Now that I’ve seen my first piece of genuine Occupy Wall Street humor (other than on protest signs), it’s time for a post I always wanted to write: a fond look back at what passed for funny in the early years of the reign of Bush II (approximately 2001 through 2005).
The political humor of those days was not like the political humor of today. It was crude. It was unsophisticated. But despite that, it served a truly vital purpose. It freed the fear-paralyzed Internet commentariat to say things that you literally weren’t allowed to say aloud in polite company — not with the horrors of a massive terror attack still so fresh, the fears about national security, even the censorship of “Freedom Fries.” And of course you couldn’t say anything bad about our two righteous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In other words, it was real humor, somewhat like the sort you get in wartime, or in the midst of a repressive Communist regime. (The Russians were famous for their humor, but many people think it was the East Germans who had the best jokes.)
Some oldies, but goodies, included:
Get Your War On. It’s kind of hard to see a lot of the humor in this now, but I assure you that back in October 2001 it was funny as hell, not to mention liberating. And sharper and angrier than today’s protesters could really be, because back in 2001, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that you might actually get in trouble for laughing at it. That Tom Ridge’s goons might actually show up at your door, or something.
Ready.gov parodies. When the White House came out with Ready.gov, everyone and their brother made fun of those bizarre little infographics. This was in early 2003, right around the time that everyone started to suspect that the color-coded terror alerts were full of shit, and it’s probably the first time in history that a government website was mocked so hard that they had to revamp it just a short time later. Although some parody sites were put out that skewered the entire website, they were never quite as funny as the random spoofs that got posted on bulletin boards and forums. Sadly, many of those discussion threads have gone to the great Internet trashcan in the sky, so the truly funniest stuff is now lost forever. But here’s an example of that sort of amusement.
Real Hussein. Everyone remembers JibJab, right? JibJab really wasn’t very funny. For Flash-based political humor, the Real Hussein series was a lot funnier, mainly because it somehow managed to use Saddam as a better political and social critic than any of the presidential candidates (not difficult, I know). Also, unlike JibJab’s stuff, the sequel to Real Hussein was even funnier than the original. (“Well they fought me, everybody’s glad they caught me/For the hundred million bucks they spent, they could have bought me…”)
By 2004, the golden age of post-9/11 humor was already starting to wane. This is because presidential elections tend to both kill real political discussion (and therefore, jokes) and also provide their own unintentional humor.
Sadly, we are likely heading for another quadrennial humor desert in 2012. But I’m not sure it ever really came back; although Stephen Colbert’s White House Press Association dinner gig in 2006 will be long remembered, the election of Obama just about killed the jokes dead, because everyone really was expecting a revolution, and revolutions just are aggressively unfunny in general.
The Pepper Spray Cop meme is what got me thinking about the possible return of actual political humor. But while Pepper Spray Cop is genuinely funny, it feels more surreal than subversive. That too many American cops are overweight tough guys with large bellies and small consciences is not exactly a revelation. And watching him pepperspray bits of historical and cultural kitsch is more Warholian than anything else. He’s like Godzilla, which is funny (to Americans, anyway), indiscriminately zapping whatever he pleases — including a lot of stale American symbols that, let’s face it, we’re all sort of over (er, Twilight, anyone?). Pepper Spray Cop actually seems vaguely countercultural himself, if dumb and repulsive also — more like an SNL recurring skit character, or a Kilroy without street cred.
So, here’s hoping that the golden age of Internet political jokes is not as dead as it seems to be. Because without it, 2012 is probably going to be insufferable, especially for the little people.