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Political Satire Has a Long Tradition in the US

With a New Administration, an American Comedy Group Creates New Jokes
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With a New Administration, an American Comedy Group Creates New Jokes

Political Satire Has a Long Tradition in the US
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Love him or hate him, President Donald Trump has been good for satire.

Satire is a kind of humor that makes fun of people, groups or governments. It has been around in one form or another for over 2,000 years.

The American TV show Saturday Night Live has been making fun of American presidents since 1975. The show is getting more viewers than any time in over 20 years.

The show often has American actor Alec Baldwin wearing a wig with bright orange hair, pretending to be President Trump.

In one recent show, Baldwin pretended to make phone calls to actors playing Australian President Malcolm Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Trump has made it clear he is not a fan.

He tweeted: “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live - unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can't get any worse. Sad.”

The National Review says Saturday Night Live has not only gone after Trump unfairly, but makes sexist comments about his wife, Melania, and one of his top aides, Kellyanne Conway.

The National Review’s Carrie Lukas wrote, “SNL depicts Conway — the president of a successful polling company she launched at age 29 — as an airhead, a publicity hound, and a gold digger.” She added that it ignores the fact that Conway was the first woman to lead a successful presidential campaign.

Sometimes it is hard to tell satire from “real news.” The White House recently ran a list of stories and comments on the White House website that it said praised the president’s budget. It included a story in The Washington Post with the title, “Trump’s budget makes perfect sense and will fix America, and I will tell you why.”

But the article was actually a satire by Post writer Alexandra Petri. She wrote about a big reduction in money for the U.S. State Department. “With the money we will save on these sad public servants, we will be able to buy lots of GUNS and F-35s and other cool things that go BOOM and POW and PEW PEW PEW.”

Trump supporters also watching

Trump supporters let performers know when they feel they have gone too far in making fun of the president, said Ed Furman of the Chicago satirical group, “Second City.” They do so by booing -- a sound that shows disapproval, Furman said.

He added that at one show, an audience member shouted out, “Get over it, you lost,” after a Trump joke.

Still, Trump is giving today’s satirical performers a lot of material. Time Magazine Managing Editor Nancy Gibbs wrote Thursday, “Whether it's the size of his inaugural crowds or voter fraud or NATO funding or the claim that he was wiretapped, Trump says a great many things that are demonstrably false.”

Larry Bogad is a performer and professor of performance studies at University of California Davis. He said satire is supposed to use exaggeration -- make something seem worse or better than it is.

But he said it is difficult, in his words, "exaggerate all the incredible things Trump is saying and doing every day.”

Long history of satire

Satire goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks 2,400 years ago when Aristophanes made fun of the Peloponnesian War. Ben Franklin, an American founding father, wrote satire to make fun of the British during the war of Independence.

Satire has sometimes been met with violence.

In 2011, attackers broke the hand of Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat after he drew a cartoon showing President Bashar al-Assad leaving town with Moammar Qaddafi of Libya.

In 2015, gunmen killed 12 people at the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The attackers reportedly shouted that they were avenging Prophet Mohammed. The magazine had run controversial cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed.

More options today for satire

Today, with television and the internet, satire is seemingly everywhere. American TV and cable shows such as “The Daily Show,” “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” often make Trump a target of their humor.

Samantha Bee
Samantha Bee

Robert Thompson is director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at New York’s Syracuse University. He said satirical television shows are not giving Democrats a free pass.

Thompson noted that Jon Stewart, the former host of The Daily Show, often made fun of Democratic President Barack Obama.

“The performers may be left of center, but comedy always has to aim at the person who is in power,” Thompson said.

The Capitol Steps is a Washington D.C.-based satirical group of former congressional staffers. The group is known for making fun of both Republicans and Democrats.

Recently, the group made fun of Democrat Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump in the 2016 presidential election

There are also satirical shows at state capitals from New York to Louisiana. Even a small community outside Washington D.C., called Bannockburn, does a yearly show making fun of politicians and local issues. Popular subjects might include neighbors who do not clean up after their dogs or teenagers being embarrassed by their parents.

This year’s show, the group’s 61st, has 50 performers -- ages 8-86.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

wig - n. artificial hair that you wear on your head because you are bald or in order to change your appearance

pretend - v. to imagine and act out a particular role or situation

biased - adj. having or showing an unfair tendency to believe that some people, ideas are better than others

fraud - n. a person who pretends to be what he or she is not in order to trick people or, in this case, to vote

wiretap - v. to place a device on someone's phone in order to secretly listen to telephone calls

cartoonist - n. someone who draws cartoons, drawings in a newspaper or magazine intended as a humorous comment on something

avenge - v to harm or punish someone who has harmed you or someone or something that you care about

controversial - adj. relating to or causing much discussion, disagreement, or argument

embarrass - v. to make someone feel confused and foolish in front of other people