Political satire is as American as mom and apple pie. In fact, during the early days of the Colonies, making fun of English rule was considered seditious libel and was criminally punishable by life imprisonment. That seems like a pretty good reason for folks with any sort of common sense to steer clear of the practice. Naturally, the penalty only enticed Benjamin Franklin to become the father of American political satire and spurred generations of free thinkers to lampoon the powers that be.
Benjamin Franklin: Political Jokester
One of the first iconic images Americans remember about Franklin is flying a kite in a lightning storm. But the larger-than-life figure made tremendous contributions to diplomacy and liked to make his point in unorthodox ways. His classic satirical work, Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One, packed the most political punch. It’s an ironic pre-revolution chronicle presented as a scholarly work into how empires such as the British can achieve the goal of reducing themselves to rubble. They didn’t find it humorous.
Something most Americans don’t know about Franklin is that he may have invented the meme. He crafted an image of a snake broken into eight pieces called “Join or Die.” Each representing a state and it promoted Colonial unity before the French and Indian War. The image was widely circulated in newspapers and re-issued to help garner support for the American Revolution. Many see the rattlesnake “Don’t Tread on Me” flag modeled after it. But Franklin didn’t mind shoveling a little low-brow humor and he once wrote an essay directed at the Royal Academy of Brussels affectionately known as “Fart Proudly.”
If Franklin is the father of American satire, then “The Tonight Show” paved the way for biting political TV humor. Hosted by Carson from 1962 to 1992, his monologues reminded the country about White House residents’ shortcomings and faux pas with zingers such as:
“You get the feeling that Dan Quayle’s golf bag doesn’t have a full set of irons?”
“Read my lips: No new promises,” referencing George H.W. Bush
“Did you know Richard Nixon is the only president whose formal portrait was painted by a police sketch artist?”
Carson’s tenure was followed by Jay Leno, whose famous remarks include:
“An estimated 75,000 people attended a Barack Obama rally on the banks of the Willamette River. And if you believe the media, listen to this. After the rally, Barack Obama fed them all with just five loaves of bread and two fish. Amazing!”
Saturday Night Live “Trumps” All
As we all know, the undisputed kings of political lambasting are the cast and crew of SNL. The show made a splashy showing during its 1975 debut season with Chevy Chase playing bumbling Pres. Gerald Ford who listens into water glasses for phones and Dan Aykroyd’s Pres. Jimmy Carter, who, ironically, speaks like a genius. But in recent years, the truly big moments have left impressions that find their way into mainstream media reporting, which is also bizarre. The Hillary Clinton “Bar Talk” skit went viral in 2015 and Alec Baldwin has made Pres. Trump an SNL poster boy of hilarity. From the viral bromance skits with shirtless Putin to advisor Steve Bannon as the Grim Reaper, in terms of political lampooning, the worse politics gets, the better the ratings.