"This week saw the biennial nuclear security summit in Washington," begins John Oliver to a cheering crowd on a segment of his HBO show, "Last Week Tonight." "Just two days before they gathered, America's potential next president mentioned that he would be perfectly comfortable with other countries becoming nuclear powers, including Japan and South Korea."
Cue a clip of a March interview between Anderson Cooper and Donald Trump in which the then-presidential candidate said other countries like Japan, South Korea, and "absolutely, Saudi Arabia" should have nuclear weapons.
" ‘Absolutely!’ ” quips Mr. Oliver, mimicking the billionaire-turned-politician. “He says that with the confidence of a man who could easily find Saudi Arabia on a map. If – if! – he was given three tries and the map only included countries ending with Arabia."
Throughout the 2016 presidential election, Oliver and other comedians like Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, and Samantha Bee offered respite to millions of Americans from an especially fraught political season.
President-elect Trump, however, doesn’t seem to be a fan of political satire. He recently tweeted that Alec Baldwin’s bombastic, puffy-lipped impersonation of him on "Saturday Night Live" was “unwatchable,” and that Vanity Fair’s editor has “no talent” after the magazine published a comedic review of Trump Grill calling the restaurant – and its owner – “a cheap version of rich.”
Political satire will undoubtedly become more colorful during the Trump administration, but it may also prove more valuable. Satire has reaffirmed freedom of speech in US history before and it may do so again, given Trump’s tendency to flout traditional media norms. He has threatened to “open up” libel laws during his campaign, criticized leading publications for publishing content he disagrees with, and before Wednesday's surprise Q&A with reporters, hadn't held a press conference since July.
“Historically, satire is always at its most valuable when freedom of press is constrained.... Satire is a way of challenging power when the legitimate ways of challenging power are closed off,” says Geoffrey Baym, chairman of Temple University’s media and communications department, noting that satirists thrived in czarist Russia, for example. “Great moments of satire come in opposition to some sense of totalizing control.”
The Smothers brothers' case against censorship
In 1967 comedian brothers Tommy and Dick Smothers starred in their wildly successful variety show on CBS, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” But after President Nixon was elected the following year, the left-leaning brothers often criticized him and the Vietnam War. That caused CBS to censor sketches for their “anti-establishment messages” and eventually cut their program altogether in 1969.
At the same time, Nixon was pushing for more government control over the media, and the president had allies high up in the media industry, including CBS Programming Chief Robert Wood. The Smothers brothers sued the network and won, a historic case against censorship.
More recently, a week after the 9/11 attacks, comedian Bill Maher got in hot water. On his show “Politically Incorrect,” aired by ABC, he said, “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building? Say what you want about it … not cowardly.”
In response, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, told reporters that “Americans need to watch what they say … and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.” Americans protested the companies buying advertisements during Mr. Maher’s program, and by the following June, ABC canceled his show.
In 1968 and 2001, the Smothers brothers and Maher “were willing to say things the press was not,” says Dr. Baym. And when Stephen Colbert delivered a critical speech of President Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents dinner – while positioned three seats away from the commander-in-chief – it was "a real watershed moment."
“We need satire when we don’t have good journalism,” adds Baym. “They fill the same function of information and critique. ‘Speaking truth to power’ is a cliche but there is great power to it – it’s why free speech is the First Amendment. A democracy needs this open expression.”
And an outside voice holding Trump accountable is especially necessary now, says Amber Day, an expert on political satire at Bryant University in Rhode Island.
“There is the danger of reporting on President Trump the way that the press reports,” says Dr. Day. “It would normalize his policies in a way they should not be normalized. Satirists point out things that aren’t normal.”
Smothers brothers, Part II?
In general, politicians are pretty hands off – they let satirists do their thing.
But Danna Young, a professor of political media effects at the University of Delaware, says Trump’s opposition to satire reminds her of the Smothers’ case: when a president’s actions brought satirists into the courtroom to defend their freedom of speech under the First Amendment.
“The 'Smothers Brothers' issue wasn't about advertisement. It was about an angry administration that was friends with network executives and hated this content being aired to a giant proportion of the American public, says Dr. Young. “And when Trump says he is angry about 'SNL,' it does hearken back to a different era – to when the Smothers brothers were cancelled for being critical of Nixon and the Vietnam War.
Baym agrees. And, he adds, the more Trump tries to suppress criticism, the more satirists will do their job and send barbs his direction.
“As he works to limit the ability of the press to perform its democratic duty of keeping a watchful eye on power, I would not be surprised to see satire re-emerge as an important site of pushback and criticism.”