Stephen Colbert has given up his run for President, a decision as much determined by the writers’ strike as by the Democratic Party’s refusal to allow him on its South Carolina ballot.
It’s a shame. I was just gearing up to give Colbert my endorsement, bestowing on him the king-making influence I wield as a college drama teacher. For politics and comedy, it’s all in the timing.
Colbert had real potential as an electoral saboteur. He has a special rapport with post-hip Americans. His fake pundit persona lights up our ironic imaginations. We’re fed up with “no-spin” screaming and “fair and balanced” propaganda. We’re sick of all the bitter bluster in the news media; we like our bluster with a smirk and a wink. Rather than ulcerate over the latest rhetorical atrocity from the likes of Bill O’Reilly, we seek shelter in the hall of fun-house mirrors of Comedy Central.
Colbert excited many with his unfulfilled promise to take his fun-house show on the campaign trail, a truly target-rich environment for satirical slingshots. He outpolled Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich; even his claim to be “far realer than Sam Brownback” proved valid (at least he outlasted Brownback). In one recent poll, Colbert scored 13 percent of the vote in an election between himself, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. Not bad for a joke candidate who clearly stated that he didn’t want to be President; he wanted to run for President. The Democratic Party in South Carolina found itself in the role of the awkward straight man in this routine, refusing him access to the ballot because he is not “a serious candidate.”
Colbert was far from the first prankster to run for office. He followed in the proud tradition of Will Rogers’s Anti-Bunk Party, Pat Paulsen, Dick Gregory, the Yippie’s “Pigasus for President,” Wavy Gravy’s “Nobody for President,” the Rhinoceros Party of Canada and Britain’s Monster Raving Loony Party (honorably led through decades of amusing defeat by the late Screaming Lord Sutch). With a potent mixture of irony and rage, Jello Biafra ran a punk mayoral campaign in San Francisco in the aftermath of the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk. In 2000, Michael Moore ran ficus plants for Congress in districts where pols were running for election unopposed, with the slogan “Because a Potted Plant Can Do No Harm.”
When the comic timing is just right, prank campaigns have a real impact. Pauline Pantsdown, a radical drag queen in Australia, sabotaged the political career of far-right, anti-immigrant politician Pauline Hanson with his/her campaign for Senate. Performance artist and composer Simon Hunt transformed himself into Pantsdown–a queer doppelganger of Hanson, wearing the same dresses, makeup and hairstyle. Pantsdown followed Hanson on the campaign trail; while Hanson’s burly bodyguards kept the dangerous drag queen at bay, the media got the joke and began to go to Pantsdown for ironic commentary. Pantsdown digitized Hanson’s voice from speeches and interviews and began mixing and composing. Soon Australia was hearing Hanson as the unwilling vocalist for two sly, bouncy, anti-Hanson dance songs. One song became an underground hit because Hanson’s party sued. The other became a top-of-the-charts sensation and was even nominated for two Australian national music awards. Hanson’s image became paired with Pantsdown’s in the press, primarily because Hanson mishandled the satire with lawsuits and a general lack of humor–not an admired trait in Australia. Hanson lost her bid for re-election at least in part because of Pantsdown’s intervention.
Joan Jett Blakk, a leftist, African-American, working-class drag queen and Queer Nation activist, crashed many parties with her “Lick Bush in ’92 Camp-Pain.” “We know this election is going to be a drag…let’s make it a real drag,” she cooed as she brought queer disruption to assimilationist gay lobbyist events, Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade and even the Democratic Party’s National Convention in New York.
And the Gnomes, a merry mass movement of costumed anarchists, ran an outrageous campaign in 1970s Amsterdam only to find that they had won five seats on the City Council. The Gnomes’ campaign had primarily been an extended prank to draw attention to the extra-parliamentary work that they considered far more authentic: creating squat-communes, collective creches, free stores and cooperative organic farms and workplaces. After the surprise electoral success, they decided to continue their shenanigans in the halls of power, disrupting the council with stink bombs, hashish and fairy tales. They were arrested and expelled repeatedly, but they shook the council into making progressive reforms on openness, local neighborhood councils and housing. Ironically, it was their electoral success that led to schisms in the movement. The Gnomes started out with a mass-mockery of elections, then split and dissolved in a heated argument about how to behave in City Council and whether to run for higher offices. The joke went on too long and turned sour.
Prank campaigns catch on in nations where everyone can vote, but people question whether their vote makes any difference. If you love Colbert’s fake news because you can’t stand the real news, you’ll enjoy mock candidates if you can’t believe you’re supposed to take the real ones seriously. Prank elections wouldn’t be happening in democracies all over the world if they didn’t resonate with marginalized and alienated groups. Campaigns like Colbert’s find their audience when people are bitter and are seeking an outlet for their frustration. This isn’t light entertainment; it’s satire, and satire is rooted in anger.
Satire is an unstable mix of idealism and cynicism. It upholds a missing or degraded social or political value by brutally mocking its absence. The smirk is a mask for deep social concern. In times of malaise and disillusionment, satirists will find receptive audiences amongst the polity. The satirist speaks mirth to power; but that mirth, and its power, is only realized by the audience’s getting the joke. In this way, satire can help build a culture of resistance. Of course, satire is a cultural mode, not an antifascist antidote; it didn’t save the Weimar Republic, though that doomed state’s cabaret scene generated some of the twentieth century’s strongest innovations in political theater.
Our electoral system is sick. Apathy, cynicism and disillusionment are the symptoms. Satire is one way that the body politic’s defenses are fighting back. I’m disappointed that Colbert dropped out. Even if he had continued as a mere write-in candidate, his sharp ridicule could have cut through the posturing and hypocrisy, helping us to work out a diagnosis for the Republic, as electoral guerrilla theatre artists have done in the past and all over the world.
But take heart, America: this means my precious endorsement is still available for the next able jester who jumps on the stump.