In times of crisis, contemporary parody and satire provide content or creative space that can use humor to navigate taboo or tough topics in our democratic society. Parody and satire can only function in a democratic society that values and protects free speech. Parody and satire aren’t just entertainment, they are critical tools to speak truth to power during tough ideological wars and times of cultural upheaval. The goal of good satire and parody is not to slander or demoralize, but rather to energize public debate and encourage critical thought. Film, theatre and music allow unique ways to tackle taboo, daring or controversial topics, so parody and satire will always be positioned in conflict. Parody and satire are powerful ways to encourage public debate, incite action or alter a dialogue. They are worth fighting for because they provide a vehicle—through humor—to create awareness in our free speech society.
I’ve got a little creative secret and skin in the game. I’m currently developing The Unauthorized Musical Parody of…a very famous party game. It has forced me—as a writer, content creator, producer—to take a deep dive into the ethics, challenges and artistic rights that any contemporary artist will face in satire and parody. The UMPO Series, produced by Kate Pazakis, has been roasting blockbuster movies and television series in premier venues in Los Angeles by mashing up popular songs and SNL-type sketch comedy into smash hits. Hollywood’s A-List have flocked to the sold-out UMPO shows such as Scream, Bridesmaids, The Devil Wears Prada and Stranger Things, to see their original characters charred and roasted with delight. At the same time, behind the scenes, cease and desist letters arrive from major film studios trying to shut down the productions or claim copyright ownership.
We have used satire for centuries to ridicule and attack targets that range from artists to kings. Humor can be a delightful weapon to expose a laundry list of character flaws: stupidity, vice, vanity, ignorance and more. Parody can wield the same powerful punch by imitating an established, artistic expression such as a film, Broadway musical or literary work. Satire and parody have served for generations as a means of criticizing public figures, exposing political injustice, communicating social ideologies, and pursuing such artistic ends as literary criticism. Social media has thrown an additional layer of complication into the mix so that digital satirists in our current sociopolitical landscape usually find themselves subjected, in turn, to criticism, contempt and lawsuits.
The First Amendment protects satire and parody—as a form of free speech and expression. Political satire is offensive, blasphemous, disrespectful, terse. It poses a risk in autocracies so that satirists must walk a dangerous tight rope of humor that can lead to bans, censorship and prison—even death. Without the legal protections needed for a free speech society, satirists and parodists become easy prey for censorship or attack.
Charlie Weekly is a French satirical newspaper that features jokes, cartoons, and non-conformist reports that mock everything from Catholicism to Islam. On the morning of January 7th, 2015, Charlie Weekly staff were gathered at their weekly editorial meeting when two armed and hooded men, identifying themselves as part of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, entered the building and unleased a spray of gunfire for 5-10 minutes at the journalists’ heads who were in their meeting. They murdered all but two in the brutally tragic shooting, with American CIA officials stating that the motive was “absolutely clear: trying to shut down a media organization that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad.” Ever since the shooting, the news staff live in daily fear and the company is now forced to pay millions of dollars per year for enhanced security.
American satirists enjoy more freedom from such persecution due to U.S. laws surrounding “Fair Use,” that provide cover for our First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Copyright infringement or defamation laws cannot be used to stifle the voice of satirists and parodists, if their work meets four factors for consideration:
- the purpose and character of the use
- the nature of the copyrighted work
- the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
- the effect of the use upon the potential market.
When an author claims fair use, they are defending themselves against accusations of copyright infringement as an exception to the protections that copyright law offers. These elements sustain a platform in our democratic society for artists to use satire and parody without fear of legal repercussions that could lead to censorship or oppression.
It doesn’t always work. Social media is full of selective outrage and thin skins. Audiences are easily offended—especially entertainment’s most coveted generations: Millennials and Gen Z. Not long ago, parents wanted to censor comedians for language, content and tone. Now, in the era of shock television, almost anything is fair game on cable, streaming platforms or nightly news, but younger audiences demand trigger warnings. Ask Kathy Griffin. She has racked up two Emmys, six Grammy nominations for her comedy albums and was the first comedian to debut at the top of Billboard’s Top Comedy Albums with For Your Consideration. Griffin has earned over $75M as a comedian but hasn’t worked in over two years after posting a self-portrait holding a decapitated mannequin head of Donald Trump—covered in ketchup. The scandal is more than a comedian and offensive photo. It’s about the new world order of America where one mistake can mean the end of a career and where the President of the United States can use the power of his office—and his Twitter feed—to gleefully destroy a disruptive, inconvenient voice. The artistic process in any medium or genre is a series of creative attempts, failures and evolution. You must fail upward. Griffin responded to the backlash saying, “I am an infinitesimal dot in this frightening political landscape. I fought imperfectly, but genuinely, with all my might.”
It gets very sticky, uncomfortable and complicated. Isn’t that why art can take us on journeys, move us and change us? “Getting angry” partners quite well with “getting informed.” Take a nose dive into Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, a musical satire about the populist seventh president of the United States, who forcibly relocated Native American tribes along The Trail of Tears, resulting in what many now consider genocide. It will make you squirm while you laugh—and that’s the point. The musical is rife with offensive, Brechtian moments that skewer American politics, the birth of the party spoils system, and the dark side of land acquisition in the early years of our republic during Jackson’s rise to power. Across the country, the show has been shut down and cancelled more than it has been produced since its Broadway production in 2010, where it received Tony nominations for Best Scenic Design and Best Book. Four years after it opened, Minneapolis Musical Theatre announced their production to public outrage. In Minnesota, there seven Anishinaabe (Chippewa, Ojibwe) reservations and four Dakota (Sioux) communities.
Playwright Rhiana Yazzie of New Native Theatre wrote a powerful letter about the production, talking about her personal heartbreak from the way American Indians were depicted in the play.
“As a Native American, a playwright, a musical theatre fan, and artistic director of New Native Theatre, I say right on. What a wonderful opportunity and contribution to American theatre to see a play responsibly take up these important issues, issues that have determined Native American inclusion and access. We need as many advocates in the media as we can get. But that’s not what happens, instead this script, written by J. Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers reinforces stereotypes and leaves me assaulted, manipulated and devastatingly used as a means to a weak and codependent end. It’s taken four years for any company in the Twin Cities to approach this offensive play since it debuted in New York in 2010. Could it be because in Minnesota we have a relationship with Native Americans and their experience collectively embraced? Could it be that we know our history, the legacy of the vicious founding of this state, and its violent dealings with Native Americans? Could it also be because Minneapolis is home to the founding of the American Indian Movement? Could it be for these reasons we can see that the play is an exercise in racial slurs against Native Americans justified with a thin coating of white shaming? Why would we together be bothered with it then?”
Yazzie’s question about why we would be bothered by it [the musical] is sharp, real. It defines the contemporary challenge with satire and parody. Where do we draw the line between censorship and protest or argument and debate? The pushback hits in real time, online and in real life where we scream to silence others or silently scream for fear of speaking out. Do we demonize the art (and artists) to the point where we sanitize everything to be safe, politically correct and ultimately, pointless?
The goal of good satire and parody is not to slander or demoralize, but rather to energize public debate and encourage critical thought. You can even save a cow. Congressman Devin Nunes is suing an anonymous Twitter parody account called @DevinCow for $250M for defamation, forcing courts to reaffirm or deny the fair use. Devin Nunes’ Cow is a parody Twitter account created by an anonymous individual who roasts Nunes with derogatory memes, political commentary and clever retweets. (Nunes comes from a family of dairy farmers, a fact he has proudly shouted out on the campaign trail and from his bully pulpit.) @DevinCow’s Twitter profile quips, “Hanging out on the dairy in Iowa looking for the lil’ treasonous cowpoke,” while boasting over 600K followers—more than Nunes himself.
Twitter asked the judge to dismiss the case in the first hearing, which lasted three hours and did not end in a ruling, but one is expected soon. Even though Nunes is a Republican from California, he filed the lawsuit against the social media titan and three individual users in Virginia. He is also a co-sponsor of a congressional bill entitled Discouraging Frivolous Lawsuits Act. Use that information to add some deep, dark irony to the satire and hashtags. The parody account, purportedly owned by “an unhappy cow on Nunes’ farm,” continues on unabashedly with over, calling him a “treasonous cowpoke” and “udder-ly worthless.” Social media platforms are typically exempt from defamation liability, but Nunes’ legal team is arguing that the defamation is Twitter’s fault by ‘knowingly hosting and monetizing’ abusive content on its service.
Everyone has the right to defend and protect their character and reputation—especially from Internet trolls and opportunists trying to build their follower counts or get the most likes. The only way to breathe is to unplug—not an easy task in America’s political cyberwar.
The battle cuts both ways: satirists and parodists can use a comedic ruse to created a toxic platforms for “selective outrage” and a reckless disregard for brazen falsity that can destroy a person’s career, jeopardize their safety or crush a career in one tweet. This applies to anyone—celebrity or civil servant—in the public sphere. Satirists can now manifest as anonymous rage-aholics with an intent to harm their targets in the town square we call Twitter. A malicious statement can turn viral on a whim, reaching a global audience. What legal recourse is possible for people like Devin Nunes? We must look to the courts to set new guideposts for an evolving ethical dilemma that can ruin a person’s life for a quick laugh or meme.
While it is true that the Internet is driving new legal scenarios that could never have been imagined until now regarding defamation, the courts will ultimately be forced to clarify or distill evolving interpretations of libel and slander for satirists. No person or court could have imagined the digital revolution, the Internet and the creation of social media platforms that reach a massive global audience in seconds. There is a catch, though, because for one person to win a defamation suit, another must be punished for something they have written or said. The First Amendment wasn’t created by our Founding Fathers for easy, comfortable speech. It was created to protect speech no matter how offensive its content, how disagreeable the idea or how outrageous the claim. Like Devin Nunes’ Cow on Twitter.
Anti-SLAPP laws (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) were created for this very reason. They provide an off-ramp to dismiss meritless lawsuits from entities in power that are filed to oppress anyone exercising their First Amendment rights. Devin Nunes has filed his defamation lawsuit in Virginia, rather than his home state of California, because Virginia’s anti-SLAPP law is much weaker than other states and doesn’t not force Nunes to provide early proof as to why he would win the case, so he gains a press advantage in having his case actually heard, regardless of his thin-skinned claims. Parody, satire (or any variation of caricature) blur the lines between facts and farce, relying on the fact that any reasonable person would find the artistic output to be actually true. Context is everything, so there is no single guarantee to avoid legal ramifications or liability for artists and the organizations that foster them.
Film, theatre and music can be used to push back against the political gridlock of power during turbulent times. The dark humor of parody and satire offer another path to illuminate the public, push back on power grabs and initiate conversations in the public sphere. Need a dose of satirical sunshine in this blustery era of political madness? You can find it—depending on your political point of view—with Randy Rainbow. Yes, Rainbow is his real name. The Emmy-nominated comedian recently released a satirical parody (yes, both) music video called Cheeto Christ Stupid Czar. The irreverent spoof mocks Donald Trump’s recent comments from a 2018 interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, before nose-diving into iconic Christ-like images while singing his alternate lyrics to the theme song from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Rainbow leans hard into the President’s questionable statements about being “The Chosen One” and “King of Israel.” He has built a viral empire with musical spoofs such as How Do You Build a Problem Like Korea? from The Sound of Music and GOP Dropout from Grease!.
“I hope they’ll go and maybe binge me a little bit and see what I’m trying to do, which is kind of be as much of a spoonful of sugar as I can in these troubling times, use comedy as my weapon of choice, and get people to laugh instead of cry and sing instead of scream.”
American values are based on inherit rights and freedoms. Parody and satire are powerful weapons to encourage public debate, incite action or alter a dialogue. Most importantly, they provide a vehicle—through humorous insight and comedic skill—to create awareness in a free society. They must be allowed to soar or stink in their humorous attempts at audacity and insolence. Silence is not an option, whether we agree with the point of view or not. Parody and satire take a stand when public policy, news outlets and political structures fail.
- Royce, G.P. “New Native Theatre Protests ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.’” Star Tribune, Star Tribune, 4 June 2014, www.startribune.com/new-native-theatre-protests-bloody-bloody-andrew-jackson/261888441/.