John Lithgow is an actor and the author of “Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse” and the just-published “Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown.”
These are giddy days for satirists. The pompous, incompetent, duplicitous and corrupt characters who have shambled in and out of the Trump administration have provided a mother lode of material. I’ve joined in the mockery myself, writing and illustrating a pair of books of doggerel poetry skewering President Trump and his rogues’ gallery. My name for him is “Dumpty.”
I’ve had a grand time writing my smartass poems, and the books have provided me with the purgative thrill of venting my political spleen. But at the same time, I’ve struggled with a lurking ambivalence about the whole satiric enterprise. Call it the satirist’s dilemma.
I’ll illustrate the satirist’s dilemma with a story from almost 50 years ago, when Richard Nixon was nearing the end of his first term as president.
On the morning of June 17, 1972, I arrived for work at WBAI-FM, New York’s freewheeling, left-leaning radio station. My job there was to produce and perform gonzo radio satire for $75 a week, as I had not yet managed to land a single acting job in New York theater.
As usual, I consulted the Reuters printout for the morning’s breaking news. During the night, five burglars had been arrested after breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate Hotel.
Our tiny crew was gleeful at the news. Within an hour we had written and recorded a five-minute parody of the old “Mission Impossible” TV show. In the sketch, I was the voice of Attorney General John Mitchell, overheard on a pay phone as he briefed a covert operative on the Watergate break-in.
“Your mission,” I drawled, “should you choose to accept it …” and so on. I ended the sketch with the timeless line, “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim.”
Everyone at WBAI thought our sketch was a riot. The station put it on the air just before the evening news broadcast. As I recall, it didn’t get much of a response from listeners, but my pals and I were enormously pleased with ourselves.
It took about nine months, during which time Nixon was reelected in a landslide, for the epic Watergate saga to heat up and grab the nation’s attention. It was yet another year before he was finally driven from office.
The moral of the story? Satire is necessary, and it’s a helluva a lot of fun. But it has its limitations.
Needless to say, I didn’t become a professional satirist. But I’ve never forgotten the sheer adrenaline rush of throwing satirical darts at the wretched excesses of powerful people. Periodically, I’ve returned to it as a performer, from a 1988 appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in full drag as Margaret Thatcher to a turn last year as a maniacally wine-swilling Rudolph W. Giuliani on Stephen Colbert’s “The Late Show.”
But the satirist’s dilemma persists.
For one thing, satire tends to preach to the choir. The laughter at Trump and company isn’t coming from his base. Their satire of choice is Trump’s cloddish sense of humor, such as it is, on display during his political pep rallies. To the extent his followers are even aware of my books, their tone of dismissive snark only angers them.
This leads to a second source of my ambivalence: Satire changes almost no one’s mind. It is cathartic, cleansing and essential. It throws a glaring spotlight on social outrages and makes them live on more vividly in collective memory. But it’s rarely transformative.
A couple of great comedians have succinctly illustrated my point.
Peter Cook was the darkest and arguably the funniest member of the 1960s English revue Beyond the Fringe. When he founded a London comedy venue called The Establishment Club, Cook declared to the press that he wanted it to resemble “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler.”
Then there is Kate McKinnon’s far more rueful take on the same harsh truth. She opened “Saturday Night Live” days after Hillary Clinton’s shocking defeat in the 2016 election. After spending months performing her hilarious spoof of Clinton, McKinnon sat at a piano and sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in a rendition suffused with heartbreak and regret.
Both Cook and McKinnon knew the limitations of satire.
So do I. My trifling poems, I’m quite sure, will do nothing to remove this appalling president from office. But I boost my spirits with the thought that there is one person out there whose talent for outrageous self-parody is doing the job quite nicely.
And that’s Donald J. Trump.