Conservatives used to have all the fun. Many years ago, right-wingers managed to use one-liners and political spoofs to skewer liberals as out of touch with mainstream American values. A good example was Ronald Reagan, who once defined a hippy as "a fellow who dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah." In 1965, William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review, actually interviewed himself at the National Press Club about why he was running for Mayor of New York. ("To breed a little fear in the political nabobs who believe they can fool all the people all the time," Buckley said.)
Those days, thank God, are finally dead. Currently, progressives are busily bridging the humor-and satire-gaps that once separated liberals from Rush Limbaugh and his countless imitators. Comedy, one of the biggest weapons in the progressive arsenal, is once again (remember Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Second City) being used to effectively get the liberal message out in fresh, irreverent ways.
According to a January Pew Research Center survey, 20 percent of those under 30 receive their political news from places like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Since late-night comedy, more often than not, skewers the right, the young are hearing a brief against President George W. Bush, and watching these shows not-too-subtly support causes like gay rights, reproductive freedom, alternative energy sources and Internet privacy. Bill Maher, star of HBO's Real Time, for example, lambasts Bush for refusing to send troops to Haiti "unless they start doing something there that is really dangerous, like letting gays marry."
Most promising is that Maher, Al Franken and others like Michael Moore and the Texas populist Jim Hightower are using humor to expose conservatives for what they truly are--mean-spirited, hyperbolic, and hypocritical. (Remember how in Bowling for Columbine, Moore lampooned NRA gun nuts at a pro-gun speech by Charlton Heston in Denver, the NRA's president, just 10 days after the Columbine shootings.)
And the level of liberal comedy activity is rising quickly. On March 31, Air America, a progressive radio network, will launch a new 24-hour radio program in three cities, including New York, with hosts ranging from comedian Al Franken ("The O'Franken Factor") and Janeane Garafola to rap artist Chuck D., Nation author Laura Flandersand former Daily Show writer and co-creator Lizz Winstead.
Will Air America have the appeal to go toe-to-toe in the ratings war with the right's radio heavyweights? The moment seems right, what with an election that has galvanized progressives in ways not seen for decades and with an audience that is terribly under-served.
Meanwhile, the Daily Show's Stewart consistently skewers President Bush for misleading Americans about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the 2000 election debacle--"Indecision 2000." Columnist Molly Ivins --Texas's La Pasionaria of intellect and humor--describes Bush as a "shrub" and "another li'l upper-class white boy out trying to prove he's tough." Franken, in his brilliant anti-conservative primer Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, exposes Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter as bullies and frauds.
And, on the grassroots front, a slew of activist groups--two good examples are the Radical Cheerleaders and Billionaires for Bush--are using humor and savvy political messages to bring progressive values to the media's attention. Finally, on the off-Broadway stage at New York's Public Theater, an antiwar satire, written and directed by Academy-award winning actor Tim Robbins, is drawing big crowds nightly for its skewering of White House war planners.
The beauty of all this liberal satire is that progressives, armed with a new bully pulpit, make conservatives seem musty, mean and out of touch. Meantime, Franken & Co. are flat-out funny, deftly promoting progressive values in populist language that seems targeted to win hearts and minds. Let the Franken reign begin!