conservative media pundit and brutally criticized George W. Bush and the media’s failure to confront his administration. Among the zingers was when he tried to reassure Bush not to pay attention to approval ratings; “we know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias”. Reports after the dinner claimed that Bush was furious over Colbert’s jokes and especially conservative media pundits agreed that Colbert had gone too far. However, seeing the comedian take on the president as close to mano a mano as you can get is something the audience longs for. In medieval times it was said that the only one who could speak the truth without fear of repercussions was the court jester. Today the court jester is often invisible, even if Jon Stewart is still on the air a couple of months, Larry Wilmore has done an excellent job with the former Colbert Report, and cartoonists like Ann Telnaes of the Washington Post is fighting the good fight. At the White House Correspondent’s Dinner the court jester speaking truth to power should be the main attraction.
In keeping with our recent political focus, we present Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate.” In light of revelations in the presidential campaign (both embarrassing and partial), it is nice to see Twain’s refreshing candor. Here it is, rom June 1879:
I have pretty much made up my mind to run for president. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.
In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me, I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the Battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer, because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded, my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.
My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.
The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?
I admit also that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be, “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.”
These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.
Engraving based on an 1879 photograph.
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It’s president-electing season again, and the Republican and Democratic Conventions provided a bounty of material for comedians and satirists to play with. As we have discussed before on this site, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rank as two of the most important humorists of our time. Clearly in the political arena, their humor has the most resonance.
Take, for example, this piece—a satire of the campaign videos played throughout the conventions.
What is the point of this piece? Sure, it is entertaining, but what impact might it have on the audience watching. As Ruben Quintero writes in his edited volume, Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture #46: A Companion to Satire: Ancient and Modern , the key to satire is its intended effect on its audience. He writes:
The satirist, either explicitly or implicitly, tries to sway us toward an ideal alternative, toward a condition of what the satirist believes should be. It is assumed that the satirist has our best interests at heart and seeks improvement or reformation.
Improvement or reformation—those are some big and nebulous aims. Let’s put it into a modern parlance: the satirist seeks change, but what kind of change? As with Barack Obama’s political slogan, change is a concept that means different things in different contexts, and maybe we are expecting too much from a satirist to completely change minds, just as we were probably asking too much of a president to change a dysfunction and a partisanship built into the construction of our Constitution.
As Jeffrey Melton so compellingly discussed on his article on this site—Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically)—even Jon Stewart has doubts about the efficacy of his satire to effect change. As Melton wrote:
In the highly publicized article, “The Irony of Satire” (International Journal of Press/Politics 2009), Heather L. LaMarre, Kristen D. Landreville, and Michael A. Beam, indicate that the human brain may be even less likely to respond to satirical inferences than we have dared to imagine. LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam focus attention on The Colbert Report and demonstrate that viewers of the show tend to interpret Stephen Colbert’s satire directly in terms of their own political views. In other words, the message is fungible and by no means clear. In short, people see what they want to see; believe what they want to believe; and, moreover—here’s the kicker—conclude that Stephen Colbert agrees with them.
In her recent book, A Conservative Walks Into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor, Alison Dagnes writes that political satire might have important impacts, arguing that “Modern political humor has become a powerhouse of cultural influence and Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and their brethren wield an immense amount of sway among voters, especially young ones.” But I’m not young. And while I enjoy the satire, I am skeptical about its impact on my own political views.
In his review of the book in the Washington Monthly, Joshua Green quotes several satirists questioning the thesis of the book, and the very act of academic study of humor:
When Dagnes cites the studies about how satire affects political behavior, the comedian Lewis Black replies, “Well, first, tell those academics to fuck themselves.… Really, tell them it is bullshit … satire doesn’t have that effect. If satire was really that important as a way to get things done, then, you know, more shit would be getting [done].” The common thread running through all these interviews is that professional satirists are almost exclusively concerned with being funny, and while many hold liberal views, they don’t expend much effort trying to impose them on others or imagine that they’d succeed if they did.
I think this focus on the entertainment value of satire might both trivialize the effects of satire by pointing in the wrong direction for its impact. We might be making a mistake by trying to quantify change and by delinking entertainment from impact. What improvements is satire aiming at? What is the scope of reform?
Improvement or reform—the aims of satire. Two pieces of satire from this week’s Daily Show have pushed me to reconsider the aims of satire as a political force. While the aim of satire is often framed as changing minds, might one purpose of satire be to force viewers to reconsider our own views, to define and defend them in more depth, rather than to change them from one thing to another?
Let me illustrate. First, take a look at this clip on the contrast between the Republican platform and the idea of freedom.
From a liberal point of view, this piece satirizes what liberals would see as the contradictory views of Republicans on the issue of “freedom.” Keep government out of our lives, they say, except for out of women’s healthcare. And there seem to be very clear paradoxes involved there that conservative thinkers would need to explain. But I don’t think that piece would change the minds of those conservatives who believe in both limited government and regulating conception.
It might be nice to think that pointing out such hypocrisy would lead to an “A-HA!” moment. But I don’t think beliefs work that way. Let me give another example, again from The Daily Show.
From a conservative point of view, this piece accomplishes a very similar task as the previous video—it points out key internal contradictions in the internal logic of a belief system. Whereas the video about the Republican convention made me laugh at hypocrisy, the Democratic convention video made me cringe with recognition. I had been hit with satire… as someone who holds that belief system, this video doesn’t change my mind, but it does make me much more uncomfortable than the previous video.
A liberal response to the satire would seem to require thinking through this “paradox of tolerance” in order to better defend one’s beliefs from critics who point out this key contradiction: how do advocates of tolerance defend being intolerant of those they see as being intolerant? A serious question to be discussed, as is: how do those who advocate freedom from government regulation of individual liberties justify governmental restriction of personal health decisions?
Maybe the satirical assaults on these seeming hypocrisies will help young people avoid these and similar paradoxes. Maybe these satires would have more of an effect on young people—on our students—whose political views might be more malleable, or at least less entrenched. That is something to study. But satire’s effects on those of us whose political views are more settled might be worth consideration as well, not in terms of changing our views but in making us better at explaining and defending our views in ways that won’t cause people to make fun of us.
© Tracy Wuster, 2012
Would you like to write a piece on satire for this site? Please contact Tracy at firstname.lastname@example.org