Is it Just Me or Does Political Humor Hit Different?

Chase Olson

More stories from Chase Olson

In early December of last year, I attempted to write an editorial/review of “Anima-nyet,” a segment of the 2020 Animaniacs reboot series on Hulu which heavily dunks on Russia, putting a comedic spin on the flack Russia’s been taking for spying on America and interfering in the 2016 election. I remember feeling uneasy on my first viewing of this episode. Whereas I could distance myself from the similarly political episode “Bun Control” by telling myself that the extremely thin veiling of that episode’s gun control message was part of the joke, “Anima-nyet,” to me at least, had an air of pure mal intent. Perhaps it was because I myself am more skeptical than I should be about the extent to which Russia meddled in that election, but that episode just felt wrong.

 However, upon rewatching the short to find anything to analyze, there was nothing. The only thing I could see as being malicious was the episode’s depiction of Russia as a third-world feudalist wasteland, a depiction common in anti-Soviet media during the Cold War. Other than that, it seemed about the same as the rest of the Warner sibling shorts of the series. Most of the jokes taking a dig at Russia were just about Russian president Vladmir Putin, with several of the bootleg productions the rundown Russian film company the short focuses on also serving double-duty as propaganda for the ruler. There were only two jokes actually focused on the collusion, those being the acronym for a bootleg E.T. standing for “Elect Trump” and the Warners using the Air Force One plane to go back to the States at the end of the short, with Yakko quipping “Apparently this plane flies from Moscow to Washington daily.”

The 2020 Animaniacs is far from the first show to have political humor. In fact, the 1993 original run had its fair share of jabs at the political sphere of the time. But to find where the practice found it’s first breakthrough in mainstream television, we have to go back to 1987 with The Simpsons. It may seem like just another animated sitcom now, but back then, it was truly revolutionary. Though its subversion of the perfect nuclear family was predated by Married with Children which aired earlier the same year, the iconic yellow family took things a step further by extrapolating its mockery of the status quo-preserving family sitcoms of the past to American culture as a whole, including biting social commentary in nearly every episode of its early seasons.

Such embracing of counterculture and progressivism made the show a smash hit. Bart Simpson especially became an icon, so much so that many institutions protested the character for fears of inspiring the youth to become more rebellious. As such, tons of merchandise was produced to capitalize on this popularity. This was the beginning of The Simpsons becoming more brand than show. Many people say around season 9 was the beginning of a decline in quality for the show, as the show seemed to overstay its welcome in the cultural zeitgeist. Many of the writers of previous “Golden Age” episodes left around this time, and a new showrunner was put in place. At this point, the show was looking to be kept alive past its expiration date, what many refer to as “Zombie Simpsons.” It’s the same family, but without the soul or wit that made its early run so great.

This appropriation of the Simpsons from a genuine piece of cultural critique to another cog in the machine is a fine example of recuperation: the act of incorporating radical ideas into the status quo via co-opting or commodifying them to the point where it provides little or no real disruption to the system at large. The forces that created “Zombie Simpsons” is also the reason why you can buy a designer “anarchy” jacket for $375 or have your Amazon Alexa read The Communist Manifesto, provided you have a subscription to Audible. The Simpsons’ massive influence led to other edgier shows like Family Guy, South Park, and yes, the original 1993 Animaniacs, being greenlit by TV channel executives to capitalize on this counterculture, anti-authoritarian market that The Simpsons showed can be capitalized on.

And thus began the modern conception of “the agenda,” a belief among many right-wingers that media companies et al are pushing leftist ideas like gun control, critical race theory, and LGBTQ+ acceptance onto the masses, either for personal political gain or to assist a sponsored party or shadow government or what have you. While corporations were actively monetizing these left-leaning media, those on the right felt like they were being left for dead, as if they were the underdog or oppressed group in a society seemingly hellbent on going left. There also seems to be active fighting back against this perceived aggressive progressivism, such as in Gamergate, a 2014 movement which led to the harassment of several game developers and studios over issues of progressivism and diversity in video games.

It only got worse from there. Enter Donald Trump. When the former businessman and TV personality announced he was running for president in 2015, it sent shockwaves through America. His blatant disregard for political correctness and slogan “Make America Great Again” made the far-right finally feel understood. Someone who shares their supremacist and traditionalist sentiments and is going up against the leftist system in the name of them. Which made it all the more heartbreaking when the media lampooned the guy during his presidential campaign and term. News outlets constantly covered Trump’s hot take of the week to stir rage and clicks. The Jimmies of late night talk shows wouldn’t shut up about the guy. Entire new programs like Our Cartoon President were being greenlit just to dunk on the guy. Even with a Republican in office, leftist ideas were still selling like hotcakes, more so than ever due to how easy it was to mock President Trump.

Frustration over the media’s constant berating of Trump birthed the NPC. Based on non-playable characters in games, this modified wojak had one message that it repeated like a game character’s very limited dialogue tree: “ORANGE MAN BAD.” The meme spread far and wide for its ability to perfectly capture the right’s narrative of the leftist media brainwashing those without critical thinking skills into accepting socialism and gay rights and whatever else the far-right wanted to criticize that day. While it was clearly meant to lampoon leftist media under the pretense that Trump is right and Stephen Colbert is just mean, it’s a completely different story when you think about it in the context of these institutions detachedly recuperating anti-Trump sentiment rather than the liberals creating a deep state George Soros whatchamacallit. 

I guess that’s why I felt highly suspicious of that Animaniacs episode. For a show painfully aware that it’s one of many aimless 90s revivals commissioned to cash in on nostalgia, it seemed too unaware that dedicating an entire episode to the Trump-Russia collusion in the way that it did fits right into the mold of the overly safe and sanitized “Trump is racist and orange lol” social commentary that’s been bombarding our screens since Trump took office. Media companies couldn’t give a single damn about Trump, in fact it’s likely they benefited majorly from the tax cuts he imposed in 2017. They only attempt to question the system in a controlled way that brings no real damage to it while also attracting the rebellious counterculture demographics. In the words of Mark Fisher, “nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV.”