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The Political Power of Satire

The year was 1968.  Tensions were boiling as America was still in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement was at its peak.  Patriotism turned to cynicism as hopes for change were turning desperate. Pat Paulsen, meanwhile, was gaining fan fair as a comedian who appeared regularly on the show “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” from 1967-1969.  The show encompassed comedy and variety and was popular among the younger adult audiences. As a way to make light of the current dismal situation, Paulsen was encouraged by his colleagues to run for president.  He took the 1968 presidential bid registered under his independent party, Straight Talking American Government, or STAG.  He became very well known for maintaining character and was even awarded an Emmy.  He used his spot on the Smothers Brothers to campaign.  His strategy?  Satire.

Political satire is an artful way of critiquing current events and standards; a form of discourse with an undertone of irony. Paulsen targeted the dishonesty of politicians; “I must choose my words carefully in order to avoid any negative interpretation. Among politicians, this is a tactic known as lying.” Political commentary like such acknowledges social awareness. It is important to take note that political satire is not a tool of constructive criticism.  It pokes fun at the current agenda without taking steps to improve it.  Paulsen never made any improvements to government.

Today’s most notable political satirist is funnyman Stephen Colbert.  With a Kanye-meets-politician demeanor, Colbert has masterfully crafted a character that has lofty opinions of himself and less than grounded opinions of the government.  In June, as the GOP presidential race began stirring to life, he introduced his own Super PAC Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow and over the past six months Colbert has managed to pick, poke and prod away at the reality of campaigning one joke at a time, mocking the ease at which one can bend the rules of campaign financing.

Funny?  Yes.

Mocking the ease at how one can manipulate the system?  Yes.

Of course we can all laugh at the ridiculousness of Stephen Colbert and his political satire, but when push comes to shove, it only makes his audience question the system for its flaws rather than reveling in its virtues.  Political satire can make a powerful statement against the nation but does nothing to improve it. We can learn from Pat Paulsen that as the health of the nation improved, satire fell on the backburner. The Colbert nation will not reign forever.  Until then, it is important to acknowledge that although our system has flaws, we as Americans have the capacity to fix them.

2 thoughts on “The Political Power of Satire

  1. If one doesn’t recognize a system’s flaws, how can one recognize the need to improve it? Political satire is a way of challenging the status quo without directly attacking it, i.e. in those cases where vested, powerful interests control the normal avenues of discourse. Paulsen, and the Smothers Brothers, used humor and satire to attack the Vietnam War on network TV, which was highly controlled at that time. They may not have solved problems but they arguably hastened change. Hopefully Colbert will have a similarly catalytic effect.

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