Storytelling In The News: #120
The history of satirical narrative in politics
April 15, 2004
This week, The New Yorker has an interesting history of satirical narrative in politics, with a particular focus on the phenomenon of the politicians themselves becoming their own satirists.
The author, Elizabeth Kolbert, suggests that "what sets contemporary political humor apart is its curious -- one is tempted to say unprecedented -- configuration. In the new comic order, the most devastating joke is circulated not by an irreverent observer or a sly opponent but by the target himself, who appears on national television solely in order to deliver it."
The meaning of the trend: the politician as self satirist
She asks: is this because we now take light entertainment more seriously than before? Or is it an indication of how frivolously we have come to regard politics, with politicians routinely humiliating themselves before TV audiences in the same way that they go around kissing babies, flipping hamburgers or joining in impromptu sporting contests?
Either way, Kolbert finds it an unsettling development, apparently preferring a sharp divide between a somber, stolid, staid world of politics which was "abstract" and "serious" and "about issues", and a world of entertainment which was light and ephemeral and relentlessly unserious.
It seems possible however that the development of the politician as self-satirist reflects an increasing recognition that politicians are more human than we imagined them to be, that satire may offer more truth than the evening news, and that satirical narrative offers a more sophisticated communications tool than traditional abstract tools of "policies" and "position papers". In fact, we may learn a great deal about a politician by learning what he can -- and cannot -- laugh at.
The history of the trend: Richard Nixon
Kolbert dates the beginning of the trend of the politician as satirist with episode No. 15 of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” which was originally aired on September 16, 1968. “Laugh-In” was just beginning its first full season -- it had débuted eight months earlier, as a mid-season replacement -- but was about to become the No. 1 show on television.
The program begins with all the usual “Laugh-In” mayhem. “It must be ‘Sock it to me’ time,” a youthful Goldie Hawn announces, before hitting herself over the head with a plastic mallet. There followed various other personages socking it to themselves.
In episode No. 15, there is the amazing spectacle of the ultra serious Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, appearing for four seconds. At first, he is looking stage right; then he turns toward the camera. He widens his eyes in what seems to be an effort at feigned surprise but comes off looking more like mock dismay. “Sock it to me?” he asks, drawing out the “me?” in a way that suggests he has perhaps never heard the line before. Episode No. 15 was broadcast at the height of Nixon’s (ultimately successful) campaign against Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, and was an immediate sensation.
Nixon on “Laugh-In” is often cited as a watershed moment in the history of television -- the couch potato's version of Nixon in China. What had once seemed antithetical -- parody and power -- had proved not to be. Was the joke on Nixon or on his hosts? Who could say?
At first, even though the episode announced a new order, many people, including Nixon himself, seemed not to have noticed. As President, Nixon never went near “Laugh-In,” or anything like it.
The history of the trend: Gerald Ford
“Laugh-In”’s godchild “Saturday Night Live” premièred in the fall of 1975. Its approach to political satire was less staccato and more sustained. Week after week, Chevy Chase portrayed Gerald Ford, a former college football star, as an irredeemable klutz. The following spring, Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen, agreed to appear on “S.N.L.” as a guest host and amiably made a fool of himself and his boss.
The history of the trend: Jimmy Carter
The next four years were a period of strict separation: Jimmy Carter avoided humor, at least of the purposeful variety, whenever possible.
The history of the trend: Ronald Reagan
Reagan was a natural joke-teller and Kolbert waxes lyrical about his joke-writer, Landon Parvin. She describes a song and dance routine he developed for Nancy Reagan, which marked the beginning of more favorable press coverage for her.
“What most people don’t realize is there are two kinds of political humor,” Parvin says. “There is the kind satirists do. Then, there’s what I do. The easiest thing in the world, I learned in the White House, is to get a zinger on the evening news. The press will pick it up like that. But what I learned over the years is that that doesn’t necessarily serve the politician’s purpose, because what you want is for him to be better liked. Really, that is the purpose of political humor for a politician: to be better liked.”
Parvin left the White House in 1984, and in the years since has written hundreds of speeches, for scores of politicians.
The history of the trend: Bill Clinton
Kolbert passes over the first Bush presidency (apparently humorless) to glance briefly at the master humorist, Bill Clinton, suggesting that his jokesters aligned themselves with Parvin’s theory of likability. Mark Katz said to Kolbert, “Humor is all about acquiring political capital through likability.” Al Franken, who has written for, among others, Gore and Hillary Clinton, put it this way: “Americans don’t want their President or their senators to be the funniest person in the world. They just want to see that their senator or their President has a sense of humor and is a human being.”
The history of the trend: the 2000 campaign: George W. Bush
Kolbert records George W. Bush's disastrous first appearance the “Late Show with David Letterman.” on March 1, 2000, shortly before the New York Presidential primary, when he made jokes about Letterman's recent heart operation, to the accompaniment of boos from the audience. Making fun of a serious health problem is not the royal road of humor.
Bush did not make the same mistake again. Later in the campaign, he appeared as himself to introduce a special election edition of “Saturday Night Live,” and found a safer subject - himself. He spent much of his making fun of his own difficulties with language, with such words as "offensible” and “flammamababable.” And when he went back on “Letterman” he vowed that, if elected, he would “make sure the White House library has lots of books with big print and pictures.”
The history of the trend: the 2000 campaign: Al Gore
Vice-President Al Gore was also making the late-night-comedy rounds, poking fun at his woodenness, his pedantry, and his tendency to exaggerate his own achievements. “Remember, America: I gave you the Internet, and I can take it away,” he said on “Letterman.”
The history of the trend: the search for the independent voter
Owing to the way that elections operate, the most sought-after voters also tend to be the most indifferent ones -- those who, deep into a campaign, still don’t have a clear impression of the candidates in contention. “My guess is that ninety-five per cent of the people watching ‘Meet the Press’ already have decided whom they’re going to vote for,” Jon Macks, a former political consultant who now writes for Jay Leno, told Kolbert. “Nothing is going to make them change their mind. But there’s a lot of people that watch the ‘Tonight Show,’ or any of the shows like it, who are going to see someone and they are going to connect.”
The current scene: George W. Bush and the pre-emption of criticism
Kolbert comments on the annual Radio and Television Correspondents’ dinner last month where Bush made fund of his futile search for weapons of mass destruction. It wasn't an attempt to win the independent voter. The sketch, which Landon Parvin helped write, made no sense as an appeal to the youth vote -- it was presented to an audience of reporters. Kolbert finds the sketch "entirely consistent with the notion of preemptive self-mockery." Whether Bush was successful in implementing Parvin's theory of a politician making himself more likable by making fun of the search for WMD remains a topic of controversy, particularly at a time when hundreds of people are still being killed on a daily basis in the course of a struggle ostensibly launched in the search of WMD.
Kolbert concludes in the usual agonizing hand-wringing New Yorker fashion that the phenomenon is about the collapse of standards. She laments how television enlarges the trivial and trivializes the large. In this context -- the context of no context -- she says that any claim to significance is fated to descend into parody. While aspiring to be likable, or just a human being, seems a modest goal for the leader of the free world, it may, at this point, be the best that can be hoped for -- something that Kolbert regards as regrettable.
The alternative view is that it may not be such a bad thing if we try to understand the president, not as some distant god-like figure, the very acme of perfection, but rather as a human being. The lens of humor is a fruitful tool of communication.
Read The New Yorker
Learn more about leadership and business storytelling
Read The Leader's Guide to Storytelling