Political Humor's Hysterical History Satire has played a part in politics for hundreds of years, but how is it different in the YouTube era? Is it all in good fun, or is there something being lost in all the laughter?
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Political Humor's Hysterical History

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Political Humor's Hysterical History

Political Humor's Hysterical History

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Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. There was a priceless bit on "Saturday Night Live" last night, a recreation of last week's vice presidential debate. Tina Fey delivered what's becoming the definitive Sarah Palin, once again, and Jason Sudeikis channeled Joe Biden talking about his friend, John McCain.

Mr. JASON SUDEIKIS (Actor): (As Senator Joe Biden) John McCain, and again, this is a man I would take a bullet for!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUDEIKIS: (As Senator Joe Biden) Is bad at his job and mentally unstable.

Ms. QUEEN LATIFAH (Actress): (As Gwen Ifill) How will you solve the financial crisis being a maverick?

MS. TINA FEY (Actress): (As Governor Sarah Palin) You know, we're going to take every aspect to the crisis and look at it, and then we're going to ask ourselves, what would a maverick do in this situation?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) And then, you know, we'll do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: It's funny. But in this season of the political spoof, NPR's Allison Keyes wonders if something is being lost in all that laughter.

ALLISON KEYES: There's a whole flurry of funny stuff floating around out there, including elaborate flights of fancy by talented amateurs with a lot of time on their hands, like the Obama Bollywood video with images of the Democrat seeming to lip-sync to a love song.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: And then, of course, there at the glitzy Hollywood-level productions by networks like NBC and Comedy Central. It's all very cutting-edge, but it's hardly new.

Dr. JODY BAUMGARTNER (Political Science, East Carolina University): We can go all the way back to ancient Egypt to find examples of political humor.

KEYES: Jody Baumgartner is an assistant professor of political science at East Carolina University. He says editorial cartoons have a very long history.

Dr. BAUMGARTNER: They were actually around since colonial times, although they didn't become really popularized until the advent of the penny press in the mid to later 19th century.

KEYES: Older political satire was sharp, like Mark Twain's 1906 saying that fleas can be taught nearly anything that a congressman can. Whether or not today's humor is any more vicious, it's often more salacious, like this primary season video from Mad TV, which implies, shall we say, an intimate relationship between Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his former rival, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

(Soundbite of Mad TV clip)

Unidentified Woman: (As Senator Hillary Clinton) He's my boy. I am his girl. Hell yeah, we're both down with this world.

Mr. GERALD GARDNER (Historian of Presidential Humor): It's gotten a lot tougher and bloodier through the years.

KEYES: Gerald Gardner was a historian of presidential humor and was once a speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy. In the mid-20th century, Gardner says, the leading practitioners of political humor were people like newspaper columnist Art Buchwald and TV comedian Johnny Carson.

Mr. GARDNER: Political humor was rather a benign art form at that time, perhaps because Buchwald knew he would lose newspapers, and Carson knew he would lose affiliates. I don't know that there are any affiliates working on the Internet, so there are fewer censors and fewer monitors that work.

KEYES: Gardner says that is likely the same reason that political cartoons in newspapers and magazines are fairly tame. But Mad TV's video shows the faux Clinton and Obama simulating sex. Isn't there some sort of line that just shouldn't be crossed? Are we undermining respect for national leaders by demeaning them in this way?

Mr. GARDNER: Once you get into the area of sex, I think the line becomes even more elusive and more dangerous.

Ms. LIZZ WINSTEAD (Comedian): What is the line? I have no idea anymore. I never know the line until I've crossed it.

KEYES: Lizz Winstead is a comedian, writer, and co-creator of "The Daily Show." She scoffs at the idea that politicians should be put on some sort of pedestal, and she thinks it is a satirist's job to keep politicians in check with humor because one should always be skeptical of people who have amassed power.

Ms. WINSTEAD: The fundamental problem with a politician is that they've assessed the world. They've looked in the mirror and said, do you know what's wrong with society? I'm not in charge. So right off the bat, you should not trust them.

KEYES: Gardner notes that both candidates and even sitting presidents incorporate humor into their speeches to polish their images or to make themselves look like regular folks. But he agrees it can go too far and be counterproductive.

Mr. GARDNER: You could make a case for the fact that humor, at least in politics, is most effective when it is drawing a little blood. Mind you, it shouldn't be a battle-ax. It should be a rapier.

KEYES: He also says thank heaven for the comic relief that's injected into campaigns, especially marathons like this one. Otherwise, he says, it would be almost unendurable. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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