We have a strong history of political satirists in the United States, from Mark Twain in the 19th century to such early 20th century wits as Will Rogers and H.L. Menken, on up to more recent provocateurs like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Al Franken, and our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Andy Borowitz.
Borowitz is an award-winning comedian and New York Times bestselling author. He graduated from Harvard College, where he was president of The Harvard Lampoon. In 1998, he began contributing humor to The New Yorker’s “Shouts & Murmurs” and “Talk of the Town” departments, and in 2001, he created “The Borowitz Report,” a satirical news column, which has millions of readers around the world. His new book is Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber.
Borowitz talks about the theatricality of our politics today, and how, in this time of social media, we forget the power that television wielded in molding the world. He details the critical role that Ronald Reagan played in dumbing down our politics, and he does not shy away from drawing a line between the B-movie actor and a certain failed reality show host.
In looking at what he calls the trickle-down theory of ignorance that has shaped the present day GOP, he fearlessly asks the key question: “Who is the most ignorant person the US is willing to elect?”
Borowitz also examines the importance of short takes and short attention spans in understanding contemporary society, with special focus on the role of Twitter in political humor.
Finally, even with all the malign buffoons jostling for precedence in contemporary politics, Borowitz is hopeful that, on the local level, we can still groom a new and smart generation of future leaders.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Perhaps not this week, but look at the British press most days and you’ll find that the government and the royals are being skewered and made fun of. The Brits have a long tradition of publicly calling out their leaders for absurdity, stupidity, or embarrassing behavior. In America, it seems that part of the population almost embraces this kind of behavior, that rather than calling it out, it votes for it.
It celebrates it on talk radio and on Fox. Imagine an entire portion of the electorate for whom ignorance is bliss. What we do have, however, is a healthy tradition of satire, but almost entirely on the left. Historically, from the likes of Will Rogers or H.L. Mencken or Ambrose Bierce and in more contemporary times, folks like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce and Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Al Franken, and our guest today, Andy Borowitz.
Andy is an award-winning comedian, a New York Times bestselling author, a graduate of Harvard College, where he became president of The Harvard Lampoon. And in 1998, he began contributing humor to The New Yorker‘s Shouts & Murmurs and Talk of the Town column. And in 2001, he created The Borowitz Report, a satirical news column that’s must reading for anyone that cares about the country.
He hosted stories of The Moth and has played to sold-out venues around the world. He’s the first-ever winner of the National Press Club’s Humor Award and, for some reason, lives in New Hampshire. I guess that he’ll be a lot closer to the early stupidity of politicians every four years. His newest book is Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber. Andy Borowitz, welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Andy Borowitz: Thanks so much for having me. It’s a treat.
Jeff: It’s a delight to have you here. In many ways, it seems that we do get the politicians we deserve.
Andy: Well, that’s true. We do live in a democracy, but there’s a question about, what are the politicians we’re being offered? And that’s something we have a little bit less control over because the parties still have some say in terms of who they promote to be at the forefront of their primary process. And over the last 50 years, they’ve increasingly been promoting people who don’t know very much.
Jeff: In so many respects, when we look at history, haven’t there always been dumb and dumber politicians, or are we living in the golden age of stupid politicians now?
Andy: [laughs] Well, it’s certainly a golden age for somebody with my day job because I have to make fun of these people. So, yes, this is like, I don’t know what we could compare this to. It’s nirvana, I suppose, but there have always been dumb politicians and I make that point in the introduction of my book. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. And in the ’70s, we had a mayor named Ralph Perk.
That was his actual name. And he had the distinction of being really the only big city mayor in the United States and, possibly, the world who set his hair on fire. He was at a photo-op for a metals convention because that’s the kind of thing that would happen in Cleveland for excitement back in those days. And he had to operate a blow torch and I guess he didn’t have the proper knowledge to do that, so he did set his hair on fire.
And that was the beginning of the end of his glorious political career. So, yes, we’ve always had doofuses. The difference I think is that there is something that I call democracy’s breaking system, which was whenever somebody became too big, a glaring idiot, the voters would take care of that person. And that’s what happened to Ralph Perk and it’s happened to other people in American history as well.
But in the last 50 years with the advent of TV and the role that TV has played in our politics, we’ve been celebrating people who can perform on TV better than actually govern. And they tend to know enough to have some sound bites and sound good on TV, but they don’t really have the knowledge to run a government. And so that is really what the book is about. It’s about the last 50 years, which I call the Age of Ignorance.
Jeff: It’s about TV, but also in a larger framework, isn’t it also about the entertainmentization, if there is such a word, of our politics?
Andy: Yes, but I think TV really ushered that in because you have to keep in mind in the 1950s, somebody like Harry Truman who actually won an election really against the odds in 1948, you’ve seen that famous photograph of him holding up the newspaper saying, “Dewey defeats Truman.” He was terrible on TV. He just didn’t know what he was doing and Eisenhower wasn’t great on TV.
But what really changed things was that in 1960, we had our first televised debate and it was between Nixon and Kennedy. And regardless of what you think of Nixon or Kennedy, they were both extremely well-informed guys. And people who listened to that debate on the radio actually thought that Nixon won, but people who watched on TV thought that Kennedy won because he was better looking, he had more stage presence, and he had way better hair.
So this was the beginning of the end because all the advisors in politics and the people behind the curtain took a look at this and said, “Wait a minute. We’ve got to find people who are good on TV.” And unfortunately, they prioritized TV skills over knowledge. And, really, the apotheosis of that in the 1960s was Governor Ronald Reagan, where my story really begins.
Jeff: And one of the things that grew out of that and grew out of Reagan was this focus on image and on sound bites and on visual cues. And then it even filtered back into radio with something like talk radio, where entertainment and meanness in many respects became part of the story.
Andy: Yes, I think there’s a book about anti-intellectualism in American life by Richard Hofstadter, the historian. He wrote it in 1961. It was actually called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It’s a very handy title because it’s very descriptive. And he actually thinks that this tendency in our country to favor theatricality over knowledge began in the 18th century. So it’s had a running start, but he talks about how the Puritans were extremely learned.
They all read a great deal. They tended just to read one book. And granted it was a good book, but that’s the only book they read. But they did read and their sermons were extremely learned and literate. And what happened was in the early 18th century, some Dutch revivalists came in. And they really changed the whole game because they were evangelical. And they ranted and raved and rolled around on the floor and frothed their mouth and did all kinds of crazy stuff and it really upstaged the poor Puritans.
So we’ve been seeing, in some degree, that phenomenon over the last few centuries, but it really went into Mach II when we introduced TV because, suddenly, visuals and sound bites and the very simple binary oppositions like us versus communists, us versus terrorists, and now we’re doing, for some reason, us versus scientists were the craziest one of all, but all that stuff works on TV.
And you’re right as a radio guy correctly have assessed that it also works on radio because it’s very dumbed down and it’s very simplified. You and I are having a very involved conversation and this would never cut it in a presidential debate. We’re waiting for each other to stop talking. We’re not talking over each other. We’re not shouting at each other. You and I right now, my friend, are like Lincoln and Douglas. That’s what we’re doing right here.
Jeff: To try and put partisanship aside somehow seems impossible in this discussion because it’s really one party that gave us Reagan and Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.
Andy: It’s true. And you left out George W. Bush, who’s one of the real icons of this whole trend. And the book tends to focus on the Republicans. That’s not a great surprise to anybody who’s familiar with my work. I tend to come at things from a Democratic point of view. However, I should say, I don’t know how many Republican listeners you have out there, but there’s actually a lot in this book for Republicans to enjoy because this is a funny, entertaining history book.
And I do take my shots at Democrats because Democrats saw this trend of things being dumbed down. And it’s not like they recoiled in horror and said, “No way. We’re going to continue to be as intellectual as we can possibly be and share our knowledge at every opportunity.” People like Bill Clinton really looked at someone like Reagan as his role model and mentor. And he really tried to imitate Reagan more than he did JFK or any Democratic politician.
Jeff: When we look at the collection of ignorant politicians today, it does seem like the ante has been up. Whether it’s Matt Gaetz who you talk about or Lauren Boebert or the rest of them, there just seems to be no limit to the depths.
Andy: Well, that’s true. I do think we’re living in kind of a Dark Ages right now, but I’ll offer some hope in a moment. But, first, I’d have to review briefly how we got to this place. In the ’60s, when you had people like Ronald Reagan running, it was still important to voters for the candidate to seem well-informed. And so a dumb candidate like Reagan, when I use the word “dumb,” I’m not talking about his mental capacity. I’m just saying his vast ignorance, how many things he didn’t know.
A deeply ignorant man like Reagan had to pretend to be smart, so he had advisors who had filled him with enough little bits of information that he could memorize as a very trained actor and TV host and get over the finish line. And this worked really so well because he won that first race in California by a million votes and that taught everybody the wrong lesson. It was like, “Let’s find a guy who can be good on TV and just reverse-engineer this. Let’s load him with enough knowledge that he seems not like an idiot.”
Then we moved into another phase in the early 2000s that I refer to as the acceptance phase of ignorance, where it actually changed from a moment where dumb politicians had to be smart to a time when dumb politicians could embrace being dumb and get credit for it. So you had somebody like George W. Bush who knew very little, knew as little as Dan Quayle. And I dutifully and diligently document this, but he took a different road than Quayle did.
Quayle was still in that early days where he was a dumb guy who had to pretend to be smart. And when he didn’t have the answer to a question like in his famous flame out of the debate with Lloyd Bentsen, he got very snippy and panicked and he’d freak out. George W. Bush took a different approach. He was like, “Yes, I don’t know very much, but that means I’m just like you. I’m a regular guy and I’m a guy you’d want to have a beer with.”
So he made being dumb kind of a good thing and he used Al Gore really as a foil, like Al Gore in his narrative was a nerd. He was pretentious, he was pompous. He claimed he invented the internet, which, of course, he didn’t, but that was a myth that they attached to Al Gore. So George W. Bush really was the father of this what I call the acceptance phase, where ignorance is accepted, it’s a positive thing.
And that helped launched the former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, who, at her debate basically at the beginning, said, “I’m not going to answer any question, so I’m just going to talk to Joe Sixpack and speak the truth to the American people.” She was basically going into a test and saying, “I’m not going to answer any of the exam questions.” It was really pretty ballsy, but it showed that we were now full-on embracing ignorance rather than trying to hide it.
Jeff: Why is there not more humor that surrounds this? Why are these people not poked fun at in a more aggressive way in this country today?
Andy: Well, I think that they are. I think if you go on Twitter, it seems like none of these people can open their mouths without an avalanche of ridicule being heaped on them. It’s a question of whether or not any of it lands because we’re now living in this incredibly tribal environment where, the right-wing, they think they’re funny. They think Tucker Carlson when he’s snarky about Hunter Biden’s laptop. They think that’s hilarious.
People on the left think that’s dumb and lies and all the rest of it. And then people like The Daily Show and Trevor Noah. People on the left think, “That’s great,” but people on the right think, “No, that’s terrible. They think that I’m not funny.” It’s just what we laugh at has now become so tribal. I’ll tell you the most amazing thing is that even spelling has now become tribal because I found this when I was researching Dan Quayle.
The one thing most people know about Dan Quayle, he visited a middle school classroom in Trenton, New Jersey, and he was supposed to supervise a spelling bee. And this kid named William Figueroa was spelling the word “potato” on a chalkboard, which he spelled perfectly. And Dan Quayle advised him to add an E to the end of it because he was under the impression that that’s how you spell potato.
And this became just the absolute moment of scorned, ridiculed, disgrace for Dan Quayle. He’s never lived it down. It’s really the thing that has stuck to him, but I went and I looked at a clip of this from the year 2020 on the ABC News site. And a right-wing guy had left a comment and he was using the handle “lib hypocrites,” so I think you know what’s coming. And he said, “The real outrage here is that Dan Quayle spelled it correctly. Either spelling is correct.”
Now, okay, that is simply not true. [chuckles] If we go to the dictionary, there is actually only one correct spelling of potato. But now, in this environment, we even think that spelling is a matter of opinion. That’s how insane our tribalness has gotten. So I think we’ve got to somehow bridge that gap a little bit if we’re ever really going to have anything resembling unity in this country. We’re never always going to be completely united, but we’re going to have to agree on how things are spelled. I really think that’s the base-level thing that we have to agree on.
Jeff: A baseline, right? [chuckles] Humor certainly has gotten polarized as you talk about, but what we seem to have lost on both sides in some respects is any sense of irony whatsoever.
Andy: Yes, it’s never been a big American thing. You’re a student of British satire and things like when we’re in high school, most of us were taught things like Jonathan Swift and things like that, A Modest Proposal. And these examples of British satire are highly ironic and you have to read it and understand, “Oh, he’s saying everything with a straight face, but he is trying to make a point by adopting this absolutely outrageous position.”
And that is something that does escape a lot of people. A lot of times, I’ve had this problem with my New Yorker column, The Borowitz Report, because it’s made-up news and it’s satirical news. But sometimes it’s just veered so close to the reality of our ridiculous world right now that people swallow it whole and they really need some explanation of what I’m talking about. They can’t believe that this horrible thing has actually happened.
Actually, I have so many examples of this, but I wrote a piece in 2017 around the time that Trump had just moved into the White House and he was very paranoid that Obama was spying on him somehow. And so I wrote a piece about him ordering everybody in the White House to wrap all the phones in aluminum foil. And this sounds like something no one would believe. It was so unhinged and ridiculous.
But, in fact, this got picked up by the Chinese media and it was really whipped around the world. Everybody thought it was true. It sounded so plausible and it was really one of the problems of trying to do satire with a president like Donald Trump, which is that the whole goal of doing this kind of fake news is that you’re trying to take the real news and make it slightly more ridiculous.
And with Trump, that was impossible. It was impossible to outdo him. It still is impossible. The fact that he has stored nuclear secrets at Mar-a-Lago basically in his sock drawer along with empty cans of Diet Coke and his TV remote and God knows what else, that’s the kind of thing that one would make up and would be ridiculous. Maybe in character but ridiculous, but it’s not ridiculous because he actually did it.
Jeff: Given how absurd some of this stuff is, how much more difficult does this environment make your job that you have to push the envelope in terms of being more absurd than the absurdity of what’s going on?
Andy: It does make it more difficult. I’ve been writing this column for a long time. And when Trump was elected, people would commonly say to me, “Oh, my God. Your job just got so much easier. The jokes are going to write themselves,” and really nothing could have been further from the truth. The jokes were going to get much harder to write for the reason I just mentioned. The line between the absurdity that was real and the absurdity that I might create was sometimes impossible to detect.
So what I would sometimes do with Trump is just take his Trump logic at face value. And I would listen to whatever argument he was making to gaslight him, to gaslight us, and just take it to face value. For example, when he was in Helsinki, a famous moment when he announced that he had spoken to Putin about election interference that Putin had assured him that he had not interfered in the American election, Donald Trump said, “Well, he said that he didn’t do it, so I guess we have to take him at his word.”
And I thought that as an attempt to gaslighting, that was an incredibly bold move. So I just wrote a piece where I worked out the Trump logic and basically had Mueller, who was investigating this matter at the time, close his investigation because he said there’s a time-tested rule of law enforcement, which is that whenever a suspect says he’s innocent, case closed. You just have to close the case right there. So it’s like that was really my approach. I had to go with Trump where he led me and just stick with his absurdity because you couldn’t top his absurdity.
Jeff: Are we too focused? Whether it’s in our humor or our entertainment, the way that the politics and entertainment have almost merged together, are we too focused on politics? There was a time, we’re all old enough to remember a time, when politics was important and what politicians were doing was important, but it didn’t take up as much air in the room as it does today.
Andy: I agree, but I would make one distinction. I think that we are very focused on national politics at the expense of local politics because one thing that has also changed with the advent of the internet and social media is that local newspapers and local news outlets have gone out of business and gone under. With the advent of things like Craigslist, the whole advertising industry, the classified advertising business that used to keep newspapers in towns and localities going, that just all evaporated.
So a lot of towns don’t have a local newspaper anymore and a lot of the TV. They’re getting a radio. They’re getting corporate TV or corporate radio that’s being very centralized top-down. So we’re very obsessed with the big players of national politics, Pelosi, Biden, Trump, even people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and the aforementioned Matt Gaetz, but we’re so busy refreshing Twitter and going on fivethirtyeight.com and watching MSNBC and CNN and Fox that we’re kind of asleep at the switch when it comes to what’s happening in our own neighborhood and in our own locality.
And that’s really a problem because I think that it’s on the local level that the best in democracy is happening and can happen. Maybe instead of watching cable news so much, we could go to a town meeting or we could volunteer for the school board or even a committee in our school system. I just volunteered for our local library. They reached out to me and they said, “Do you want to get involved in the library,” because they knew that I was a writer and I said, “Absolutely.”
And believe me, this goes against my natural instincts, which I’m a loner. I don’t really work well with others. I’m not really great in meetings, so I’m going to have to, at my age, unlearn my bad behavior and learn some new tricks. And it’s because I honestly think we’ve had this problem of trickle-down ignorance. Remember, Reagan talked about trickle-down economics and Republicans still are talking about this thing that has never worked anywhere.
They talk about it in Britain too like the conservatives say, “Yes, we do tax cuts and all the wealth is going to trickle down.” No, it never trickles down. It stays in the rich people’s pockets, but I do think trickle-down ignorance has worked really well, which is that we are a naturally-compliant species. We’re very social. We want to believe what our leaders tell us, so I tend not to blame the voters as much as some people do.
If you’re watching Fox News and you think that this is a real news network and you hear Tucker Carlson or Donald Trump saying something that’s an out-out lie, your natural tendency is going to be to believe it because they’re authority figures. So to combat this trickle-down ignorance, I’m encouraging people to build knowledge from the ground up. Let’s get involved in our communities. Let’s nominate and elect smarter politicians.
Let’s send them to the Washington and let somebody put our money where our mouths are because I just think that bemoaning the fact that everybody is a dope, and I do some of that in my book, but I conclude I’m more of a hopeful than more of a call-to-action. It’s like, “Okay, we know that there’s this age of ignorance, but history doesn’t move in a straight line.” After the Dark Ages just came the Renaissance, so it was a little bit of a long wait for that to happen, but we can usher in our own Renaissance if we get to work in our neighborhoods and our towns.
Jeff: Except that what we’re seeing– and I don’t know if it’s true in New Hampshire, but certainly what we’re seeing in a lot of places, and school boards are a good example of this, is that this ignorance and this polarization is filtering down where, once, I think it was Tip O’Neill who said, “There’s not a Republican or a Democratic way to pave the streets,” that, nowadays, you talk to local elected officials and they tell you they go door-to-door or they go canvassing. And the first question they’re asked, “You’re a Republican or a Democrat?” And that polarization with the ignorance has worked its way down.
Andy: It has and that’s a real thing. And so my question or I guess my reaction to that is I feel that people who are in the Democratic Party have made the mistake of seeing that kind of phenomenon and joining the chorus of despair, whereas somebody like Stacey Abrams in Georgia saw that she had a very, very hostile electoral landscape. Georgia was not a place known for electing Democratic senators recently, but she did more than complain about it or despair about it.
She took action and she got activists from all over the country, yes, even from California, to descend on Georgia. And we talked so much about January 6th, but on January 5th, it was a glorious day for American democracy because Georgia elected two Democratic senators. An African American and a Jew. Now, this is really a biblical miracle if you really look at it for what it is.
So I’d rather focus on the success stories and not say, “Oh, there was a real jerk in my town meeting,” or “They’re trying to do this at my library,” or “They’re trying to ban these books.” That’s important information. But if the information just leads us to depression, then we haven’t advanced anything. If I have to give the Koch brothers and the right wing credit is that they really kept their heads down over the last 30 years or so, or even 40 years. You look it like when Reagan was elected.
And they’ve really been very diligent about getting their agenda in a very insidious way to get it accomplished. I think they’ve gone too far. I think that they’ve been working for so many decades to get a Supreme Court that would finally overturn Roe v. Wade. And I really do think that’s going to be their Waterloo. I think they went too far and they didn’t really anticipate the reaction.
That act of appalling, shredding of an enshrined right that had been a right for 50 years, if anything, will win races for the Democrats in the midterm. Like most of us, I was pretty down in the mouth about the midterms, but the Republicans and the right-wing evangelicals just gave the Democratic Party a huge present. Because if you look at all these special elections that have taken place and the election that happened in Kansas, not exactly a blue state, they’re really getting punched in the mouth.
And it’s really a shame that they had to do this thing, which is going to cost women their lives, that they had to go that far because it’s hard to do a victory dance when you see the tremendous, terrible results of this and the carnage that’s going to result as a consequence of that decision. So it’s hard for me to be too jolly about it, but I do feel that they will now see the consequences electorally that it’s going to be very bad.
Jeff: And, finally, Andy, you mentioned Twitter a couple of times and I want to come back to your day job. How has social media, Twitter, and all the rest of it, how has that impacted the business of humor? You’ve been doing this a long time before social media was really a big thing. How has that impacted the way people see political humor about all of this?
Andy: Well, I do think it’s like everything. It’s tended to emphasize the hot take and the shortest version of a joke because that’s what gets shared. I’m getting the word out about my book because it’s coming out right now. And there’s a very, very funny trailer that was produced that’s on Facebook and it’s done really well for the book. It tells really the whole story of the book in 15 seconds.
And the reason why it’s 15 seconds long is because that is the optimal length for a video on Facebook, 15 seconds. I was used to be a Hollywood guy and it’s like the elevator pitch. You have to be able to tell your story in an elevator and the time you get to the next floor. And it actually works better for humor than, say, if I were a novelist. [chuckles] It’s hard. I don’t think Twitter is a great format if you’re a novelist.
It would be very hard to communicate, say, a novel by Edith Wharton or George Eliot on Twitter. I think that’d be almost impossible to do. But if you’re a comedian, jokes are, by their nature, a much shorter form. And the things I do have always been short. My column has always been 200 words or so or less. So, in a way, it probably hasn’t affected me as much as it’s affected some people, but the tendency like in our politics is to make everything shorter.
You do lose some nuance in that bargain because how much can you say? George Carlin is one of our most brilliant comedians in American history. And a lot of his stuff works really well on Twitter because he has this great Mark Twain-like aphorism, but you can’t really do a whole George Carlin run or a whole bit that has all kinds of texture and all kinds of levels because that’s too long for Twitter. So something’s always lost when you compress things. They say you can’t unring the bell. That is the environment we’re living in now.
So a guy like me has to either swim in that environment or not do it. And for what it’s worth, I still feel like doing this a bit longer. So I’m just going to have to contend with. As Donald Rumsfeld said in that glorious invasion of Iraq, “You have to go with the army you have, not the army you wish you have.” So that’s what Twitter is for me. It’s the army I have and I can’t really remake it into something else.
Jeff: Andy Borowitz, his new book is Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber. Andy, it’s a pleasure. I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Andy: Thanks a lot.