What’s so funny?

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This is from the fifth edition of the Near-Earth Object newsletter, to which you can and should subscribe, right here.

How do you make political satire when the real political universe is already a parody of itself? I’m hardly the first to ask a question like this, but some recent events have made this question more salient than it has been for a while.

To be effective, political satire begins with what we know to be true (or at least plausible) about a given individual, group, or issue position, and stretches it — in a logical direction — toward an absurdity, thereby highlighting the flaws or harmful implications of whatever is being parodied.

But in the real world, right now, one side of the political debate is living out the parody. “Not The Onion,” the once-ubiquitous refrain on Twitter in response to news about the president, is now nowhere to be seen, because, well, why bother? The president himself just the other day retweeted a satire piece from the definitely not-funny Babylon Bee, thinking it was real. The very fact that most Americans even know what QAnon is tells you all you need to know about how the absurd has become all too real.

My friend Brian Hogg wrote a parody autobiography of Trump in 2016, Trumped Up, which is absolutely hilarious. After Trump actually won the election, which neither he nor I expected, and the damage he would do to the republic became ever more apparent, it was harder to find comedy in someone who was such an obviously ridiculous figure at the time the fake autobiography was written. The real President Trump turned out to be way, way too similar to the bananapants Trump character that Brian created for his sci-fi/time-travel/pseudo-hagiography/comedy book, except the real Trump had real power to ruin real people’s lives.

He and I have often mused about the prospects of creating some new venue for political satire in the form of blogs or podcasts, but we always run into the same brick wall. How do you do funny-smart without just winding up sobbing?

This was how I felt about the video “Weird Al” Yankovic (who is one of my heroes) did with the auto-tune masters, the Gregory Brothers, about the Trump-Biden debate for the New York Times. To me, that debate was traumatizing, a national tragedy. Perhaps I’m over-sensitive about this kind of thing, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling psychologically injured by that event. But Yankovic’s video treated the debate like it was any other conventional debate between two conventional candidates. “Who’s it gonna be?” was the musical refrain, as though it didn’t really matter in the end. I don’t think Yankovic or the Gregory Brothers actually feel that way, but that’s how their video made it seem, that the two figures on stage were equally worthy of being satirized.

Turning a debate into an overblown music video works when it’s yet-another set two dudes in suits parroting the same predictable, boring talking points, and the stakes aren’t all that high. But this wasn’t that. It was the tearing of an already-open wound. I’m sorry, Al. I love you, deeply, but there’s nothing funny about this moment. Not now, anyway.

But here’s the thing about Brian’s fake Trump autobiography: It really isgoddamn funny. The plausibility of Trump speaking about himself as a long-reining god-emperor who falls in love with a future robot version of himself, and leads a liberation rescue team that includes Chris Christie and Ted Cruz to put an end to the “Mexican rape fields,” is what makes it funny. Trumped Up reads like it came right out of the real Donald Trump’s mind. Which is what also makes it uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s part of why it works, and why something like Brian’s book is necessary. It is funny and it’s uncomfortable, because it takes what we know about a political figure or moment and points to where it all leads.

In my own work, I’ve sort of accidentally stumbled upon a twist on political satire that I might keep exploring, something like “aspirational satire.” It started when I wrote a resignation speech for Trump at the time of his attacks on protesters outside the White House for his Bible photo-op. I knew he wouldn’t resign, but I found the fantasy of his doing so irresistible. If it couldn’t be real, I’d at least indulge my wish with some amusing fiction.

More recently, I wrote and recorded a speech intended for President George W. Bush, an address to the nation that he could give in the near future, if and when Trump refuses to concede a lost election. I don’t actually think Bush would take this task on, but he could, and I strongly believe he should. But rather than just wish and bemoan, I decided to write him one myself, so at least such a thing would exist in the world.

He obviously would never use the speech I wrote, as I make references to how shady the 2000 outcome was, but the stuff I wrote about looking to Al Gore’s concession in 2000 is, I think, absolutely on point, and something a real speech by President Bush could and should bring up as a contrast to the expected behavior of a defeated Trump.

For me, this aspirational satire works because it doesn’t mire us in the current moment, but rather allows us to exist, temporarily, in a place where the horrors of the now are exploded in a favorable way. Their plausible absurdity makes them feel safe to laugh at, and maybe just a little bit hopeful.

If there is a post-Trump world, maybe old-school satire will feel good again. For that to happen, I think politics need to get a little more boring, and a lot less terrifying. That’s when we’ll once again have the emotional energy to laugh. Oh, there they go again, those stuffed suits and their empty sound bites. It’ll be bliss.

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