From Dead Snake to Super PAC: A Brief History American Political Satire

Ben Franklin got the ball rolling.

At the dawn of our democracy, Ben Franklin, penned his famous chopped up snake cartoon as a means of communicating the very real concept of unification to his colonial audience. He used the mass media of the day…a piece of paper with ink on it. Visual imagery and a sense of humor got people’s attention and slipped them the message better than, well, a lot of words.

For the entire history of American politics the political cartoon has remained one of the most influential communication tools available to a free press, and without exception they’ve peppered every political election since George Washington.

Thomas Nast, father of the modern political cartoon, and Santa Claus

Cartoonists, like Thomas Nast reached such a level of proficiency that they were credited with taking down powerful political machines and swaying national elections. (among Nast’s more redeeming efforts was his enduring image of the modern Santa Claus).

This knack for irreverent political commentary jumped to a new level in the 70’s by adapting to new technology and popular culture. With the advent of Saturday Night Live and its twenty million strong television audience there was a new force to be reckoned with.

Without realizing the full potential of his power to influence public opinion with his stumbling, bumbling impression of President Gerald Ford, Chevy Chase may have helped doom the president’s ’76 re-election bid. The image of Ford as an “inept” president, punctuated by Chase’s headlong crashes over his own desk influenced the election…this according to Ford’s own campaign people.

SNL's evil twins

Saturday Night Live continued to work the presidency, and every other major political figure over the years, with a specific cast member becoming famous every season for their ability to mimic their unfortunate target. This craft reached its zenith with the dead-on knock off of Sarah Palin by Tina Fey. Any pretense of innocence and lack of intent was, by this time, however, long gone. SNL knew exactly what they were doing.

It has been said that people under 30 are primarily influenced by comedic political satire as opposed to “hard” news shows. They don’t trust mainstream news sources, and would rather be entertained than “manipulated.” As far as prime-time pundits go, the strident bombast of O’Reilly is no more appealing than the smarmy condescension of Olbermann.

Now, we prefer the brilliant political and social commentary of Jon Stewart (The Daily Show), Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report), and South Park and the sophistication has ramped up yet again. All deliberately raunchy enough to chase away their non-target audience, then wink and provide sophisticated and timely political commentary along with solid laughs.

And, there is a healthy sense of mob justice in their young audiences.  When Stewart went lightly on his liberal friend, Congressman Anthony Weiner, the crowd turned on him. Ultimately, he had to give them what they wanted, which was a full scale Weiner roast.

Yesterday, Stephen Colbert took our new age of comedic political theater to yet another level when he went to Washington, DC and got the go-ahead to form a super PAC from the FEC. As usual the real message is slipped to the audience after being “warmed up” by some spot-on comedy:

Some people have said, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ ” Colbert told the crowd. “I for one don’t think participating in democracy is a joke.”

Then back to being funny, very funny (see video clip at right).

“I am here to represent your voice so you can all hear what you have to say through my mouth” Colbert said.

When asked what he is going to do with all that unrestricted super PAC money, Colbert said, "I don't know, give it to me and let's find out."

Note: Atomic Monkey claims it rightful place as a marginal manifestation of this long and storied history of political satire. As such, we want our fair share, and though undeserving of a super PAC, will be starting a modest beer fund to which our readers can contribute. We will not be attempting anything so bold as affecting an election, but we will drink heavily and talk about it.


7 responses

  1. I am prepared to become hypnotized by anything Steve Colbert has to say and will follow him blindly. Thank God the rest of us have our own PAC now.


    The Rest of Us

    (search “#janesworld” on twitter for daily satire and bite-me tweets)

  2. It is important to have the right priorities. Beer certainly remains at the top! Without it, the other priorities will drive you crazy.

  3. Our Governor is working day and night to bring back the aloha shirt and all the Monkey can do is bitch about PACs? For the love of Dog, have some sense of priorities.

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