As long as there have been people in power, there have been wiseacres mocking the people in power. Those Paleolithic French cave paintings of horses? It's a safe bet that at least one of them is an old-school political cartoon meaning "Tribal leader Gary is a jackass."
Greek playwright Aristophanes' satirical comedies were filled with jabs at influential citizen leaders of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. While in exile, Dante Alighieri wrote his "Divine Comedy," in which he placed prominent political figures directly in hell. Even Shakespeare is thought to have ridiculed Elizabethan politics in some of his plays, notably "Richard II." More recently, Mark Twain and Will Rogers stood out as eminent political satirists of their respective times. ("Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress," Twain famously wrote. "But I repeat myself.")
With politics dominating our news coverage for much of this year, it's no surprise that satirists have been having a field day. Standup comedians, mock news shows such as "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," late-night television monologues, publications like The Onion, and videos from the likes of JibJab.com and FunnyorDie.com all regurgitate popular tropes from the upcoming election—John McCain's too old, Barack Obama's a hollow, Paris Hilton-like celebrity. But the truth is that despite technological advances, the nature of political satire hasn't changed much over the centuries. "Daily Show" co-creator Lizz Winstead would say the reason for the lack of evolution is that the democratic process itself actually isn't funny.
"I think politicians and the decisions they make are funny," Winstead said recently after performing a standup routine in Washington, D.C. "Democracy is actually awesome. It's when people f--- it up so badly that it becomes the subject of humor and ridicule."
Peter Grosz, a writer for "The Colbert Report," joined Winstead this month in Washington for a panel discussion on why politics is funny. "Comedy is based off of something that's either true or universally acknowledged," Grosz said during the panel. "I think especially because Stephen [Colbert] is a character—he's a fictional character even though he's a real person standing in front of you—everything else that happens has to be really true, or else what we do specifically doesn't work as well."
Winstead adds that well-done political humor can actually educate the masses: "A good political joke deconstructs an issue using humor and satire. It has the person hearing the joke think about the hypocrisy that's being pointed out in the joke."
The Pew Research Center recently found that audiences for "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" were better informed about the world around them than the general population, scoring in the highest percentile on knowledge of current events. Should Americans get their news from those two shows over other outlets? Probably not, but it's worth acknowledging that many do. Grosz confessed after the panel's conclusion to hearing a number of people express that they get their daily dose of current events by watching Colbert. "Flattering," he says, but he said that's not really what the show is trying to accomplish.
What about the other way around? Does a good political joke have the power to change a politician's mind or the course of an election?
"That's not really the kind of relationship politicians and comedians have." Grosz said. "I don't think they care what we do. They use our shows to get their message out."
Still, sometimes even laughing with the humorists can be risky. When U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler played along with Colbert during an appearance on the show, saying, after coaching from the host, "I enjoy cocaine because it's a fun thing to do," media pundits were both abuzz and aghast.
Despite the potentially bad PR, Wexler later said there was no political fallout from the event. Which just might go to show that voters have a better sense of humor than journalists.