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Opinion: The Onion is right about the future of democracy

Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She cohosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.


“Americans can be put in jail for for poking fun at the government?”

The satirical newspaper The Onion issued a rollicking, tongue-in-cheek amicus brief this week, arguing that the Supreme Court should hear a case on parody, free speech and police harassment. In its brief, which opened the summary of its argument with the question quoted above, the publication sided with Anthony Novak, an Ohio man who was jailed and prosecuted by local police over a Facebook page that parodied their department.

Nicole Hemmer

Novak has sued the department for violating his civil rights, but the Sixth Circuit recently ruled that the police are protected under qualified immunity. Novak is now appealing to the Supreme Court.

Defending Novak, The Onion offered a robust defense of parody as a critically important form of political speech: “Parodists can take apart an authoritarian’s cult of personality, point out the rhetorical tricks that politicians use to mislead their constituents, and even undercut a government institution’s real-world attempts at propaganda.” To protect police officers who jail parodists – or to demand parodists “pop the balloon in advance” by slapping “parody” labels on their work – would neuter parody as a political tool, the brief argues.

Such a move would be particularly damaging to contemporary political discourse in the US. As The Onion notes, parody has been a form of political commentary for millennia.

But parody has also taken on special importance in the US in the past 30 years, as political entertainment has become a central means by which Americans understand and debate politics. As such, Americans have come to expect politics to come wrapped in parodies, punchlines and primetime pizazz – which has opened the door for satirists and comedians to become valuable political activists. To threaten to stymie parody is, as The Onion’s brief points out in its 23 pages, to fundamentally imperil Americans’ ability to engage political discourse writ large.

The brief’s argument deserves a fuller historical understanding of humor’s central position in the blend of politics and entertainment that has increasingly defined political life in the last few decades. That blend – particularly the move toward goofier, spoofier comedy bits – became more noticeable in during the 1968 election, when Richard Nixon, then a former vice president and Republican presidential candidate, popped up on the variety show “Laugh-In.” In the 1970s, comedian Chevy Chase portrayed President Gerald Ford on “Saturday Night Live.” But it was in the late 1980s and 1990s when Americans became accustomed to entertainment – especially comedy – as a primary mode of political expression.

Chevy Chase (as Gerald Ford) at desk With Ron Nessen, Ford's real Press Secretary, on 'Saturday Night Live' in 1976.

In 1992, presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Ross Perot relied on cable programs and late-night television to project their authenticity; Clinton answered questions from an audience of hundreds of young people on MTV, while Perot announced his plan to run for president on “Larry King Live.” While these and other appearances were among the most visible signals that politics and entertainment were in a new relationship, a more enduring transformation was happening with new programming developments on radio and television (and to a lesser extent, print and Internet sources).

The conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh entered national syndication in 1988 – the same year that The Onion debuted as a print parody paper – mixing comedy bits with political news in a way that felt revolutionary for national radio. Millions of listeners flocked to his radio program, and then to his best-selling books and late-night television show, for the addictive quality of his jokey, parodic, right-wing approach to politics.

Rush Limbaugh in His Studio During His Radio Show, January 12, 1995.

But it was on television that the real transformation was underway. Comedy Central, a scrappy startup cable network developed by Time-Life, debuted in 1991. It offered reruns of comedic movies, stand-up specials and a smattering of original programming. But in 1993, the channel found its voice with the show “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher.”

Modeled after the popular PBS show “The McLaughlin Group,” the show parodied the roundtable politics shows that had become a staple of news programming. It featured a monologue by Maher followed by a panel that mixed actors, comedians, activists and politicians, all vying for the biggest laugh line.

Despite the channel’s tiny viewership, “Politically Incorrect” became a hit, mixing outrage, politics and comedy in a way few Americans had experienced before. The show was so popular that it was soon bought by ABC, where it would run after the news show “Nightline” until its cancellation in 2002.

After ABC poached “Politically Incorrect,” Comedy Central sought to recreate its combination of provocative parody-politics. It landed on “The Daily Show,” which hit its stride with Jon Stewart as its host, becoming one of the most important political shows on television in the 2000s.

In particular, liberals frustrated with the administration of George W. Bush but also dissatisfied with the programming offerings on cable news came to rely on Stewart not just for entertainment but for information. A Pew poll in 2004 found that as many as 21% of young people got campaign news from shows such as “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live”: “For Americans under 30, these comedy shows are now mentioned almost as frequently as newspapers and evening network news programs as regular sources for election news.”

Former US President Bill Clinton speaks with host Jon Stewart on Comedy Centrals

The same pattern repeated itself with “The Colbert Report,” which debuted in 2005 with former “The Daily Show” correspondent Stephen Colbert as its host. Stewart and Colbert identified as comedians, but their positions at the helm of political comedy shows eventually converted them into activists. Stewart became a passionate advocate for 9/11 first responders and veterans, repeatedly testifying before Congress on their behalf. Colbert used his popular show to shed light on the dangers of Super PACs, providing far-reaching education on a complex issue and eventually testifying – in character – before Congress.

Programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” became sites not just of entertainment but education and activism (which is in part why they have so many imitators in conservative circles and in the podcast space). In the process, they became places where politics became palatable, while calling attention to profoundly important issues and even at times becoming political actors themselves.

Television personality Stephen Colbert during a taping of Comedy Central's

In the years that followed, the parody approach to politics became a mainstay of entertainment and commentary in the US. Clips from John Oliver’s show “Last Week Tonight” (which airs on HBO, which shares a parent company with CNN) flitted around Twitter on a weekly basis, while Trevor Noah took over Stewart’s role at “The Daily Show” and “Daily Show” alum Samantha Bee launched her own show (which aired on TBS, which also shares a parent company with CNN). It’s worth noting that although Noah just announced his impending departure and Bee’s show was recently canceled, indicating that while late-night is certainly in transition, it’s unlikely to get uncoupled from politics any time soon.

As political podcasts proliferated, comedy and parody shows like Jon Lovett’s “Lovett or Leave It” and the conservative podcast “Ruthless” gained large followings. The Onion, meanwhile, has evolved into a touchstone for tragedy, covering every mass shooting with a new article headlined “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” (The Onion has also underscored the difficulty of parody in an era when politics has gone off the rails, a point it nailed beautifully in its amicus brief with the line, “Much more of this, and the front page of The Onion would be indistinguishable from The New York Times.”)

At times when politics are both absurd and dangerous, when members of Congress muse about Jewish space lasers starting forest fires and when a pillow salesman becomes the lead architect for election conspiracies, parody has an even more important role to play in puncturing authority and keeping people engaged – which is why The Onion’s amicus brief, though often jokey and unserious, is a vitally important appeal to the Supreme Court.

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