ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.
[THE DAILY SHOW THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
JON STEWART: I’ve got big news. This is it! This is the final episode. What a night. What a big, big night.
ED: Jon Stewart may have just bid farewell to the 16 years of satirical news, but if the past is any guide, satire itself isn’t going anywhere. Take Puck. It was like the Mad Magazine of the 1880s.
MARK SUMMERS: Puck was so influential, so powerful, that the Republican Party decided they needed to have their own cartoon voice.
ED: In those days, writers like Mark Twain made a living lampooning America. But even Twain thought satire could go too far.
PETER: What he said was, I have told the truth, and that’s something no man can afford to do until I am dead.
ED: Coming up on BackStory, a history of satire. Don’t go away.
PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American History Guys.
Welcome to the show. I’m Peter Onuf, here with Brian Balogh–
BRIAN: Hey there.
PETER: –and Ed Ayers.
ED: Good to be with you guys.
MALE SPEAKER: We’ll hear arguments first this morning in number 861278.
PETER: We’re going to start today in the hallowed chamber of US Supreme Court. In December 1987, the court’s nine justices heard from something of an odd couple.
MALE SPEAKER: Hustler Magazine and Larry C. Flynt versus Jerry Falwell.
PETER: The case before them was Hustler v. Falwell, a pornographic publisher and a polarizing preacher. And the justices were hearing a novel argument– that Hustler had a First Amendment right to make fun of Falwell without fear of being sued. Hustler’s lawyer put it this way.
MALE SPEAKER: In this situation, the new area that is sought to be protected is satirical critical commentary of a public figure which does not contain any assertions of fact.
PETER: In other words, satire about a public figure, no matter how cruel or insulting, should be free speech.
ED: The battle began with a fake ad in Hustler a few years earlier. It spoofed popular Campari liqueur ads of the early ’80s that featured celebrities provocatively recounting their first time. Now, the punchline in the real ads was that the celebrities were, of course, recalling their first sip of Campari, not their first sexual experience.
RODNEY SMOLLA: So Hustler did an exact replica of the Campari ads.
ED: This is Rodney Smolla, Dean of the Delaware Law School at Widener University.
RODNEY SMOLLA: But they did a very vicious twist on it.
ED: Hustler’s ad featured a fake interview Falwell in which he described his first time.
RODNEY SMOLLA: But it was enormously vulgar. So it begins with my first time was in an outhouse with my mother. And that’s about as far as we can go on radio, I think, without having you lose your license from the FCC.
ED: Flynt and Falwell had a long history of targeting each other, but this time, Falwell said, Flynt had crossed a line.
RODNEY SMOLLA: And the idea of him having an incestuous relationship with his mother made him absolutely livid with rage. And he instantly made the decision, I can’t let this stand. I have to fight back.
ED: But Falwell couldn’t just sue Flynt for publishing a lie. The Hustler ad included a footnote that said “ad parody,” not be taken seriously. So Falwell also sought damages for emotional distress.
As the case wound its way to the Supreme Court, media organizations, serious and satirical alike, paid close attention.
RODNEY SMOLLA: This was not just a case about a pornographic magazine, but a case that really put the whole world of satire and parody and harsh criticism of public figures on trial.
ED: That’s when Smolla got involved. As a young lawyer, he represented mainstream media companies like the New York Times, concerned that a ruling against Flynt would affect what they could say about public figures. Flynt’s lawyer, Alan Isaacman summed up the stakes for the Justices this way.
ALAN ISAACMAN: Is rhetorical hyperbole, satire, parody, protected by the First Amendment?
PETER: Falwell’s lawyers argued that Flynt’s heinous satire contributed to an ongoing degradation of American decency.
RODNEY SMOLLA: And it’s going to become the law of the jungle, and our society will be made more course if you don’t draw the line somewhere.
PETER: But heinous is a fuzzy concept. The Justices carefully tested the arguments, pressing both sides to pinpoint a clear definition of acceptable satire that could help measure emotional distress. Smolla still remembers the moment he knew the court had swung. It was an unintended laugh line.
RODNEY SMOLLA: I’ll never forget. I sat right behind the lawyer Alan Isaacman. He’s searching for some way to put it. And he says–
ALAN ISAACMAN: Instead of Jerry Falwell speaking from the television with a beatific look on his face and a–
RODNEY SMOLLA: And then Isaacman put his hands out like he was gesturing to the court. And he said–
ALAN ISAACMAN: Instead of that situation, Hustler is saying, let’s deflate this stuffed shirt. Let’s bring him down to our level.
RODNEY SMOLLA: And it looked like he was saying, down to Thurgood Marshall’s level, you know, or a real William Rehnquist level. And it just caused the Justices to laugh.
And William Rehnquist, the Chief Justice, he laughed so hard, he went under the bench for a second. He doubled over and got up. And I remember looking to another one of my colleagues, and I whispered, we just won the case, because if they could laugh about it, I thought, they could see we cannot, we cannot, rule this out of bounds in American society.
PETER: The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Flynt, and, in a way, in favor of the American tradition of satire. Ready for the majority, then Chief Justice Rehnquist invoked jokes about the tall and gangly Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Nast cartoons skewering New York machine politician Boss Tweed, and drawings of Teddy Roosevelt with enormous teeth. There might have been no legal precedent for the court, but there were plenty of historical precedents.
RODNEY SMOLLA: There had been a long American tradition of political cartoons, political lampoons, vicious attacks on public figures– sometimes funny, sometimes not funny– that had always been part of our culture.
PETER: From the viewpoint of history, wrote Rehnquist, it is clear is that our political discourse would have been considerably poorer without them.
BRIAN: It’s been nearly 30 years since Hustler v. Falwell, and it’s safe to say Americans aren’t lacking for satirical voices. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, in particular, has become a liberal icon by taking on that 24 hour news cycle. But as Chief Justice Rehnquist noted, the tradition of American satire, well, it stretches back centuries. So in our own nod to Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show, we’ll spend an hour exploring that history.
ED: We’ll hear how Humor Magazine with once credited with swinging a presidential election, explore the equal opportunity satire of the Harlem Renaissance, and learn what topic was so taboo that even Mark Twain backed away.
BRIAN: But first, we’re going to take you to January 1778, the depths of the American Revolution. It was a dark time for the patriots. The British had just seized Philadelphia, and they sent the Continental Army packing. George Washington’s were living off meager rations in the snows of Valley Forge across the Delaware River.
PETER: Amid the low morale, a dedicated revolutionary and poet named Francis Hopkinson cooked up a plan. He teamed up with a military inventor by the name of David Bushnell to hatch a counterinsurgency of sorts.
BENJAMIN IRVIN: It’s truly cloak and dagger stuff, Peter.
PETER: This is historian Benjamin Irvin.
BENJAMIN IRVIN: Hopkinson and Bushnell determined to float kegs of gunpowder, charged so as to detonate on contact, down the Delaware River in hope that they would make contact with these British ships patrolling the Delaware River since 1776. And their vision was that just maybe with a little luck, they might blow up some of these ships.
PETER: Would that be just a little luck or a lot of luck, Ben?
BENJAMIN IRVIN: Well, unfortunately, more luck than they had. Things went awry.
BRIAN: Bushnell launched the kegs, but he set them afloat too far upstream. Most just got stuck in the ice. The first only reached the enemy fleet the next morning, and the rest took several days. In the end, not one barrel so much as scratched a single British vessel.
PETER: It was an embarrassing incident for the patriots, and would have remained so if not for the plot’s co-creator, Francis Hopkinson. He wrote satirical tellings of the story that skewered the British. And in his tail, the frantic British fleet were terrified of the floating kegs, going as far as opening fire upon them. As Irvin told me, the most effective satire took the form of a song.
BENJAMIN IRVIN: And he set this ballad to the memorable tune of “Yankee Doodle,” thereby ensuring that it would reach a broad audience.
PETER: So walk us, talk us, sing us through “The Battle of the Kegs.”
BENJAMIN IRVIN: I’d be happy to. I only regret that I didn’t bring my guitar.
PETER: All right.
BENJAMIN IRVIN: (SINGING) Gallants, attend and hear a friend, drill forth harmonious ditty. Strange things I’ll tell which late befell in Philadelphia City.
PETER: Whoa, Ben, not bad for an amateur. You’ll be happy to know that we got some professionals, some friends of the show, a band called Fake Natives, to cover “The Battle of the Kegs” for us.
[MUSIC PLAYING – FAKE NATIVES, “THE BATTLE OF THE KEGS”]
MALE SPEAKER: (SINGING) ‘Twas early day, as poets say–
BENJAMIN IRVIN: Oh my gosh.
MALE SPEAKER: –just when the sun was rising. A soldier stood on a log of wood and saw the sight surprising.
PETER: Speed us ahead. Skip a few stanzas.
BENJAMIN IRVIN: Sure, sure, sure.
PETER: Where is this all going, anyway? We know where the kegs are going, which is nowhere. But where’s the song going?
BENJAMIN IRVIN: The song is going towards an incessant blaze of gunfire that the British are going to hurl towards these kegs in a brave and heroic effort to destroy them before they are destroyed.
MALE SPEAKER: (SINGING) Therefore, prepare for bloody war. These kegs must all be routed, or surely we despised shall be and British courage doubted.
PETER: So why are the British supposed to be so freaked out about these kegs, Ben?
BENJAMIN IRVIN: Well, according to Hopkinson, the British believe that these kegs are packed with continentals who are going to spring out and invade the city, much like the Greeks did at the Battle of Troy.
PETER: Submarine warfare– terrific.
What I want to know is this. Would anybody have heard this song or sung this song and believed it? And what does it do for them? It seems so silly on the face of it.
BENJAMIN IRVIN: It’s absolutely silly. And I actually think that’s one of the keys to is popular success– that, unlike a lot of American satire in the era of the Revolution, this was funny. This was something that was a source of amusement. And we know, for example, that continental soldiers were singing it in their camps before the war was over. And there were all sorts of details in this ballad that would have been points of interest and points of hilarity for the patriots.
For example, Hopkinson makes a reference to Mrs. Loring, by which he’s tossing a bar about Sir William Howe, the British commander. And it goes like this.
PETER: Ah, right.
BENJAMIN IRVIN: (SINGING) Sir William, he, snug as a flee, lay all this time a-snoring, nor dreamt of harm as he lay warm in bed with Mrs. Loring.
PETER: Woo. That’s pretty nasty. Low blow.
BENJAMIN IRVIN: It is nasty stuff. It’s salacious. Mrs. Loring was the wife of a Massachusetts Loyalist, and she accompanied the British commander as part of his entourage. So this not only impugns Howe’s morality, but it suggests, perhaps, that he’s too distracted by vice to win the war. And that’s an accusation that would follow Howe and haunt Howe back in England.
PETER: You mean he could have the Battle of the Kegs?
BENJAMIN IRVIN: Perhaps he could have won the Battle of the Kegs. Perhaps, if he had not been so distracted at the Battle of the Kegs, he might not have been so distracted and other opportunities to quash Washington’s army.
PETER: Right. So Ben, what general conclusion can you draw from this ditty of Hopkinson’s, which is, in effect, a self criticism. He’s mocking his own failure. Why is that so effective?
BENJAMIN IRVIN: Well, I think it was effective for a few reasons. In part because ridicule– that’s one of the great strengths of satire– that in the form of ridicule, the powerful can be made to appear ludicrous. And consequently, that’s very empowering for the underdog, as it were.
And we also see that the contest is not always won or lost in the battle itself, but in the popular remembrance of it. This is spin, right? This is Hopkinson. It doesn’t matter what really happened in January 1778. It only matters how it is remembered.
PETER: On the other hand, is there an element of Americans feeling strong enough to laugh at themselves? Because they would know that this Battle of the Kegs was a farce– that if you looked too deep, you’d say, this is a failure. Is that an element, do you think, Ben, in the success of this song?
BENJAMIN IRVIN: Perhaps it is, especially after the surrender at Yorktown. And that’s one of the enduring qualities of “The Battle of the Kegs.” Once the Americans, once the continentals had won the war, it became much easier to look back and laugh at themselves. And I think that’s one of the reasons why “The Battle of the Kegs” reaches the height of its popularity not in the 1780s, but in the 1810s, 1820s, and beyond.
PETER: Oh, really? So it lasted that long.
BENJAMIN IRVIN: Absolutely.
PETER: In fact, you’re still singing it. You’re still singing it today.
BENJAMIN IRVIN: I’m still singing it today.
PETER: Benjamin Irvin is a historian at the University of Arizona and author of Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty, The Continental Congress, and People Outdoors. The covers of Hopkinson’s “Battle of the Kegs” were provided to us by the band Fake Natives and Michael Hornsby. We’ll have the songs for download on our website, backstoryradio.org.
BRIAN: Earlier, we heard from Dean Rod Smolla of the Delaware Law School at Widener University. His book on the landmark satire case is Jerry Falwell v. Larry Flynt: the First Amendment On Trial..
ED: It’s time for us to take a short break, but stay with us. When we get back, Mark Twain finds a topic that even he wouldn’t publicly satirize.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.
PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, with Jon Stewart’s recent departure from The Daily Show, we’re looking at the history of those who have satirized American life.
PETER: In 1901, Mark Twain came across a newspaper story of a lynching in Missouri. He was appalled, not only at the gruesome act, but also the rising number of lynchings in the American South. So Twain sat down at his typewriter and wrote a response. What, he asked, could possibly provoke Americans to commit such a grotesque form of violence?
MARK TWAIN: Is it because men think a lowered and terrible punishment, a more forcible object lesson, and a more effective deterrent than a sober and colorless hanging done privately in a jail would be?
PETER: Twain then switched tones. He offered a satirical solution to the problem.
STEPHEN RAILTON: The missionaries, the Christian missionaries who were in China–
PETER: This is Steven Railton, a Mark Twain scholar at the University of Virginia.
STEPHEN RAILTON: Spreading civilization was what they said. He said that was the worst gift we could possibly give anybody– our civilization. So his solution to the problem of lynching is to find enough men of moral character to stand up to a lynch mob and keep them and show them there’s another way. And he says, we’ve got the men for that job in those Christian missionaries.
MARK TWAIN: We employ them to come back and help us in our need. They are competent. Our people are not. They have the martyr spirit, and nothing but the martyr spirit can brave a lynching mob and cow it and scatter it. They can save their country. We beseech them to come home and do it.
BRIAN: Twain planned to publish the essay in an anthology chronicling lynching in America.
STEPHEN RAILTON: He sent the idea for this book, along with the essay, to his publisher, a guy named Bliss. And Bliss wrote him back, as Twain explained to a friend, to say that if they publish that book, he wouldn’t have even half a friend left in the South.
BRIAN: Twain never published The United States of Lyncherdom, though recently enjoyed a renewed burst of publicity in the wake of the racially motivated mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Twain’s self censorship might seem off to many Americans. After all, Railton says he didn’t shy away from satirizing racism in the American South in works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
And so I asked, why did Twain published that critique, but he pulled his punches when it came to his lynching essay?
STEPHEN RAILTON: If you’re writing Huck Finn in the 1880s and you’re making fun of the antebellum South 50 years ago, nobody in your audience is going to identify with the people along that river.
BRIAN: Ah, so he used history.
STEPHEN RAILTON: Used the past, used distance in time or distance in space as a way of creating safe targets to be both funny and satirical. That was the formula for his great success. And all his work takes some other place or some other time as its setting. He was best known to his contemporaries for his travel books. His first book and his biggest success in the course of his lifetime was a book about going to Europe and the Holy Land right after the Civil War called Innocence Abroad where it makes fun of the Catholics in Italy and the Arabs in the Holy Land.
But the older he got and the more success he had, the more he wanted to really express what he felt about his world, not about the past or some other world. And that’s the kind of thing that The United States of Lyncherdom is. But he always felt very vulnerable when he started in that direction, toward confronting his audience with their own failures.
And in many cases, like this particular essay, at the last minute, he lost his nerve and decided to put it in a box.
BRIAN: Well, I’m curious about this business of writing something and not publishing it. How many other things did Mark Twain write and not publish?
STEPHEN RAILTON: Oh, lots. More and more as his career went on– the manuscripts just piled up. Not long after his death, his literary executor began publishing them. But there are still many things that are unpublished.
One of the most frequently reproduced pieces from the whole of Mark Twain’s career these days is a very short and amazingly powerful critique of war called The War Prayer, which he wrote four years after The United States of Lyncherdom. It’s set in a country that’s about to go to war, and it describes a church service in which the minister prays fervently for the troops to be successful in war for God to bless the cause and the flag.
And in the middle of that service, an angel comes down from God to say, do you know what you’re really praying for? You’re praying for widows. You’re praying for destroyed homes. You’re praying for refugees. And when the United States was in Vietnam, for example, or when the United States went into Iraq, The War Prayer showed up all over the place. It’s been probably reproduced as often as Huck Finn. But Mark Twain never published it.
BRIAN: Why would it have been so dangerous to publish in 1905?
STEPHEN RAILTON: Well, Mark Twain was extremely sensitive about risking all that he had earned, the fame and the popularity and the financial success, by entertaining his audience. So he was always worried that he could lose all of that very quickly if he said something that would offend rather than entertain that audience.
What he said was, I have told the truth too plainly in that piece. And that’s something no man can afford to do until I am dead.
STEPHEN RAILTON: But he felt that about a lot of things. Mark Twain’s contemporaries knew that he was a satirist, knew that he was a critic of a lot of things, like shams and hypocrisies. But they had no idea what he really thought about an awful lot of things. We still don’t know exactly what Sam Clemens– that’s the distinction I like to make, that the difference between what Sam Clemens thought and what Mark Twain was allowed to say.
And Mark Twain is a very carefully performed and edited version of Sam Clemens.
BRIAN: Well, Steve, thank you for joining us today on BackStory.
STEPHEN RAILTON: It was a pleasure.
BRIAN: Steven Railton is an English professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Mark Twain, A Short Introduction.
We’re gonna turn now to a topic that just begs for satirical treatment– presidential elections. Look no further than The Daily Show’s coverage of Donald Trump this summer.
JON STEWART: This is amazing. America’s id is running for president. Trump is the part of your brain that’s like, at 3 AM, going, let’s go take a [BLEEP] in a mailbox. Come on, who’s gonna know?
BRIAN: But we’re gonna take you back to another campaign, one that was also ripe for satire– the election of 1884.
ED: James G. Blaine was a Republican candidate. He was both charismatic and well known for being corrupt. By contrast, his Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland, had a spotless public record. But his private life included a child that he had fathered out of wedlock years before.
The previous two decades of presidential elections in America had been overshadowed by the gloom of the Civil War. But in 1884, it was time for satire to lighten the mood and to change political cartooning forever in the process.
BackStory producer Emily Gadek has the details.
EMILY GADEK: In June of 1884, Republicans gathered in Chicago’s Exposition Hall to choose their candidate for president. Up on stage, James G. Blaine supporters were painting a picture of him as a dignified statesman. But a very different image was being passed around the Convention Hall by Blaine’s rivals.
MARK SUMMERS: Blaine, in fact, was caricatured as a freak in a circus.
EMILY GADEK: This is Mark Summers, a historian at the University of Kentucky. He says the image was hard to forget. In vivid color, it showed Blaine cowering in his underwear before a crowd, his body covered in scandalous tattoos.
MARK SUMMERS: And being unveiled before the Republican tribunal like a blushing prostitute there with all of his sins, all of his graft, all of his crookedness, all tattooed on him– Blaine was, of course, furious. And he thought of suing the magazine, but he realized if he did that, this picture would circulate even wider and everyone would know of him as the tattooed man.
EMILY GADEK: The cartoon came straight from the pages of Puck Magazine, America’s first successful humor publication. Think Mad Magazine, but with a lot more jokes about tariff reform. It was the brainchild of an Austrian immigrant named Joseph Keppler.
MARK SUMMERS: Joseph Keppler, the lead artist there, was probably one of the greatest cartoonists that America has ever had.
EMILY GADEK: Before Puck, most political cartoons were drawn in black and white. They ran in serious news magazines like Harper’s Weekly. Puck was different. Its cartoons came wrapped in pages of humorous essays and silly jokes. And it was one of the first magazines that printed in color, with bright covers and sprawling cartoon centerfolds.
For first time readers, it was like that moment from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy emerges from black and white Kansas into color-filled munchkinland. But it also packed a
MARK SUMMERS: Puck was a brilliant , frothy piece of work. It made fun of canting and pious and hypocritical ministers. It mocked the big businesses and the monopolies. And it took after Blaine with the most savage artist’s crayon and savage colors you found.
EMILY GADEK: Puck ran a tattooed man cartoon pretty much every week, turning Blaine’s corrupt reputation into a central issue of the campaign. And that made Blaine’s supporters nervous. So they approached a rival humor magazine called Judge, hoping to shift the focus to Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland’s scandalous personal life.
MARK SUMMERS: Puck was so influential, so powerful, that the Republican Party decided they needed to have their own cartoon voice. And they began to pour money into Judge, because it was the only way you could make an answer to Puck. You can answer editorial easily with another editorial, but you can’t answer a picture with an editorial. The only way you can respond to pictures is with other pictures.
EMILY GADEK: Unfortunately for Republicans, Judge spent far more time attacking rival cartoonists than going after Cleveland. Cartoon historian Richard West says that even when they focused on the politics, they just couldn’t keep up with Puck.
RICHARD WEST: Every time they did a cartoon where they show Blaine, they were still using the tattooed man motif. And they tried to turn it on its head and show Blaine with tattoos like “statesman” and “leader” on his chest instead of the names of scandals he had been involved in. It was a subtle recognition, or maybe not so subtle recognition, that Puck had kind of already won the battle.
EMILY GADEK: Cleveland won his battle too. He squeaked into office and publicly credited Puck with handing him the election, which is kind of a big deal. Just imagine President Obama’s thanking Saturday Night Live for getting him elected with those relentless Sarah Palin skits.
The election put Puck on the map. The magazine’s circulation soared, and the staff moved into a huge new building in New York City. And a new crop of Puck-ish humor magazines even sprung up across the country.
RICHARD WEST: There are dozens and dozens of imitators of Puck, but none of them ever surpassed Puck in its style and its wit and the beauty of its cartoons.
EMILY GADEK: Humor magazines weren’t the only copycats. Puck had also shown newspapers that satire could sell. By the end of the 1884 election, editorial cartoons were splashed across the front pages of New York City’s daily papers. They weren’t as captivating or as colorful as Puck’s, but that didn’t matter.
RICHARD WEST: The point was the political cartoon had finally migrated to the daily newspaper, and it would never go back. As newspaper cartoons grew bigger and brighter, they gradually eclipsed Puck. The magazine finally folded 1918, but its playful spirit lived on as the cartoonists who had drawn for Puck in its heyday went on to draw the Sunday funnies and front page editorials for newspaper men like Hearst and Pulitzer.
RICHARD WEST: They really are the creators of the legacy where political cartoonings are a daily experience, a daily event for a lot of us, and not cartoons to make us angry and to make us hate, but to make us laugh. And that, in American history and in cartooning, is really very, very new.
ED: BackStory producer Emily Gadek brought us that story. You also heard from University of Kentucky historian Mark Summers, the author of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion: the Making of a President, 1884; and from Rich West, author of What Fools These Mortal Be, the Story of Puck.
If you’re ever in East Hampton, Massachusetts, you can find issues of Puck at West’s store, Periodicy, dedicated to 19th century magazines.
BRIAN: It’s time for us to take another break. When we return, a satirical look at race through science fiction and the Harlem Renaissance.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
ED: Hi, podcast listeners. We have a new show for you in the works on the history of fire, coming out in August. And for a segment on that show, we have a question we want you, our faithful listeners, to answer for us. What item from your own past would you save from a fire?
Brian, Peter, I want to put that question to you guys. You’ve got one moment to save your most important possession in a fire. What do you choose?
BRIAN: Easy, Ed. When I was 10, I climbed on the LA Dodgers bus after a spring training game, and the whole team signed my baseball– Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Walter Alston. I am saving that baseball first.
ED: Wow. Wow. Peter, that’s pretty good, what do you got?
PETER: Well, I got one for you. I have this poster from a conference I organized for Jeffersonian legacies, and it has a lot of signatures on it, including yours, Ed.
ED: I’d go for the baseball, Peter, but that’s fine. Well, listeners, we’d love to know what you would choose, so you need to call us up. The number is 434-260-1053. That’s 434-260-1053. And you can also tell us online. We’re on Facebook and Twitter, where our handle is @backstoryradio. Or visit our website, backstoryradio.org. We’re looking forward to hearing from you in one medium or another.
This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today, we’re laughing, chuckling, and possibly rolling in our eyes on an hour dedicated to satire and satirical humor in American history.
BRIAN: One of our listeners recently called in with a question about partisan satire.
MARGOT: Hi. This is Margot from Washington, DC. Why does it seem like liberals have a monopoly on satire? Why isn’t there a conservative version of The Daily Show or Colbert Report or Last Week Tonight? Did conservatives ever have popular satire?
BRIAN: We got political historian Brian Rosenwald on the line to answer Margot’s questions. Brian studied American conservative politics at the University of Virginia. He told me one of the biggest names in conservative media today actually struck a satirical cord early in his career.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: It might surprise people today because his show has changed over time, but especially in the early days when Rush Limbaugh went national in 1988, he did all kinds of satirical bits. He did one thing where he played a record, and he told his audience, if you play backwards, you’re going to hear the devil. And he had someone overdub voice parts in so that when he played it backwards, you heard this voice speaking to you– and silly, fun kind of things like that.
BRIAN: And was it the voice of Ted Kennedy?
BRIAN ROSENWALD: I can’t remember who did the voice, but Ted Kennedy is a frequent target on conservative talk radio in a satirical way. Rush did a parody to the tune of Dion’s “The Wanderer” that was called “The Philanderer.”
RUSH LIMBAUGH: (SINGING) Oh, well, I’m the type of guy who will never settle down. Where pretty girls are, well, you know that I’m around, because I’m a philanderer. Yes, a philanderer. I sleep around, around, around, around.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: And he makes jokes. He used to say he was a supporter of the women’s movement when he was behind it– things that, to a certain ear, were very funny. And to other people, they were horrible. But just like Jon Stewart can make a joke about white Christian men in a way that his audience might find funny, Rush Limbaugh can do that with minority groups.
BRIAN: But if conservatives can do satire, why isn’t there a conservative version of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report?
BRIAN ROSENWALD: Actually, Brian, they’ve tried. There was a Fox show called The Half Hour News Program that didn’t last very long, frankly, because it wasn’t very good. And right now, Fox is trying again with a Sunday night program, The Greg Gutfeld Show, that I think they’ve done seven episodes of.
BRIAN: What is your own take on that? Is it good satire?
BRIAN ROSENWALD: The Half Hour News Show struggled. According to one of the writers, their best material got axed by Fox News executives because they thought it was going to be too controversial. Gutfeld, from the couple episodes I’ve watched, it gets a little bit stale. There’s a seriousness to it, and it’s the same problem liberals had in talk radio. They’re not as focused on entertaining. They have more political goals. So the venue and the audience really matter incredibly.
BRIAN: Brian, it seems like both liberal and conservative satirists need to make fun of somebody. Somebody needs to be, quote, victimized by their humor. But is it possible that conservatives more often make fun of groups that are currently or at least were quite recently marginalized, not really part of the establishment, genuinely discriminated against?
BRIAN ROSENWALD: I think that’s true. But I think to understand it from a conservative perspective, satire at its best is challenging established power structures. And I think, to a lot of conservatives, because the status quo was changed through the rights movements of the ’60s and ’70s, they feel like groups were being favored by government. They feel like they are being put down and are powerless themselves. And so to them, targeting those people– they don’t see minority groups.
It’s one reason that conservative satire can be so controversial. To a liberal ear, the bits sound horrible. They sound racist. They sound sexist.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: To a conservative ear, it sounds like these people who are getting the government to go to bat for them and be on their side and advantage them over you, the long suffering conservative, who feels marginalized and maligned and isn’t sure what you can say in polite company anymore. It’s nice to be able to hear someone saying the things that you’re thinking and doing it in a funny way.
MAN: (SINGING) [INAUDIBLE] Rush Limbaugh on my radio. He sure knows how to put on a show. Yes, it helps that all the things he says are true. But what’s better is how he seems to make them funny too.
BRIAN: We called Margot back to see Brian Rosenwald answered the question.
MARGOT: I think it was very surprising to learn that conservative groups might themselves feel maligned. And as a fairly liberal person, it would be hard for me to see it that way. So it’s interesting.
BRIAN: Margot, did you find “The Philanderer,” which I will deem classic satire, did you find it funny?
MARGOT: It was bordering on funny. I wouldn’t say was great satire, because it’s just making fun of someone for something they already know. It didn’t really seem to connect any dots that things like The Daily Show are really famous for– making those points or calling out hypocritical people. It was just making fun of Ted Kennedy for being a philanderer, which I guess is kind of funny.
BRIAN: Margot, not kidding about this– thank you so much.
MARGOT: Thank you.
BRIAN: Brian Rosenwald recently received his Ph.D. In history at the University of Virginia.
PETER: We’re going to turn from the history of satire to satire about history. There is a web series that caught our attention called Ask a Slave. It’s produced by these two.
JORDAN BLACK: Hey, I’m Jordan Black, and I directed Ask a Slave.
AZIE DUNGEY: Hi, I’m Azie Dungey, and I wrote and starred in Ask a Slave.
PETER: Dungey plays a character named Lizzie Mae, based loosely on a real enslaved woman Dungey used to portray as a living history actor at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
AZIE DUNGEY: Good day to you, lords and ladies. I’m Lizzie Mae, personal housemaid to President and Lady Washington.
BRIAN: In the series, she appears in period costume on a set made to resemble a room in Mount Vernon. People acting as contemporary visitors to the estate ask Lizzie Mae questions.
ED: These are actual questions that Dungey fielded from real visitors while working at Mount Vernon. Here’s a sampling.
FEMALE SPEAKER: If you’re a slave, why do you have clothes?
MALE SPEAKER: Why are you a slave? Is it through an internship? Are there other internships that you can apply for?
FEMALE SPEAKER: What does George Washington think of Abraham Lincoln freeing all of his slaves?
MALE SPEAKER: I know slavery was bad and all, but aren’t you glad we made you black people question so you can go to heaven now?
FEMALE SPEAKER: Who invented slavery?
AZIE DUNGEY: And I took all the most outrageous, disturbing, offensive enlightening questions and tried to build a show around it.
BRIAN: We asked Dungey and Black to tell us how their reading of history shaped the show.
JORDAN BLACK: We’re using the past to satirize the present. So the lessons to be learned and the comedic commenting that we’re doing is for the way that people think today– in my opinion, how some people think today.
JORDAN BLACK: People don’t know anything about slavery. Like, you have a conversation with people, they know nothing about slavery. They just flat out don’t. Most people don’t know anything other than slaves work for free and then we had the Civil War and they fought and then they got freed.
AZIE DUNGEY: Yeah, I think in the end, it’s also a matter of equality, because if we can’t even give equal representation to our past, then I question whether we’ve really come to a place where we understand racial equality in our present.
JORDAN BLACK: Right.
AZIE DUNGEY: Our history is just as important and as profound and as fundamental to the origins of this country as white history.
MALE SPEAKER: So how did you get to be housemaid for such a distinguished founding father? Did you see the advertisement in the newspaper?
AZIE DUNGEY: Did I read the advertisement in the newspaper? Why, yes. It said, wanted– one housemaid. No pay. Preferably mulatto.
JORDAN BLACK: There’s so many moments. I say my favorite– I think a good one for me was our second episode with the abolitionist.
AZIE DUNGEY: And we have a special guest, Mr. Tobias [INAUDIBLE].
JORDAN BLACK: And you think, oh, good. He’s an abolitionist, so he’s on our side.
MALE SPEAKER: I detest the institution of slavery.
JORDAN BLACK: And then you learn he wants to send all the blacks back to Africa. He doesn’t want slavery, but he also doesn’t want black people to live in America or anywhere near him.
MALE SPEAKER: Well, I am from New Hampshire, where we do not have slaves. In fact, we do not have any Negroes whatsoever in New Hampshire.
AZIE DUNGEY: Well, Virginia must have been quite a shock.
MALE SPEAKER: So many Negroes, more than I ever thought that were actually on the planet. They seem to be all here.
JORDAN BLACK: He’s not comfortable around black people at all. He just wants them gone. And why I think it correlates to modern times for me is that there’s a certain liberal white person who only views blacks as people who need help and then when they are confronted with a black person or a black movement that’s saying we actually don’t want your help, they’re offended. And that, for me, is saying you don’t see this us as equal then.
And black people don’t like to talk about this either, just so you know.
AZIE DUNGEY: No.
JORDAN BLACK: There’s a lot of embarrassment about slavery and about Jim Crow. So they’d rather just not talk about it all. So sometimes, they’re like, why do we have to talk about slavery? Why do I have to talk about racism? Why can’t we talk– and it’s just like well, until we talk about it openly, we can’t really solve anything.
And I think what’s good about doing something like Ask a Slave is that it’s easier for people to– it’s like taking a little sugar with your medicine. I think it’s easier for people to swallow it if they’re kind of laughing at the same.
AZIE DUNGEY: Exactly. I got a really nice email from a woman who teaches eighth grade, and she was saying that she uses it in her classroom because she noticed that whenever she got to the subject of slavery, she saw everyone’s face just sort of wash out and disconnect. And these were black and Latino students, for the most part.
And she realized that when she showed my show, she noticed that they felt it more engaged. They could have discussions about it. And they had a totally different relationship to the history after seeing my show. And I think part of that is the laughter. But I think the other part of that is the fact that the point of view is a more empowering for them. It’s like that in and of itself is enough, and then the historians can come and fill in the rest.
ED: Azie Dungey created Ask a Slave and writes for The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. Jordan Black directed the series and hosts The Black Version for Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles.
BRIAN: We’re going to end the show today with a satire of the Harlem Renaissance. That’s the movement of black writers, artists, and intellectuals that flourished in the 1920s. One of the most influential novels of the movement was a 1931 work of science fiction called Black No More.
It took on the subject of race in America by imagining a world where racial distinctions were vanishing.
DARRYL DICKSON-CARR: What happens in the novel is that an African American scientist invents a process that turns African Americans white after a few days.
BRIAN: This is Darryl Dickson-Carr, a professor of English at Southern Methodist University. He says the book’s premise was terrifying for racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. How are they going to distinguish black from white?
DARRYL DICKSON-CARR: What ends up happening at the end of the novel is that prejudice just starts to arise again once everybody’s gone through the black no more process against people who apparently went through the black no more process. And what they discovered is that the people who actually went through the black no more process are paler than people who were born white. anybody who is pale is actually discriminated against.
BRIAN: The book’s author, George Schuyler, was at the forefront in creating a distinct satirical voice for African Americans. Dickson-Carr says Schuyler and his fellow satirists wielded equal opportunity pens. They went after entrenched white power, but they also criticized black leaders– for Schuyler, one leader in particular.
DARRYL DICKSON-CARR: His chief target was Marcus Garvey, who was the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
BRIAN: Garvey supported a back to Africa solution for black Americans. To that end, he set up the Black Star Shipping Line, relying largely on investments from the UNIA’s members. He wanted Black Star to feed into black-owned businesses in the United States, and eventually serve as a vehicle to move Americans to Africa.
DARRYL DICKSON-CARR: They bought a bunch of old ships. The first ship that they bought on this maiden voyage didn’t make it to the end of Manhattan Island. They tried to take a shipment of liquor from Cuba back to the United States, and the ship began leaking on the way back from Cuba, and the crew drank about half the cargo anyway.
And then they kept buying more ships, and they were in the same condition. And finally, the shipping line failed. And Garvey was eventually convicted of mail fraud for trying to solicit more funds for more ships.
BRIAN: Schuyler thought the project was a scam. In a 1924 essay called “A Tribute to Caesar,” he sarcastically praised Garvey’s fundraising prowess. Here’s Dickson-Carr reading.
DARRYL DICKSON-CARR: Everyone will agree that, despite its manifold uses, money is a great care to those who possess it. The kindly Marcus decided to relieve the Negroes of some of their care. While it must be admitted that, owing to marine difficulties, much of the money collected for the Black Star Line found its way back to white friends and advisers, still Mr. Garvey enjoys the enviable record of collecting more money in a given time than any other Negro.
Nor was this from the idle, self satisfied, wealthy upper class Negroes. No, sir. It came from the great masses– the washer women, porters, maids, and other hardworking people. That, in itself, shows whom this great man was looking out for.
BRIAN: So in satirizing Garvey in that excerpt, he’s tuning into a common theme that he exposed when he was talking about the white organization. That’s corruption of leadership and bilking hardworking people.
DARRYL DICKSON-CARR: Yeah. Schuyler had a distrust of any mass organization, because he felt that the purpose of most mass organizations was to dupe the masses, and that most people anyway were very gullible, and they were willing to believe anything that was shouted at them loud enough and made colorful enough.
BRIAN: Schuyler’s biting satire was widely read among African Americans. In later years, though, his deep distrust of organizations led him to criticize even the most admirable advancements of the civil rights movement. But Dickson-Carr says we shouldn’t forget Schuyler’s impact in the 1920s and ’30s. He notes the influence of Harlem Renaissance satirists is present today. For instance, we can see it in the work of black authors, bloggers, and even the comic Key and Peele.
DARRYL DICKSON-CARR: They poke fun at African Americans’ own habits in a way that’s not meant to be demeaning. I think one particular piece that they’ve done– it’s one of my favorite pieces anyway– is Key and Peele go into a soul food restaurant and they try to do one up on each other about the more authentic dish they can order that will prove their blackness.
MALE SPEAKER: Y’all got ham hocks?
FEMALE SPEAKER: Of course.
MALE SPEAKER: Well, that’s what I want. I want a plate of ham hocks, deep fried, blackened, and served on a bed of mustard greens.
MALE SPEAKER: Pig feet. I want some pig feet and four pounds of grits. Oh, and you know what else? Give me a little Dixie cup full of lard.
DARRYL DICKSON-CARR: And this is satirizing the way that people will try to construct these ideas of who is more black than the next person on really slippery grounds. At the same time, it’s clear that they understand it. And that’s how where the best satire comes from. You can only satirize what you understand. Satire falls flat on its face it you’re satirizing something that you do not understand.
BRIAN: Which is one reason that Dickson-Carr thinks Schuyler and his fellow Harlem Renaissance satirists were so effective in their heyday.
DARRYL DICKSON-CARR: They were trying to push the people who read their works to be better at what they did. And that’s one of satire’s main purposes. It’s to work for human improvement. You tear down your subjects so you can try to build them up into something better. So the promise that came out of African American satire and out of the Harlem Renaissance was that African Americans could develop stronger literary and cultural movements, as well as civil rights movement. And to that extent, they were successful.
BRIAN: Darryl Dickson-Carr is a professor of English at Southern Methodist University and author of Spoofing the Modern, Satire in the Harlem Renaissance.
BRIAN: That’s going to do it for us today. Let us know what you thought about today’s show at backstoryradio.org. While you’re there, check out our upcoming episodes. We have one on the history of meat, another on the Catholic experience in the United States, and an episode on censorship. You can send email to email@example.com, or find us on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter, @backstoryradio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
PETER: PETER: Today’s show was produced by Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, Robert Armengol, Bruce Wallace, and Bridget McCarthy. Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from Henry Wiencek. Special thanks this week to the band Fake Natives, Michael Hornsby, and our voice of Mark Twain, Adam Brock. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment; and by History Channel, history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is Professor of Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
ED: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.