06/19/2012 08:32 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dangerous Laughs: Politics and Comedy

As someone who grew up around comedians, I learned a lot about which topics were surefire winners with audiences (marriage, dating, mothers-in-law), and which ones were edgier (religion, sex and politics). There are tons of laughs to be mined from the latter, but comics are always careful to walk a fine line between being funny and offensive -- and the best ones know how to walk it perfectly.

And nothing toes that line like politics. Every four years, our nation becomes divided, often pretty evenly, when it's time to elect (or re-elect) our president. This is a good thing, because it shows us that our democracy is alive and well, as Americans line up behind the candidate of their choice.
But the comedian's first thought isn't about who to vote for. Rather, they line up behind the candidate who will give them the most fertile ground for humor. As David Letterman recently commented on Piers Morgan Tonight, it doesn't matter which party or candidate a comedian might favor politically -- Nixon, Clinton, Bush, Obama -- it's all about who's going to give us the best laughs. "You go where the material takes you," Letterman explained. "It's not driven by anything more serious than who's easier to make fun of."

Politics and laughter have been happy bedfellows since the days of Ben Franklin, Mark Twain and Will Rogers. But it wasn't until this modern era that comedians began to hone the art form to perfection. In 1975, Saturday Night Live scored a big win when it lampooned President Ford's alleged clumsiness (Chevy Chase's weekly pratfalls made it fun to watch the real Gerald Ford -- and wait for a stumble), and from there it's been one bullseye after another: Dan Aykroyd's hilarious depiction of Jimmy Carter as our hip, lust-in-his-heart Prez; Johnny Carson's doddering Ronald Reagan, polished down to the head-bobbing detail; Will Ferrell's childlike, dim-eyed George W. Bush, who Ferrell somehow managed to make both clueless and endearing; Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's arrival as late night's twin-engine masters of razor-sharp satire; and, of course, Tina Fey's pitch-perfect channeling of Sarah Palin in the 2008 presidential election.

And the tradition continues. This week, my good friends, satirists Bruce Kluger and David Slavin, will release their new book, Dog on the Roof! On the Road With Mitt and the Mutt, a faux-children's book that pokes fun at the infamous 1983 cross-country car trip that presidential candidate Mitt Romney took with his wife and five boys -- with the family's beloved Irish Setter, Seamus, inside a kennel that was strapped to the roof of the car. Although nearly 30 years old, the story continues to live on during this election season, in late-night monologues, on the cover of The New Yorker, and in more than 50 op-ed columns written by Gail Collins of The New York Times.

I read the book early on, and it made me laugh a lot -- but it also made me wonder: With all the calamity of this year's election -- from Rick Perry's missteps to Rick Santorum's sweater vest -- why go with a 30-year-old story of a dog on a roof?

"The big story of the year is obviously Mitt Romney," Bruce told me recently, "and how could any satirist resist a scenario as juicy and bizarre -- and potentially funny -- as an Irish Setter whipping down the highway on the roof of a car? It took David and me about two seconds to decide that this is where we found the funny this year."

As a special treat, I thought I'd give you a sneak peek of Dog on the Roof!, along with a slide show of some memorable moments in political satire from years past. We may have had our own favorite candidates from year to year, but I think you'll agree that these were the ones that -- party affiliation aside -- made us cast our vote for laughter.

Political Satire