Political Comedy - A History
What is Political Comedy? - A short history of political comedy, written by Anthony Marenna - All Rights Reserved
Political comedy is a historic form of entertainment created for a unique and important purpose: to poke fun at the most powerful figures in the world, making political topics enjoyable to audiences who otherwise might be bored and frustrated with politicians.
Early History of Political Comedy
Classical political comedy initially arose as a form of political dissent. Early political comedians, often operating in a shroud of secrecy for fear of retaliation, bravely satirized tyrannical figures as a form of political resistance. From printed leaflets to colonial soapboxes, early political comedians combined the pressing issues of the day with pointed humor to help rally the general public to the cause of freedom. In fact, political comedy played a role in bringing about the American Revolution. During the period of British rule over the American colonies, public opinion was split between Patriots and Loyalists; Patriots supported American independence while Loyalists remained steadfast in their support of the British Empire. Patriot political comedians leveraged political cartoons, printed columns, and live performance to parody the officials who they referred to as their 'overlords,' British governors and monarchs. It is entirely possible that without the help of early political comedians, public opinion against the British Empire might not have reached the tipping point which inspired the American Revolution and subsequent American independence.
Modern History of Political Comedy
Today, political comedy exists simultaneously in two primary strains: (1) a celebration of democracy and political freedom, and (2) an ultra-partisan tool for mockery and political maneuvering. Within either category, fans come from both sides of the political divide. The widely recognized standard within modern political comedy is to 'set aside' political differences for the purposes of laughing at oneself and laughing at the other side, all in the spirit of free expression. In the United States, some of the most visible outlets for modern political comedy are stand-up, television/film, and political impersonation.
Stand-up Political Comedy in the United States
Political Comedy History
Stand-up comedy has evolved into an American entertainment institution, and the subset of stand-up political comedy has gained traction in the last couple decades. It began with observational comedy in the form of comedic cultural criticism incorporated into the larger stand-up comedy acts of earlier comics such as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Mark Russell, who used their big stages to criticize corruption and hypocrisy on the part of politicians and government, and to bemoan racial inequality. More recent stand-up political comedy has followed a similar strain, including such notables as Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Robin Williams, D.L. Hughley, Lewis Black, Dennis Miller, and Janeane Garofalo among others. Adam Carolla, a popular stand-up comic best known for co-hosting Comedy Central’s The Man Show alongside Jimmy Kimmel, currently hosts a political comedy podcast which is the most downloaded daily podcast in the world.
Political Comedy in American Television/Film
Political comedy has also become enshrined as a modern American television institution, in many cases featuring previously famous political comedy stand-up in classic television formats. HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher features Maher’s political comedy in a late-night style format, where Maher interviews politicians, pundits, and comedians, and even features satirical sketches from time to time. Comedy Central’s spoof news shows, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert, have arguably become the most popular political comedy shows on television. The Daily Show features Jon Stewart as a satirical news host in which he plays a liberal political commentator discussing the latest political news in a comedy format. The show’s counter-part, The Colbert Report, features the political comedy of Stephen Colbert, whose character is a satire of conservative news hosts such as FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly. Even among the politically conservative news networks, political comedy has a home. FOX News airs a conservative political comedy television show called Red Eye during the overnight hours. The show is hosted by political comedian Greg Gutfeld and features a rotating panel of comedians, columnists, and talking heads. FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly also has a segment on his highly rated show The O’Reilly Factor called Miller Time, during which he interviews conservative political comedian Dennis Miller on the latest issues. Dennis Miller’s segment on The O’Reilly Factor is occasionally performed by fellow political comedian and Saturday Night Live alumni Norm McDonald as well. Another popular format for television political comedy is the stand-up special. The PBS stand-up political comedy specials have become a proving ground for stand-up comedians, at various times featuring comedians such as Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Lewis Black, Mark Russell, Will Durst, and Dean Obeidallah among many others. HBO’s Weapons of Self Destruction featured the stand-up political comedy of Robin Williams, in which he delivered comedic commentary on political issues such as global warming, healthcare, and drug culture. Political comedy also shows up frequently in late night television, NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, TBS’ Conan with Conan O’Brien, and CBS’ The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson frequently contain political comedy and commentary that is dissected on mainstream news programming and in academics.
The American Art of Political Impersonation
The third cornerstone of modern political comedy is political impersonation. Political comedy in the form of impersonation of Presidents and politicians first came to the attention of the public through John F. Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader, when his album First Family won Grammy Awards for Best Album and Best Comedy Album and sold more than 7.5 million copies in the 1960’s. Since Vaughn Meader, political impersonations have been performed as political comedy sketches on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, and the position as Saturday Night Live’s impersonator of the current President of the United States has become a prestigious role in political comedy. Among the comedians who have held this role are Richard Nixon impersonator Dan Aykroyd, Jimmy Carter impersonator Dan Aykroyd, Jimmy Carter impersonator Joe Piscopo, Ronald Reagan impersonator Joe Piscopo, Ronald Reagan impersonator Phil Hartman, Ronald Reagan impersonator Randy Quaid, George H.W. Bush impersonator Dana Carvey, Bill Clinton impersonator Phil Hartman, Bill Clinton impersonator Michael McKean, Bill Clinton impersonator Darrell Hammond, George W. Bush impersonator Will Ferrell, George W. Bush impersonator Chris Parnell, George W. Bush impersonator Will Forte, George W. Bush impersonator Jason Sudeikis, Barack Obama impersonator Fred Armison, and Barack Obama impersonator Jay Pharoah among others. It is a non-presidential impersonation, however, that is possibly Saturday Night Live’s most famous political impression ever. Sarah Palin impersonator Tina Fey burst onto the national scene with her impression of the then Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. She combined an excellent physical resemblance with a brilliant, timely impersonation to capture the attention of the country. Fey’s political comedy sketches as Sarah Palin coincided with a decline in Sarah Palin’s favorability ratings, a phenomenon that sparked discussion by major media outlets as to whether or not Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation was responsible for that favorability drop. Some academics even argued that Sarah Palin never had a chance to define herself as a national political figure because the character aspects of Fey’s impersonation ended up being the things that defined Sarah Palin to the public. Sarah Palin impersonator Tina Fey epitomized the notion that political comedy can have real world political implications.
The modern art of political impersonation as a form of political comedy was popularized by Tim Watters, the original Bill Clinton impersonator. Tim Watters brought political comedy into the realm of legitimate politics when in the early years of Bill Clinton’s Presidency, following a commercial he recorded for the Canadian company Lastman’s Bad Boy Furniture, the Clinton White House issued Tim Watters a cease and desist. The story was picked up by major media all over the country, with pundits and comedians alike outraged that the government had attempted to silence political comedy and satire. Tim Watters would go on to appear as a Bill Clinton impersonator on NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in over 200 political comedy sketches. This was the beginning of hundreds of appearances on television and in major motion pictures, paving the way for future political comedy impersonators and President impersonators such as Bill Clinton impersonator Damian Mason, George W. Bush impersonator Steve Bridges, George W. Bush impersonator John Morgan, George W. Bush impersonator Brent Mendenhall, Barack Obama impersonator Steve Bridges, Barack Obama impersonator Reggie Brown, Barack Obama impersonator Ron Butler, and Barack Obama impersonator Louis Ortiz among others.
In the early years of President Barack Obama’s Presidency, the original version of Politicos Comedy Brigade formed, beginning the process of creating a single home for political comedy. Since that time, Politicos Comedy Brigade has gathered the best political impersonators and political comedians under one banner, and currently produces and presents some of the best live shows in political comedy.