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In his interview with Bill Moyers, Salman Rushdie talked about the recent strife brought about by the publication of cartoons seen by many Muslims as deeply offensive. Rushdie said: "What kind of god is it that's offended by a cartoon in Danish." Satire has long been a tool of political criticism — but in a world where politics and faith are often intertwined should there be a limit to the freedom of expression? Comedian Steven Colbert recently learned that as much as America loves it's satire — it's objects may not laugh when roasted at a Washington Press Club dinner. Learn more about the history of American political satire below, and tell us what you think.

Although the term satire may describe an entire work, a passage, or a tone, its characteristics are shared: among these, it employs comedy or humor; has a target and an ideal to compare it to; and describes folly or vice in detail.


From ancient times satirists have shared a common aim: to expose foolishness in all its guises — vanity, hypocrisy, pedantry, idolatry, bigotry, sentimentality — and to effect reform through such exposure. The many diverse forms their statements have taken reflect the origin of the word satire, which is derived from the Latin satura, meaning "dish of mixed fruits," hence a medley.
Below, read about some of the major highlights in American political satire, from the early printed word of the 1700's to the popular television and Web varieties of today.

We've compiled only a selected history of political satire. Tell us about your own favorite examples on our discussion boards.

Mark Twain
Identifiably American forms of humor emerged in the late Colonial era. Benjamin Franklin published essays in the NEW ENGLAND COURANT that were widely read and acclaimed for their satire, and his POOR RICHARD'S ALMANACK (1733-1758) popularized the comic type of the "unschooled rustic whose natural simplicity masked an innate shrewdness and tenacity." Many other early American authors presented socially subversive characters through satirical writings, but perhaps none so celebrated as Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain), who blended comic passages with social criticism on the central issues of the late nineteenth century.
Uncle Sam
"Satire" is actually part of the very definition of "cartoon" given in the ENCYCLOPEDIA AMERICANA. According to the EA, cartoon "targets" are most often "in the field of political or public affairs, but they may be social customs, fashions, or sports events or personalities." The invention of printing laid the foundations of the modern political cartoon by making it possible to circulate pictorial satire to a large public, a tradition that was popular in the 16th century in Europe.

In America, a new school of illustrator talent emerged with the election of President Jackson (dubbed "King Andrew"), the Mexican War, and the Civil War. Thomas Nast became nationally known and developed many of the symbols still familiar in American cartooning: the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant, the Tammany tiger, and many more. Before the turn of the 20th century, the daily "editorial" cartoon was a feature of many newspapers, and these illustrations only became more and more popular as time went on. One of the better known comic strips of today, "Doonesbury" by G.B. (Garry) Trudeau, comes out of this tradition of pictorial political commentary.

  • Political Cartoons and Cartoonists, Edited by Jim Zwick
  • Doonesbury@Slate
  • Mort Sahl
    In the early 1900's, Will Rogers "drolly expressed his skepticism about industrial technology and corporate capitalism and celebrated the wisdom of the common folk." Politics was a top target for his unique brand of humor, espoused in stage shows, films, and newspaper columns. In the 1950's, "standup" comics came on the scene. Among the most innovative was Mort Sahl, with his fresh combination of political awareness, fearless criticism of the government, and a willingness to draw on personal experience. Lenny Bruce, a rebellious comic whose risqué routine earned him the title "King of the Sick Comics" for his unprecedented rants on drugs, sex, religion, racism and politics, became the focus of a major obscenity trial.

    Chicago's Second City, an irreverent comedy troupe formed by "hip, creative, and intellectual" University of Chicago students revolutionized comedy and theatre by challenging the limits of political and sexual commentary in professional humor. More recently, The Capitol Steps, a troupe of current and former Congressional staffers who monitor events and personalities on Capitol Hill, in the Oval Office, and in other centers of power and prestige around the world emerged to take a humorous look at serious issues while providing a nationwide laugh for millions.

    Jon Stewart
    The category of "fake news" has won the widespread attention of the American public in shows like THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART and others. One of the best-known and longest-running segments of this type is the "Weekend Update" segment of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, which has satirized current events weekly since 1975. As Jon Stewart explained to Bill Moyers, "I think we don't make things up. We just distill it to, hopefully, its most humorous nugget. And in that sense it seems faked and skewed just because we don't have to be subjective or pretend to be objective. We can just put it out there."

    This form of satire, along with Internet "fake news" sites such as THE ONION, WHITEHOUSE.ORG, and the BOROWITZ REPORT have brought the attention of a younger generation to satire and commentary on today's political discussions and societal inequality.


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