The first time I saw satire declared dead was around the time I fell in love with it. Actually, it was irony that they said was dead, but it was taken to mean the same thing. On September 11th, 2001, planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the ensuing days, weeks, months, years, adults lost their damn minds. They whooped for the bombing of foreign lands whose inhabitants they associated with the people responsible. They stopped caring about the essential American freedoms that they’d been teaching us about all our lives. They pretended that they thought George W. Bush knew what he was doing, or maybe they even believed it. Eventually, they convinced each other it was a good and sensible idea to launch an invasion of Iraq.
They also tried to convince us that “irony was dead,” as chronicled by this Atlantic article a decade later. There could be a kernel of good faith critique in that sentiment; the detachment that characterized much of ‘90s pop culture no longer felt appropriate. But irony isn’t just a posture. It’s a characteristic of the world, and it was in full bloom in American politics in those post-9/11 days: the irony of “defending freedom” with restrictions on civil and political liberties, the irony of fighting a “war on terror” by bending the rules on the use of violence, the irony of fighting an enemy that we’d once recruiting and trained, the irony of the Bush administration “spreading democracy” after losing the popular vote and maybe not even properly winning the electoral college. Ironically, if Americans had been better attuned to these ironies, we might have been better equipped to take these times seriously. Instead, we lost our sense of irony, made serious mistakes, and plunged self-seriously into a darker era of history.
It was a weird time to be a young teenager. I’d just been learning how to start engaging critically with authority and society, and suddenly everyone was reverting to wishful thinking and platitudes and rallying around people we knew to be incompetent. My favorite comic strip, The Boondocks, was getting banned across the country for saying the same kind of things it always had, but luckily the Washington Post kept running it. Aaron McGruder’s humor made me feel less alone and less crazy. Here are a few of the strips from that fall:
The “Huey Follows the News Coverage” series was the first to directly address the attacks, a couple weeks afterwards (since comic strips are submitted in advance)
A nice historical artifact, Huey writing a letter to Barbara Lee, villainized at the time for voting against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, but elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2008 and narrowly defeated for Democratic caucus chair in 2018
Some vulnerability from McGruder-as-Huey, and a nod to his pre-9/11 obsessions
This strip was dropped from a lot of papers across the country, leading to this response, on two-week-delay…
In the ensuing months and years, McGruder kept up the beat without flinching. Once a day, I could rely on one spot in the comics section to give me a laugh, assure me that somebody was still thinking, and comfort me with the same dynamic, humanely-written characters I’d grown to love over the years (I wasn’t the only one who found The Boondocks to be a comedic light at the time). I also remember reading The Onion and Get Your War On, and watching The Daily Show. I remember creating a homemade shirt that said “Your Parents’ Tax Money Funded Osama Bin Laden,” writing a lot of cringey amateur satire, sneaking out of school to join a student protest with signs that said “Honk if You Oppose the War in Iraq” which prompted a mother with two toddlers to get up in our faces and hiss “kill them, kill them all!” I remember voting for president for the first time and writing in Barack Obama, a young Senator who had just given an inspiring speech at the DNC and who had been against the Iraq War when he was an Illinois legislator. I wanted John Kerry to beat Bush, but D.C. always voted about 90% Democrat anyway and I wanted to express something. I remember feeling despair at Kerry’s loss and coming in the next day with a homemade t-shirt that said “Obama 2008” and getting a hug from a classmate who later went on to work for Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris.
It was all mixed together for me: serious politics, gleeful irreverence, and generally being a confused and angry wiseass teenager. I was a kind of a dick in those days. There’s a lot I wouldn’t like today about who I was then. But, broad strokes, the very serious adults were wrong, and them being wrong was dangerous, and, while satire didn’t stop the Iraq War or even stop George W. Bush from being reelected, it helped keep the flame of resistance alive, helped us channel some of our imperfect thoughts and feelings into confronting some bigger problems. Irony and satire weren’t dead at the time. They were an important part of the culture, a vaguely guiding light when the dominant culture was trying to dim dissent.
Now people are saying satire’s dead again, and this time around it feels a little more credible. In the post-9/11 part of the Bush era, satire had a clear role puncturing the sanctimonious patriotism that proscribed any criticism of power. (Ironically, the suppression of satire made it feel more powerful). But Trump has been vulgar from the start, and criticism and mockery of him have always been in the mainstream. There’s no mask to rip off. He’s exactly who we thought he was all along.
What has a lot of satirists fucked up is that Trump is unmasking the rest of America – our vulnerability to fascism, our cynical media and political traditions, our deep imbalances of power, our unwillingness to confront serious problems, our persistent strains of racism and misogyny, our ineffective leadership, our under-maintained civic infrastructures, our lack of empathy and community – more effectively than comedians ever could. A thought experiment doesn’t have as much weight when the nation itself is a lab for frightening extremes. But just because reality can often be more absurd than satire doesn’t mean there’s no use for the latter. Satire isn’t just absurdity, but absurdity with a fucking point. At this moment, it’s not so much about teasing out and heightening the flaws in our reality, but making sense of them, helping some signals emerge from all the noise.
One thing good satire can do is demystify Donald Trump, while other elements in our journalistic, political, and entertainment cultures try to either normalize or exoticize him. Pundit try to read traditional politics into his actions; access journalists dramatize his feelings and the feelings of people around him; Trump-based entertainment – as opposed to satire – casts him as an endless source of unpredictable wackiness. But he’s not practicing politics as usual; the humanity of the powerful is not our public concern; and there’s a darkly predictable pattern to his actions. He’s simply a cruel, petty, incompetent hustler hooked into a position of authority, which is something we’ve seen many times in the world. And he’s channelled into dark forces of American politics that we’ve seen for decades or event even centuries, which are now flooding in through the breach he made in the dam.
Good Trump satire helps us bypass all of America’s instincts for normal powerful people – redemption, reform, bargaining, intrigue, morbid fascination, shocked revulsion – and see him clearly so we can move on. We know who he is, and we know by now (as though we didn’t know before) how the whole Republican party will embrace him, and how he’ll always enable the radicalizing forces of the far right to push himself and this country toward disaster. There’s no show to watch that close to the dark center of Trumpworld; what’s more in question is which institutions might still be employed to check his power.
There are a lot of different strokes to making this point. Megan Amram, a comedy writer who usually traffics more in delightful absurdity than in satire, has been drily tweeting “Today was the day Donald trump finally became president” every day since May 15 2017, a few months after Van Jones, a prominent progressive pundit, made that pronouncement in response to the Trump’s State of the Union address. Of course, reading convincingly from a teleprompter wasn’t evidence of any fundamental change in the man or the bad-faith actors around him, and if people didn’t know better at the time, they better know by now. By tweeting it out at times that juxtapose this naïve notion with the president’s blatant cruelty and incompetence (every day!), Amram highlights just how damaging that credulity can be.
Amram’s Twitter tradition is a small salve in a chaotic world, mostly flying below the radar, but Michelle Wolf, whose core work is well-crafted, often dirty standup, had a chance to take her message directly to one of our failing institutions and succeeded not only in thoroughly roasting all major members of the White House press community but in putting the final nail in the coffin of an event that has seemed increasingly like a farce. At the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner Wolf was merciless in attacking Trump, the press, and Trump’s press liaison Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The conservative backlash took offense at some jokes that touched tangentially on the press secretary’s appearance, but the core of Wolf’s message was that Sanders was someone who regularly lied to protect a dangerous, racist patriarchy. This was true. The not-subtle implication was that it was inappropriate for the press to treat someone who did these things like a friend, and after Wolf’s set the “we go at each other, we’re all friends at the end of the day” message of the correspondent’s dinner was hard to swallow. The next year, the White House Correspondents’ Association declined to invite a comedian, and Trump ordered his staff to boycott the event. The era of access journalism continues, but with increasing critical skepticism.
I used to see Wolf, one of the hardest-working comedians on the scene, at open mics in New York, workshopping the same joke about a really bad tattoo week in and week out until she got it perfect. Most of her material was in that lane - self-deprecating, conventional standup. By the time I saw her standup special on Netflix several years later, she’d not only honed these skills but also developed a really sharp critical voice, deftly making a case for feminism while using New York club standup vulgarity and “non-PC” language. She’s one of many in these times who didn’t always identify as “political” but have stepped up to the plate. I’ve heard a lot of purists decry the politicization of comedy, but the world politicizes all of us – it makes political pronouncements about our lives and places in society and it asks for our participation or silent assent to carry out its work. When politics gets tough, the tough get political, and the weak shrink from participating thoughtfully in the world and whine about “snowflakes” and “SJWs.”
My personal favorite comedian of the Trump era, Anthony Atamanuik, first caught my attention as one of the few improvisers at the Upright Citizens Brigade who had real fire to him. Atamanuik always channeled pure id and emotion through his characters and rants, often deeply offensive on the surface, but mixed in sharp critical analysis that elevated his work. He always seemed political – rants about Ronald Reagan, fascism, and deeply embedded misogyny were common – but it was sometimes overshadowed by his general “madman” persona. His basest and most conscientious characteristics merged perfectly when he started doing Trump imitations in 2015, near the beginning of the candidacy. Being in touch with his shittiest self helped Atamanuik get deep into Trump’s persona, but his critical eye allowed him to make sense of the chaos.
By the time I saw Atamanuik’s live Trump show – “The Trump Dump,” a press conference at the end of which the candidate announces he’s launched a nuclear attack – in 2016, Trump had won the Republican nomination and Atamanuik had honed his act to the consistent arc I saw in all his performances. He first dives deep into Trump’s persona, exposing his deep brokenness and entertaining us with the chaos within, but then reminds the audience that the consequences are serious, and that after seeing this man for who he is our responsibility is to interrogate how we enable him. The Trump Dump, for example, castigated the overwhelmingly liberal audience for their contributions to white supremacy, their tendency to express politics performatively rather than effectively, and their contribution to the media culture in which Trump thrived.
For me, the most memorable moment in Atamanuik’s Trump performance came during the Christmas special of the President Show on Comedy Central (which also included this great bit on Trump’s life if he weren’t rich.) That episode’s frame narrative centered around a journalist, played by Bebe Neuwirth, putting up with more and more Trump nonsense in order to get “an exclusive.” At the end, Trump finally stage-whispers his exclusive info: “I came up with Christmas.” When she objects, Atamanuik-as-Trump turns to the screen and delivers his monologue:
I came up with my Christmas! And it’s totally different from regular Christmas. Regular Christmas is supposed to be about celebrating the birth of Jesus, a man who was selfless and kind and died for our sins. But I’m greedy and petty, and you die for my sins! I’m the opposite of Christ. I’m the Antichrist. But I am a savior – of myself, my family, and some of the worst, most hateful ideas that decent Americans thought were long dead. Stop waiting for a Christmas miracle. What you see is what you get. I’m not suddenly going to turn into a Christian, or a populist, good friend, or a good father, or become presidential, or even a politician who actually believes what he’s says. I’m me. Get used to it. Wise up.
Then, in a bit pitched by writer Christine Nangle, Trump and the cast begin singing the song “Wise Up” by Aimee Mann, which I hadn’t heard before. At the time I assumed it was from somewhere in pop culture, but couldn’t place it, and I was impressed at how catchy it was in the character voices and how well the lyrics worked to address what reality might be for someone who had ever had any faith in this empty man…
What you thought
When you first began it
What you want
You can hardly stand it
By now you know
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
‘til you wise up
I don’t think I’d ever thought Trump’s run or presidency was anything other than it was (except that I thought he probably but not definitely would lose) but this piece still spoke to me, and I kept replaying it again and again (and not just for the comedy of Mario Cantone, as Anthony Scaramucci, singing in Mooch’s Long Island accent by opening and closing his whole mouth like Pac Man). I’d spent a lot of time trying to craft things out of ironic cleverness over the years, and the elegant sincerity of Mann’s lyrics was a good change of pace. That’s a core truth of life in general and this era in particular: things will not stop on their own until we really wise up. We can’t confront climate catastrophe, inequality, systemic injustice, and the decay of democracy without dramatic structural change; we can’t achieve dramatic structural change without major changes in political organization, pressure, and imagination; we can’t organize for these things effectively without confronting the weaknesses in ourselves. Or whatever order you want, whatever focus you want. It’s wise up time.
For me, working in satire during the Trump era – I was on the video staff of The Onion during his campaign and laid off with the rest of my department a few days after his inauguration – has wised me up to the limits of my voice and imagination. I still think the form can be potent, and I still practice it from time to time, but I need more connection with concrete action, more of a sincere look at feelings and human interactions and the small details of life. I’ve found some of the art I overlooked before is raw and biting in subtle ways that I’d missed when I was focused on “authoritative” sweeping narratives that purport to describe the world, and that it focuses us on some forms of strength that we’ve been missing and that will be needed in the work ahead.
Like a lot of jerkhead teens, I used to think that my lane, my style, my little subculture was the best in the world. I was right about how empty and soulless the halls of power were, but didn’t really see, even if I thought it true and vaguely pictured it, how deep and variegated the worlds outside were. Now, as often before but not always this badly, we see our top offices occupied by broken and empty people, but I am not as despairing because I have a clearer picture of what could be waiting to fill it if we get our shit together. I know this feeling isn’t really a reflection of the state of things. I know things actually dire and desperate, and the things that are bad in this country and world run deep. But I also know that it isn’t true that, in the words of Michael Che as Lester Holt in the quasi-satirical show Saturday Night Live, ““absolutely nothing matters anymore.” Maybe it’s not what we thought, but the world is rich and there are many battles left to fight which all matter. Feel angry or hopeful or stoic or whatever gets you there. Follow people who know what they’re doing or can help you with what you’re not. I don’t really know how to to make this funny or elegant or non-corny. I only ever really learned to write satire.