When comedy drew blood

From "Chappelle's Show" to "Da Ali G Show" to "Team America," this was a banner year for satire. Does the country have to go down the tubes to produce laughs this big?

Published December 23, 2004 7:13PM (EST)

After years of turning to soggy, reheated "Saturday Night Live" sketches for our comic fix, after years of renting the same Monty Python movies and watching as shows like "In Living Color" and "Kids in the Hall" came and went, 2004 was the year that satire sank its razor-sharp teeth into a mainstream audience. Scathing, sophisticated humor seemed to spring up all over the place, from trusted old friends like "The Daily Show," "Doonesbury" and the Onion, to unexpected and bold new sources like "My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss" and "Team America."

Suddenly nuanced, even odd, humor is warmly embraced -- and not just by stoners and comedy enthusiasts who can recite the punch lines from every Mel Brooks movie ever made. From the bold and bizarre comic stylings of Dave Chappelle to the strange postmodern twists and turns of "The Joe Schmo Show," we were finally -- after what feels like a lifetime of Adam Sandler vehicles -- treated to comedy that wasn't targeted at an 8-year-old audience.

But how did we go from fielding a steady flow of insipid comedies starring Tim Allen (who keeps hiring that man?) to watching Ali G quiz Pat Buchanan about whether Iraq has "BLTs"? How did we go from watching a self-serious Donald Trump march around in pink ties, issuing orders to his gaggle of reality sidekicks, to, one year later, being treated to a spot-on "Apprentice" parody that tricks its participants into selling reusable toilet paper to strangers on the streets?

Perhaps the rise of sharp, caustic wit simply corresponds to the excess of folly, vice and stupidity on the radar this year. When the going gets rough, artists like Aaron McGruder, author of "The Boondocks," "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and even filmmaker Michael Moore feel all the more emboldened to take off the gloves and swing with reckless abandon. Since comedy depends on such passionate attacks, it's no wonder this was a year to remember in satire. If the world is going to hell in a handbasket, at least we'll go down laughing.

"The Daily Show With Jon Stewart"
During the election, Jon Stewart made countless media appearances, including a stint on "Crossfire" in which he informed host Tucker Carlson that his show sucked and was bad for America. Such arrogant attacks might rub some the wrong way -- unless they actually watched the segment, in which Stewart not only makes Carlson look like a defensive, defenseless preppy boob, but has fun doing it. You can worry all you want about the report that 21 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 get their news from sources like "The Daily Show," but to plenty of Americans, this stuff feels far more fair and balanced than the "Target: Iraq!" pep squad on the nightly news. Take the "Daily Show" episode that aired in the wake of President Bush's appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor," in which Bill O'Reilly's comments to Bush about the media's liberal bias prompted Stewart and the show's talented writers to offer this incisive summary of the administration's wartime missteps:

Stewart: All the president did was deliver a simple thank you aboard a viking warplane under a giant "Mission Accomplished" banner. But if you listen to the press spin, it was like he had prematurely declared victory!

[Cut to file footage of Bush on the USS Lincoln.]

Bush: In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.

Stewart: [Disgusted] Spinners! If you listen to the liberal elite, they implied that Bush said we were about to find weapons of mass destruction!

Bush: We've begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated.

Stewart: Wanna know how that turns out? It's, uh, very similar to Al Capone's vault. But those hippie press freaks! They would make you believe that the president implied Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were allies!

Bush: We've removed an ally of al-Qaida, and cut off a source of terrorist funding.

Stewart: Damn you, liberal file footage! Damn you, TiVo! Actually, O'Reilly realizes the left-wing media isn't the only problem. There's also left-wing academia.

O'Reilly: You went to Yale and Harvard, and they're all pinhead liberals over there.

Bush: (laughs) I haven't spent a lot of time analyzing why professors feel the way they feel.

O'Reilly: You just want to get out of the class. I was the same way.

Stewart: Seriously, educations is for jackasses.

While the networks droned on about polls and "Saturday Night Live" offered the same rewarmed "Hardball" sketches, "The Daily Show's" election coverage was so appealing, so extensive and so entertaining, devoted viewers tuned in every night for their regular dose of common sense therapy. In fact, the show was so sharp and funny night after night, sometimes it almost seemed too good to be true. And maybe it was -- the writers have set the bar so high, it would be nearly impossible for them to keep up this volume of big laughs indefinitely, particularly in the absence of election fodder. Then again, these hippie comedy freaks could be half as funny and it would still be funnier than 90 percent of the comedy out there. Rah rah, sis boom bah!

"Team America: World Police"
Who else but Trey Parker and Matt Stone would think to parody both "Top Gun"-style blockbusters and the war against terrorism in a movie populated by marionettes? "Team America" is the kind of over-the-top, inspired offensiveness that we've come to expect from Parker and Stone, but with a slightly more serious target. During the opening sequence, when the government agents of "Team America" blow up the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, then declare their mission a success, we get a brief glimpse of political satire as dark as we've seen since "Dr. Strangelove." Of course, there are also the jokes about blow jobs and the endless vomit scenes. But that's Parker and Stone -- just when they're tempted to send a message, they retreat into a "Beavis and Butthead" land of pratfalls and snickering.

Detractors might find them unnervingly crude and even irresponsible in their criticism of "get out the vote" campaigns, but to their fans, that freedom of movement between high comedy, cutting satire and the most juvenile jokes imaginable is exactly what makes Parker and Stone so unparalleled. After all, even William Shakespeare pandered to the basest tastes of the unwashed masses in the pit with crudeness and puns. Love it or hate it, "Team America" will stand as the most scathing snapshot of the absurdity of celebrity culture and inflammatory global politics in the year 2004. But that's not to leave out . . .

"South Park"
Since the folly, vice and stupidity of American life aren't limited to celebrity and politics, Parker and Stone set their sites on a fresh herd of slow-moving targets on their popular Comedy Central cartoon, "South Park." Look no further than their recent episode "Something Wal-Mart This Way Comes" to witness how these two have their finger on the psychology of American life. When the superstore comes to South Park, all of the small businesses go under and everyone agrees that it's ruining the town, but no one has the strength to resist the low prices and convenience. "Jesus, look at us!" one of the townspeople screams. "We all don't like the Wal-Mart, but we can't stop coming here!" Comparing the spread of corporate superstores to a "Body Snatchers"-style spread of evil was a brilliant move.

And in "The Passion of the Jew," the people of South Park inadvertently join a neo-Nazi movement led by Cartman that is only derailed when a stark raving lunatic named Mel Gibson rolls into town and makes everyone feel all dirty inside for liking his movie. But the most memorable episode of the year had to be "Douche and Turd," in which the kids of "South Park" were forced to choose between voting for a giant douche or a turd sandwich as their school's mascot -- facing the wrath of P. "Vote or Die" Diddy if they didn't. Whether or not you agree with their take on American politics, it's clear that Parker and Stone have led the charge in bringing courageously obnoxious material to the small screen.

"The Boondocks"
Cartoonist Aaron McGruder is everywhere lately, from the pages of the New Yorker to NPR's "Day to Day." His strip, "The Boondocks," gained a lot of attention in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, when many newspapers dropped it for criticizing the Bush administration. But McGruder's characters have continued to offer up some of the boldest, most outspoken humor on the otherwise safely comatose comic pages ever since. While McGruder has fondly blasted sitting ducks Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice out of the water, lately he's taking on the racism surrounding the brawl at a Detroit Pistons game. "So what? Ron Artest went after the wrong guy?!" says Huey Freeman, McGruder's forthright hero. "This is America! 'Round here, you get re-elected for doing #&@* like that!"

And if you think that's brutal, watch out when it's Huey's turn to say grace. "Ahem. In this time of war against Osama bin Laden and the oppressive Taliban regime, we are thankful that our leader isn't the spoiled son of a powerful politician from a wealthy oil family who is supported by religious fundamentalists, operates through clandestine organizations, has no respect for the democratic electoral process, bombs innocents, and uses war to deny people their civil liberties. Amen." Amen, indeed! It's nice to know that McGruder will consistently refuse to mute his anger to quell the critics -- which is why we're so anxious to catch a glimpse of his animated series, based on "The Boondocks," tentatively set to air on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup in the fall of 2005.

"Da Ali G Show"
Of course, those who enjoy a side of hearty chortles with their caustic wit flocked to the feeding trough of Sacha Baron Cohen of HBO's "Da Ali G Show." This year, Cohen's alter egos cornered a whole new herd of unsuspecting boobs into making insufferable assholes of themselves for our entertainment. From Borat, the reporter from Khazakistan who often seems to be channeling Peter Sellers, to Bruno, the Austrian fashion reporter, to white gangsta idiot Ali G, Cohen uses his incredible talent for improv and physical comedy to subversive effect, exposing crusty American attitudes simply by stumbling onto the scene armed with a dangerous mix of fake ignorance and back-slapping enthusiasm. Amazingly, the second season of the show was even better than the first, featuring interactions and interviews with people so odd or offensive, they were far more entertaining than anything Cohen could've dreamed up himself. Take James Broadwater, who not only answers Borat's question "Which is the party of the homosexuals?" but allows Borat to campaign by his side, warning constituents that if they don't vote for Broadwater, the man will simply seize power, Stalin-style. Or who can forget Pastor Quinn, who informs Bruno that eating brunch isn't immoral, as long as it's "with Christian friends and there's no one else around that's gonna seduce you into sin"? Let's just pray that Cohen won't get too popular, so that Ali G will have plenty of oblivious targets for many seasons to come.

"My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss"

Better not judge a TV show by its title, because "My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss" is the best reality TV lampoon to date. A direct parody of "The Apprentice," the show features a gaggle of aspiring business types anxious to win a job from jerk boss N. Paul Todd, played brilliantly by William August. Sounds awful, right? Just tune in for a small sampling and see for yourself. Take this recent episode, where Todd announces that he'll be reshuffling the teams of contestants:

Mr. Todd: Let's face reality. Some of you are, quote, "prettier" than the others. In business, people who are more attractive have a leg up. OK, so here's how it's going to work. We're going to split into two new teams. There will be equal amounts of attractiveness and unattractiveness, according to me.

In the absurd moments that follow, Todd and his assistant pretend to consult, telling people to switch teams, then switch back, presumably trying to balance prettiness with ugliness between the groups. The looks on the contestants' faces, as each person wonders how they might be tipping the scales in one direction or another, are unforgettable. Once the teams are established, Todd forces the teams to sell "eco-pons" (ecologically safe tampons made of sticks and leaves) and reusable toilet paper, and the contestants somehow manage to sell both, mostly with cheap tricks and outright lies. Finally, Todd makes everyone come up with a slogan and a hand gesture that he can use when he fires them. If you can ignore the excessive Fox-specific cliffhanger percussion and double-takes, this show is a pure delight to watch, particularly for those who've lost more hours of their life to The Donald than they'd care to admit.


It might seem strange to count Garry Trudeau's long-running political cartoon as evidence that this was the year satire broke wide, but any mention of satire without Trudeau would seem an even bigger crime, particularly given Trudeau's brilliant work this year. Trudeau's stories offer a rare blend of cutting wit, bitterness and genuine concern for those who get caught under the wheels of the system; he recently told Rolling Stone that his story ideas, some of which focus on the troops in Iraq, are informed by real soldiers who e-mail him with stories and perspectives on the war. Maybe that's why Trudeau makes the cynical satirists in his midst look like children with switchblades -- for Trudeau, the specific ways in which the government fails us are more than just fodder for potty jokes. Take this recent cartoon, in which two voices are heard coming from the White House:

Voice No. 1: Powell never should've happened! That's why we're creating a new Cabinet-level post.

Voice No. 2: We are, sir?

Voice No. 1: Secretary of toady affairs! A loyalty enforcer to ensure that everyone in this government is singing from the same hymnal!

When Trudeau takes a chunk of flesh from the administration for its audacity, you can somehow trust that these are the reactions of a man who has witnessed the flailings of every president from Nixon to Bush II -- he even went to Yale with our current president. In fact, in the same Rolling Stone interview, he says that he still remembers how good Bush was at controlling people through "little bits of perfectly placed humiliation." These days, Trudeau is getting his revenge with a little daily serving of the same.

"Drawn Together"
While the laughs on Comedy Central's animated reality spoof "Drawn Together" are sometimes few and far between, the mere existence of a show featuring a bunch of animated characters living in a house together, "Real World"-style, is enough to make it clear that this is the year comedy flew off the map. From Xandir the gay video game hero to Princess Clara, the naive, fairy-tale racist, "Drawn Together's" miscreants are ludicrous and twisted, and the situations they find themselves in are over-the-top offensive. In other words, this show can't be all bad. At the very least, "Drawn Together" paves the way for more fare that's just as bold and absurd . . . and maybe a little bit funnier? Hey, why not dream big?

"Chappelle's Show"
After two years on the air, it's official: Dave Chappelle has the most inspired sketch comedy show around. From "Roots" outtakes to Nelson Mandela's boot camp for teens, Chappelle seems to have an endless supply of great ideas, such as his quiz show, "I Know Black People" (sample question: "What is a badonkadonk?"), which features some of the most hilarious improv ever seen on TV. But best of all, Chappelle isn't afraid to throw himself behind absolutely absurd concepts. Who else would dream of doing a sketch that featured a first-person account, by Eddie Murphy's little brother Charlie, of meeting and hanging out with Rick James, let alone allowing it to fill most of a half-hour show? But between Charlie's self-deprecating, deadpan delivery, Rick James' conflicting first-person account of the same events, and the reenactments featuring Chappelle dressed as James (screaming his trademark "I'm Rick James, bitch!" line), the episode is hands-down the best to date. During the second segment, Murphy describes a second run-in with James.

Charlie Murphy: [to the camera] . . . you know, here we go again.

Rick James: [to the camera] Cocaine is a hell of a drug. [Laughs.]

Charlie: [to the camera] Rick is incorrigible, you know? He shows up at my brother's house f***ed up.

Chappelle as Rick James: Nice place, n*****!

Charlie: [to the camera] So he had dirty cowboy boots on. Pushed us out of the way, barged in the house. My brother had these brand new couches, they were suede, right? And he gets on the couch and says ...

Chappelle as James: Why don't I stretch out? Ha ha ha!

Charlie: And he just started grinding mud on this couch, man!

Rick James: [to the camera] Yeah, I remember grinding my feet on his couch.

Interviewer: Do you remember why you did it?

Rick James:[to the camera] Because Eddie could buy another one.

Charlie: And we stand there looking at him, and he's looking right in our eyes as he grinds this mud ...

Rick James: [to the camera ] See, I never just did things just to do them. Come on, I mean what am I gonna do, just all of a sudden just jump up and grind my feet on somebody's couch like it's something to do? Come on, I have a little more sense than that. [He pauses.] Yeah, I remember grinding my feet on Eddie's couch.

"Instant Replay" flashes on-screen, and the remarkable clip rewinds.

Rick James: [to the camera] See, I never just did things just to do them. Come on, I mean what am I gonna do, just all of a sudden just jump up and grind my feet on somebody's couch like it's something to do? Come on, I have a little more sense than that. [He pauses.] Yeah, I remember grinding my feet on Eddie's couch.

It takes a lot of confidence to build a whole skit around this kind of insanity, but Chappelle highlights not only the bizarre nature of the story itself, but brings out the delectably real quirks of the players involved. James, of course, died later in the year, and cocaine was likely at least a contributing factor to his fatal heart attack. But the sketch is still amusing to watch in no small part because Chappelle never stooped to just making fun of James. He didn't have to, really; James was hilariously outlandish enough on his own, and Chappelle found a way of perfectly capturing it. And that's the genius of Chappelle; he has the perfect grasp of the absurdity of real life, knowing which details to highlight and exaggerate, without going overboard and drowning the whole thing in his own hubris. "Chappelle's Show" easily represents some of the best sketch comedy of the past two decades.

"Fahrenheit 9/11"
Michael Moore isn't exactly a master comedian, but "Fahrenheit 9/11" featured a surprising array of satirical elements, from its ruthless attack on the "coalition of the willing" featuring stock footage of outrageously costumed foreigners meant to represent the questionable contributions of Palau, Romania and Costa Rica, to its footage of Bush's face, superimposed over Lorne Greene's in the opening credits of "Bonanza." Or what about that ruthless footage of Bush, all beady-eyed and sneaky-looking, preparing to go on the air and announce the invasion of Iraq? Such tactics might seem more at home on "South Park" ("Then Mel Gibson strips to his undies and begs Stan and Kenny to torture him ...") than in the highest-grossing documentary of all time, but tough times call for tough tactics. The toughest of all came when Moore stood outside the Capitol and confronted congressmen who supported the war, trying to get them to agree to sign up their own sons and daughters to fight in Iraq, and pointing out that only one of the 535 members of Congress had a child enlisted in the war in Iraq. As devious or dirty as Moore might be, his provocative soup of fact and found footage not only exposed the folly, vice and stupidity currently knocking around in the Oval Office, but galvanized a mass of antiwar spectators, many of whom had been silently seething before they spotted lines of like-minded people winding around the block to see the film.

The Onion
Sure, the Onion isn't quite the source of pure hilarity it once was, but what could possibly stand up to such classic headlines as "Perky 'Canada' Has Its Own Laws, Government" or "Area Students Prepare Breasts for Spring Display"? And who can forget the classic CNN-style graphic, after 9/11, blaring in gigantic type, "Holy Fucking Shit!"? No matter how great the Onion was in its heyday, you can't deny that it continues to be the funniest satire of bad newspaper writing around -- particularly in the face of so many shoddy imitators. Just scan a few recent headlines, from "World's Scientists Admit They Just Don't Like Mice" to "Local Woman's Life Looks Bearable in Scrapbook." And then, of course, there are the columnists -- take Smoove B, who discusses in great detail how he'll wine and dine you and then take you home and "freak on that ass." Whether the Onion's writers are capturing the twisted nature of our most trusted institutions or summing up just how pathetic our little lives actually are, they don't pull any punches. It almost makes you want to bake a cake in their honor.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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