Where Does Political Satire Go From Here?
Before the presidential election, Saturday Night Live featured Alec Baldwin doing an impression of Donald Trump, but that character was notably absent this past weekend during the show’s first episode since Trump became the president-elect.
Was it a sign of the times?
Now that a new political era has dawned, what does that mean for the comedians and satirists who riff on the news of the day? Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia talks with Anne Libera, director of comedy studies at Columbia College Chicago and author of The Second City Almanac of Improvisation.
Here are some highlights from their discussion.
What did you make of Saturday Night Live's first show since the election?
Anne Libera: They write their show in a week, and the election was Tuesday night. And let's be clear: We all thought Hillary was going to win. So in many ways, they satirized their own immediate response as opposed to having the opportunity to really dig into the larger national response. The [opening skit] was much more the response of all of us who were in a flood of tears on Wednesday rather than the sort of comic, satiric, 'Oh, what's next?'
Where did satire go wrong during the election season?
Libera: It's really easy to make fun of Trump, which is ultimately what we did throughout this election. But we didn't actually satirize him. We didn't point out this scary point of view behind all this silliness. Comedy is about making people laugh and satire is about making people think.
I'm not saying SNL is a partisan group particularly looking to create change. But this is one of our problems: when satirical entertainment becomes money-making satirical entertainment. Then, the idea that it's also to create change makes things get a little iffy.
What should we expect of political satire now?
Libera: Samantha Bee seems to be addressing things directly in a way that the Daily Show has not been able to. I don't know exactly why that is. Good satire is about making a connection. It's the tradition of the king's fool who speaks truth to power and gets beat up for it.
When money gets in the way, then suddenly you don't have the freedom to get beat up for the thing you have to say. You're no longer looking to make change fearlessly. You're looking to make everyone feel like you're making change.
How is satire different from comedy and does it still have influence?
Libera: The point of satire is to make people feel like crap so they can get up and go do something. They say reading comedy about a topic makes you less likely to make change. I tend to think the other way.
Comedy has such a psychological component. We're laughing because we think the same way. Comedy has three parts: truth, pain and recognition. You laugh when you have an ‘a-ha’ connected to those three. What's great about comedy then is when my experience of truth and pain and distance hits your experience, then we have social recognition [that] becomes power to make change.
So the power of comedy to make change connects to this idea that if I can make a joke that you, who thinks you don't agree with me, recognize, then suddenly we're on the same page.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the 'Play' button above to listen to the full interview.