So, when will it be OK to mock Obama?

The lack of laughs about the new president-elect exposes the slavishly conformist nature of contemporary satire.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics USA

During the latter stages of the US presidential race, it seemed that everywhere the Republican candidates went, comedians’ ridicule swiftly followed.

It wasn’t hard to see why. John McCain’s all-too-literal impersonation of a ‘dead man walking’ was grist to the mockers’ mill. His increasingly hangdog defeatism was probably not helped by the car crash that was Sarah Palin. Nobody really needed to take the piss; she seemed to be giving it away on an interview-by-interview basis.

Indeed, such was the relentlessness of the comic onslaught – be it Tina Fey’s Palin impersonation or Jon Stewart’s daily ambush on the Republican camp – that American humorist Joe Queenan was moved to declaim: ‘For the first time in American history, a presidential candidate had seen all his hopes and dreams undone by the sheer emotive power of naked, unalloyed satire.’ (1)

We can forgive Queenan’s lurch into hyperbole, because he does touch upon something important: the sheer one-sidedness of the ‘unalloyed satire’ during the presidential campaign. Where was the mockery of the Democratic candidate Barack Obama? Where were the scabrous commentaries on Obama’s rather hesitant debating technique? Who was sending up the vacuity of his oratory? Or his glib Messianism?

Some comedians did have a go at making Obama jokes. Last week on the The David Letterman Show, stand-up Don Rickles ventured that when faced with his first international crisis, Obama would tell his advisers that he couldn’t be interrupted because he was playing basketball. Unfortunately for Rickles, the allusion to Obama’s fondness for the hoop also unwittingly alluded to (un)popular black stereotypes. The joke bombed; Rickles apologised.

The terror of appearing racist, of facing the amassed force of proxy offence, has undoubtedly proved inhibiting for some lily-livered comedians. But there is something else, too. It’s as if Obama is, well, just too darned perfect.

This becomes clear in a piece written by the British comic author John O’Farrell, a former script writer for the satirical TV show Spitting Image. He argues that a satirist searches for what ‘is distinctive and interesting about any new personality and then mercilessly exaggerate[s] it until it becomes a hideous and character-defining flaw’ (2). So in Margaret Thatcher’s case, Spitting Image took her ballsiness, her ruthless machismo, and made it literal: on that show, when her dummy wasn’t berating and terrifying male colleagues, it was standing beside them at the urinals, taking a leak. More recently, ex-PM Tony Blair’s maniacal self-certainty – even in the aftermath of palpably wrong-headed decisions such as the Iraq War – seemed to manifest itself in increasingly demonic portrayals of Blair in political satire. The smile, once a mark of his charisma, became the caricaturist’s testament to his dementia.

Whether it was George W Bush, Blair, or, indeed, Whig PM Robert Walpole more than 250 years ago, personal traits and physical characteristics have traditionally been transformed into defining features of politicians’ public appearance. That is, the caricature captures something of the essence of their style of politics, be it Blair’s mock-heroic approach to world affairs or Bush’s chimpish inarticulacy. But in Obama’s case, nothing, it seems, has lent itself to ridicule. There has been no defining character trait like Thatcher’s cojones; no peccadillo like Bill Clinton’s infamous internship programme; and certainly no physiological feature like Blair’s crazed grin. O’Farrell concludes that Obama seems ‘to be beyond satire at the moment’ (3).

There is a paradox to this conclusion. At a time when personality politics has never been so preponderant – indeed, when an election campaign involved such unprecedented scrutiny of the presidential candidates’ backgrounds as the source of their prospective appeal – the ground for caricature, ridicule and satire has never seemed so fecund. Certainly for McCain and Palin, this proved excruciatingly true. But for Obama, no matter the revelations contained within Dreams From My Father or The Audacity of Hope, no matter the endless play upon his multi-racial identity, no matter the overweening sincerity of his oratory… his public persona has seemed Teflon-like in its resistance to satire.

Yet the inability to mock Obama certainly has a wilful element to it. For the cultural elite dominating the media, Obama is their man. Mike Sweeney, producer of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, admitted as much when he remarked: ‘A lot of people are excited about his candidacy. It’s almost like: “Hey, don’t go after this guy. He’s a fresh face; cut him some slack.”’ (4) Mike Barry, a longstanding comic writer in the US, echoed O’Brien’s caution: ‘I think some of us were too quick to caricature Al Gore and John Kerry and there’s maybe some reluctance to do the same thing to [Obama].’ (5)

In Britain, the response has been similar, and if anything, more gushing. While hosting BBC TV’s topical TV panel show Have I Got News For You on the Friday before the presidential election, comedian and Pimms connoisseur Alexander Armstrong defended his McCain jibes on the basis that an Obama victory would be a ‘good thing’. Unusually for a comedy show, when it comes to the current president-elect irony is prohibited.

This comedic gentleness, and sometimes desperate, explicit support, tells us something of the nature of the Obama phenomenon amongst his liberal cheerleaders: they want to believe. If they stare too hard, too critically, if comedians on The Daily Show or Late Night parody or mock Obama, perhaps with a sly dig here or a slicing barb there, then there’s the perceived risk that the whole edifice of Obama’s near mystical appeal will collapse. It’s as if comedy fears to tread lest it break the spell.

The complicity between comedy’s omerta and Obama’s presidency is seen by many as positive. ‘Every few years’, writes O’Farrell, ‘there comes a rare interval in politics when the usually sceptical general public are filled with hope and optimism and belief’ (6). And insofar as comedy has in recent years merely echoed a widespread cynicism towards politics, such a shift is perhaps to be applauded. Except that’s not really what it is.

A key plinth of Obama-support sprung from his distance from politics as it had recently been pursued. To the inbreeding and uninspiring pragmatism of the ancien regime of the Bushes and Clintons, Obama promised something else. He promised ‘change’, ‘hope’. And in doing, so he articulated popular disenchantment with mainstream politics and politicians. Youthful, and ostensibly untainted by the hypocrisy of the political careerist, Obama’s brand of personality politics worked on the basis that it was sincere and authentic. When Hillary Clinton wept, she was suspect. When Obama did it, he was believed. Obama, then, is not so much the rejuvenation of politics than the logical culmination of anti-political cynicism. In its tentativeness towards Obama, comedy simply followed this cynical anti-cynicism all the way to the White House; comedians recognised in Obama their own sense of exhaustion and cynicism with mainstream politics.

The problem here, however, is not so much the explicit collusion of comedy and comedians with any particular party, or indeed any particular politician, but a tacit, near subconscious acceptance of certain ascendant cultural trends. Be it the suspicion that all politicians are hypocritical douche-bags or a belief that there are certain things beyond the pale, like a basketball joke or being an Alaskan Hockey Mom, too many contemporary comedians, especially when being political, merely reinforce contemporary liberal prejudices. In this sense, Obama appears flawless to many prominent comedians and satirists not because he is, but because they lack the ideological distance to see him otherwise. If it doesn’t challenge, then comedy, and especially satire, conforms.

The same could not be said for the seeds of what is often seen as a highpoint of innovative, radical satire. In 1916, on the same Zurich street upon which Vladimir Lenin was then living, the Dadaist club Cabaret Voltaire opened. For a few months a variety of acts practised the art of ‘insulting a despised outside world made up of the bourgeoisie, the warring governments and their armies and (more immediately) the uncomprehending public.’ (7) As its founders moved on from Zurich, mainly to Paris and Berlin, such challenges to the cultural norms of the day were continued in the name of Dada long after Cabaret Voltaire closed.

One of its founders, Richard Huelsenbeck, travelled to Berlin. There he started collaborating with the painter and cartoonist Georg Grosz and the photomontage artist, John Heartfield. They set out to lay bare the world around them. Be it Heartfield’s depictions of Hitler – mouth open, spewing junk – or Grosz’s repellent portraits of the decadence and degeneracy of the Weimar period, both waged implacable war on the dominant culture of the time. As Huelsenbeck put it, ‘the Dadaist instinctively… sees his mission in smashing the cultural ideology of the Germans’ (8). Or as he remarked elsewhere, German culture is ‘shit’.

In Grosz’s own tellingly titled A Small Yes and a Big NO, he continues the fecal analogy, likening their activity to ‘shit stirring’ (9). He writes, ‘Dada was neither mysticism, nor communism, nor anarchism, all of which had some sort of programme or other. We were complete, pure nihilists, and our symbol was the vacuum, the void.’ (10) It was their steadfast opposition to their time, their sheer anti-conformism, which gave their satire and their art its force.

The Weimar period is far from an isolated moment of comedic subversion. In the US, the emergence of a new wave of stand-up comedians during the 1950s and 60s was equally marked by an antagonism to the cultural pieties of the period. But for people such as Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers or Mel Brooks, the target was not actually the right wing in power, from McCarthyism to Nixon; it was the broader cultural ascendancy of a debased liberalism, of new pieties to be inflicted upon the masses. In attacking this, these comedians exposed the intolerance of what Thomas Paine called toleration: the state-sponsored approval of what is acceptable and what is not. As one commentator remarked: ‘For the older generation of comedians [such as Bruce and Brooks], the question wasn’t how to be a good person but how to break free of an order in which goodness was something forced upon you.’ (11)

As the attitude to Obama testifies, the problem today is that comedy is simply too affirmative. Its practitioners don’t challenge the prejudices of their audience, let alone of their age; they merely reinforce them.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

(1) How satire changed the course of history, Guardian, 4 November 2008

(2) Laughing at Obama, BBC News, 11 November 2008

(3) Laughing at Obama, BBC News, 11 November 2008

(4) Want Obama in a punch line, first find a joke, New York Times, 15 July 2008

(5) Want Obama in a punch line, first find a joke, New York Times, 15 July 2008

(6) Laughing at Obama, BBC News, 11 November 2008

(7) p28, The New Sobriety – Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-1933, by John Willett, Thames and Hudson, 1987

(8) p44, The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, Robert Maxwell (ed), Wittenborn, Schulz, 1951

(9) p105, A Small Yes and a Big NO, Georg Grosz, Allison and Busby, 1982

(10) p106, A Small Yes and a Big NO, Georg Grosz, Allison and Busby, 1982

(11) Standup Guys, New Yorker, 12 May 2003

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Topics USA


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