With Obama in office, can political comedians with guitars still land laughs? | Music Feature | Indy Week
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With Obama in office, can political comedians with guitars still land laughs? 

Yes we can ... make jokes

Click for larger image • "C'mon, Mr. Helms, just one terrorist fist jab, baby."

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Click for larger image • "C'mon, Mr. Helms, just one terrorist fist jab, baby."

Consider for an instant the momentary relief so many people will feel Tuesday when Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address. They'll weep and cheer and clap and grin and exalt with his every word and gesture. This is a guy who, after all, got a round of applause in Dallas last February when he blew his nose.

Then imagine you're a comedian who's scared jokeless, groaning because your most trustworthy fount of humor—the car-crashing, grammar-gaffing George W. Bush—is heading back to Crawford, leaving you with a leader people actually like.

"Good for the country, bad for comedians," says Zach Ward, executive producer of Carrboro's DSI Comedy Theater, through a smile. "Because if Barack Obama is like a positive relationship for the country, what's the sadness that we have to laugh at?"

With an approval rating that dipped below 30 percent in 2008, many Americans see George W. Bush's two terms as a torturously long marriage. Comedians like Lewis Black, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have flourished during the last eight years because Bush made so many Americans so miserable. But does the hope inherent in Obama's election eliminate some of the need for laughter as relief? Perhaps, but two bands coming to Chapel Hill this week—God's Pottery, hailing from New York, and Hamell on Trial, from a town called Ossining just 35 miles north of the city—hope their routines are bigger than a bad outgoing president.

Comedy and satire have long provided relief and release in unfortunate political situations. What's more, music—with easy to remember lyrics and a familiar disguise—offers a simultaneous vehicle for humor and political commentary. During the 1840 run for the White House, for instance, the song "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" helped William Henry Harrison win the White House by blasting incumbent Martin Van Buren with scorching jokes like "Van is a used up man." Well, at least it seemed scorching then.

In the 1960s, political songs and humor earned renewed popularity because of the traumas of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. People needed relief, and musicians like Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger offered it. Seeger sang satires of President Lyndon Johnson ("Alby Jay"), and with her song "Do as the Doukhobors Do," Reynolds encouraged protesters to capture attention for their cause by appearing nude. Bob Dylan, whose wit is often overlooked, took to humor in his songs, whether looking for communists in his toilet or casting suspicion on the red stripes of the American flag during "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues." The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which spent just over two years on CBS, offered sharp but light-hearted political satire. It was quickly cancelled, though last year, at the height of Bush's unpopularity, Tommy Smothers won an Emmy for his writing on the show, which had been off the air for 40 years.

During our most recent turmoil, Jon Stewart climbed to stardom after taking over the desk at The Daily Show in 1999. Stewart's humor has long worked by acknowledging the country's shortcomings and poking fun at them, all the while holding out hope that they'll get better. Now that such hope has arrived, what happens to The Daily Show and political comedy?

Ward says left-wing political comedians see the problem like this: "I'm going to make fun of this person because it's my job, but I don't want to fuck up my livelihood because they actually support what I'm doing here." Some comedians will have to alter their approach considerably, but God's Pottery and Hamell on Trial feel confident what they've been doing for years will continue to work after Bush has left office. God's Pottery puts the comedy first through characters, while Hamell on Trial appeals to emotions through very personal reflections.

click to enlarge God's Pottery
  • God's Pottery

Krister Johnson and Wilson Hall, both long-time improvisational comedians, were initially inspired to start God's Pottery by a TimeLife ad for a praise music DVD. Performing as Gideon Lamb (Johnson) and Jeremiah Smallchild (Hall), the two use boundless positivity and audience interaction to create the image of a gleeful Christian rock acoustic duo. "It lends a lot of freedom if you can hide behind a character," says Hall. Just as Stephen Colbert is not really a right-wing, truthiness-speaking, bear-hating American hero, God's Pottery is an extreme parody.

"The concept of people deciding that they needed to make cool music to urge kids to do things that were not practical was ripe for investigation," says Johnson. This exploration resulted in songs like "The Pants Come Off When the Ring Goes On" and "Jesus I Need a Drink." Though their comedy is driven foremost by characters, not politics, the recent rise of the religious right makes God's Pottery political in context. But even before the term "religious right" existed, there were well-intentioned, slightly delusional Christians who needed to be lampooned. Those people will always exist, says God's Pottery. This doesn't mean there is no political humor here. Johnson thinks God's Pottery can be seen as "a commentary on just America and a lot of the ways America is kind of goofy and ridiculous and overly sanctimonious." And America isn't going to suddenly get less ridiculous after Obama's inauguration. So the broader the focus—America instead of a specific politician or even party—the easier it is to laugh and stay afloat, even as the times change.

Unlike the broadly topical humor of God's Pottery, Hamell on Trial—the solo acoustic band of Ed Hamell—relies on specificity and personal narratives to connect with listeners. He says circumstances necessitated as much.

"The funny thing is, I didn't really want to be a political figure, but a lot of things happened," says Hamell. "Around 2000, I was involved in a very serious car accident, my son was born, 9/11 happened, the Bush administration happened, torturing, spying, an unnecessary war. All of a sudden, I couldn't not write those songs."

Obama's election won't silence all Hamell's sources of frustration and laughter in life. He sees himself more as a musician than a comedian or political commentator. He's not worried that those in the political arena will suddenly stop doing things that need to be criticized or joked. The material will be there, he says, echoing God's Pottery: "Politicians are people, and people do stupid things. We'll never be at a loss for finding stupid things that people do."

Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher, an editorial cartoonist at The Economist, agrees with both bands' "stuff happens" analysis of the future of political comedy. "After 9/11, the gun that went off that started the satirists back in business was when George Bush got a pretzel stuck in his throat—I mean, who would have guessed that?" remembers Kallaugher, who was an artist in residence at Duke University's Sanford Institute of Public Policy this past fall.

And even if some satirists avoid laughing at the man on top, material still abounds. During World War II, for instance, much of the humor that might have been directed at Franklin Roosevelt instead focused on the implementation of large-scale government programs, Kallaugher says. With all of the change Americans expect to come with Obama, this type of political humor is likely to see a comeback.

Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University, points out that leaders of the Civil Rights Movement weren't immune to pointed humor. "Even during the heights of the Civil Rights Movement," says Neal, "there were folk uncomfortable with the singular focus on Martin Luther King Jr., who privately and publicly referred to him as 'de lawd.'" Political comedians are subjecting Obama to similar criticism. "Some people are derisively referring to him as 'The One,' picking up on the Matrix movies."

So, the world of political humor awaits the Obama presidency with nervous anticipation and several options. A shift not just in the subject matter but in the manner of satire at large is conceivable. Seeing the beginning of this new age, DSI's Ward says, "We have comics who are starting to pay attention to the details." And while satirists may be stumped at first, we can hope the next four years will bring more laughter than the last eight.

After all, "You can judge the maturity of a democracy by the amount of satire it can endure," says Kallaugher. "It really is right on the front line of the nature of freedom of expression."

God's Pottery plays Local 506 Thursday, Jan. 15. Tickets are $8-$10. Zach Ward opens at 9 p.m. Hamell on Trial takes the stage at Local 506 Tuesday, Jan. 20, also known as Inauguration Day. Tickets are $9 for a 9:30 p.m. show.

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