Satirist Andy Borowitz explains the fine art of lampooning Trump
Soon after charges were announced Monday morning against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, I asked the New Yorker's great satirist Andy Borowitz if he was scrutinizing the indictment and flipping among instant punditry on cable news networks.
Yes, he said, tongue firmly planted in cheek, his work is fabled for nuance and detail, so of course he was doing all that and more. Pause. Sort of another pause. And then his assertion that,ah, no, he wasn't doing any of that since the news and serious legal issues should be left to his magazine colleague Jeffrey Toobin and journalists like myself.
"I am here to give more of the gut id response," he said, revealing reliance on his inner Freud. "Isn't this the most enjoyable moment of our lives, like marriage or the birth of a child? I'm just overstimulated by all this."
It was why, not much later, there was his New Yorker handiwork (and inner Freud) via a typically droll several hundreds words, headlined " Millions Disappointed It Wasn’t Jared."
"Amid the general jubilation over the arrest of Paul Manafort on Monday, millions of Americans reported extreme disappointment that the first person arrested from Robert Mueller’s Russia probe was not Jared Kushner. Across the country, downcast Americans commiserated over the news that their choice for Mueller’s first indictment had been overlooked."
“'I know it makes me sound petty, since today is a day of national celebration,' Harland Dorrinson, who had been holding a Kushner-arrest-watch party in suburban Toledo, said. 'But for a lot of us who had had our hopes set on Jared, today is bittersweet.'"
Perfect. Funny. There was more, but not much more. The former successful TV writer and stand-up comic writes short. He knows his limitations and his readership's expectations. The Cleveland native (his folks wanted him to be a lawyer and thought that going to do stand-up in Los Angeles was akin to joining the circus) keeps both in mind as he crafts his gems, usually from his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The indictment was an initial climax of sorts — assuming there's far more to come from the grand jury — since his fans know he's been on top of the whole investigation, or at least surveying it with his sideways analyses. Back in August, he wrote, "WASHINGTON — Millions of Americans would gladly work for Robert Mueller for free if that would help speed things up, a new poll finds."
Borowitz, 59, is a treasure admired not just by the average reader but also by those in the comedic know. In fact, here's how he's placed in the satiric-comedic universe by Kelly Leonard, former longtime artistic director of Chicago's path-breaking Second City Comedy troupe, whose alumni include current A-listers Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Cecily Strong:
"In an age where earnest outrage is in an ongoing tussle with being funny, Andy Borowitz manages to do both," Leonard says. "He is able to be both cutting and hilarious at the same time."
So as Mueller accelerates the creative inspiration he offers pro bono to Borowitz, it seemed apt to track down the satirist to discuss just what he does to elicit so many smiles during an arguably melancholy and confusing period of time.
Your cup runneth over with Trump. Do you have some sort of moral obligation to send him a share of your New Yorker compensation? And, regardless, how DO you explain what an inviting subject he's been?
It's weird. It's very paradoxical. On one hand, he's perhaps the worst topic ever. One thing about satire: you're trying to portray a kind of heightened version of reality, to perhaps point out the absurdity of reality. With Trump, you can't go beyond who he actually is. I did a discussion on The New Yorker radio show with (editor) David (Remnick) and I said once millions of Americans decided to give a game show host nuclear weapons, that really defied satire.
We used to in old days, when I was dealing with boring weeks with nothing to write about, think of Kim Jong Un. Now we're in a world situation where his responses seem somewhat measured by comparison. You have a professional wrestler as president. One of strange harmonic convergences is that years ago I created "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and Trump was a guest actor on that. We've gone from writing a show where he was doing sit-com punch lines to his having the nuclear codes. He's no longer an entertainment figure but a head of state.
He seems more compelled by his status as an entertainment figure. He will say things like, 'It's the calm before the storm." Like this is an "NCIS" cliffhanger. You can't make him crazier. So what I find myself doing is just transcribing and reporting what's just happening. A lot are just saying what's happening but I'm just saying it a bit bluntly. I'm not really inventing. I'm not coming up with crazy stories he didn't do. It's reporting with a slightly more blunt edge. Look at late night shows, which I don't watch much, and they just tend to run a clip of what he actually said and raise an eyebrow. And that's a joke.
So who first contacted you about doing work for The New Yorker? What were you doing at the time? TV stuff? Stand-up? None of the above?
The evolution of this is interesting. I wrote "Shouts and Murmurs" for The New Yorker. I don't know if David remembers but my first one was in the first issued David edited, his first week in 1998, and it was a political piece. It shows how little things have changed. They were talking points for Bill Clinton to have with him when he did his deposition about Monica Lewinsky; an alternative explanation of how sperm could have gotten on the dress. So, 19 years later, we're talking about impeachment again.
I wrote Shouts for a long time, about 14 years, then in 2012 David was gearing up the website — the magazine didn't have much of an internet footprint, with Conde Nast a late adopter — then hired Nick Thompson to be editor of the website. David said what could we do to get you to write the Borowitz Report for the website, which I was doing on my laptop since 2001 and originally intended as an email blast to my friends. It grew out of stuff I did for the Harvard Lampoon in the 1970s. I was never intended to be a job. In fact, it was a money-losing enterprise, since I had my own website which you had to host and pay for.
How do you work? Computer, longhand, at Starbucks, revelations in the middle of the night? Do you read lots of newspapers, watch tons of cable news?
I write mostly on my phone. My pieces, as you may have noticed, are very short. Never 300 words. Usually between 150 and 250. The joke is the headline, with a couple of jokes in the piece. I don’t want to belabor things. It's almost like the verbal equivalent of a New Yorker cartoon, with an image and a caption.
I don't sit down in the morning with a bunch of news sites and see what's going on. I do not have cable news on and don't have Twitter. I used to do it (Twitter) relentlessly and quit. I don’t want to be so bombarded with all this stuff that I stop seeing the forest for the trees. I am a reductive writer. I am not Jeffrey Toobin. Or Jane Mayer. We have brilliant reporters who do that. I do what is in my view the common sense response to whatever just happened. In my weird way it's what passes for national thought in my head. Often when I see a story like what's going on today (Manafort), I will try to put myself in Trump's shoes. Or maybe the point of view of the liberal fantasist. It's making fun of how liberals want this to go. I am reveling in this but making fun of how liberals want to go from whatever shred of Mueller-based news there is to the fantasy of the end of the Trump administration.
I am a dad with a 7-year-old and have a lot of household responsibilities. In the course of doing my day I will sooner or later have something occur to me. It's a bit more improvisational. If I were more disciplined, maybe the results would be better. But they might be the same or worse. For me, what works best is the written on the fly thing. It's not for everybody. Having said that, I am interested in doing other things that aren't just this formula. I just did a video for the website based on something for the New Yorker Festival. It's comedy, storytelling and performance.
Can you explain the origin of the de facto scarlet letter qualifier for your work, namely the "Not the News" designation. Do you feel at all marginalized by that?
That was my idea. But it came out of a concern that the magazine had. It's always had this concern from 2012 of making sure that the Borowitz Report was identified as satire. The New Yorker is a news site and Remnick is a great newsman. The site is extremely newsy. The editor of the site (Michael Luo) is from The Times. The difference between doing this for the New Yorker and, say, The Onion, is significant, though some people are fooled and think The Onion is a news site, especially in other countries. When it appears cheek to jowl with a Ryan Lizza piece or Jeffrey Toobin, it becomes important to identify it. From the very beginning, they always put in something like "for more news satire, see…." Something to indicate it was not real news. And every once in a while something would get picked up by Yahoo News and go viral. So (The New Yorker) wanted to make clear it was news satire.
After the election, with all the talk about fake news, they had a meeting in which I was included about labeling it more clearly. I said why not call it "Not the News" above the story. And instead of saying it's from the Borowitz Report, say it's news satire from the Borowitz Report. No satirist likes being labeled like that. I am a deadpan performer. I like that headlines and news photos are so serious and straightforward. Having said that, once you go into business with a magazine like the New Yorker, you realize there are certain parameters like that.
In my dream, everybody would have better reading comprehension and we wouldn't have to do this. But it's also a problem with our current reality. Our reality is pushing against satire on a daily basis. If you just ran my headlines, it would look like we are trying to fool people. So close to what's actually going on, just stated more bluntly.
It's not my intention to fool anybody but after (Jeff) Bezos bought The Washington Post, I did a story with the headline "Amazon Chief Clicked on Washington Post by Mistake." He meant to subscribe and accidentally bought it and didn't realize until got his Amex bill. Well, that was picked up around the world. So there are now a million red flags to indicate it's not real. But ultimately it comes down to reading comprehension. If people see a headline and don't read the fine print, doesn't matter what we say.
How, as a satirist, do you manage to create the proper context for a public that has a hard time understanding the difference between comedy and satire?
I honestly don't think about that problem. Sometimes I have had that issue. My editors are fantastic and are usually right with me. There have been moments where there is an urge to explain a joke a bit. When we have to do that, I say that to try to explain a joke to be gettable, then the game's over.
One thing I will say is I don't think the fake news story after the election has been covered well by real journalists. A lot of talk with the whole Mueller investigation, and Facebook revealing things, but after the election, there was a lot of finger pointing about fake news being why the election happened this way. But there's not a whole lot of reporting that proved that. I saw a lot of Pew Research. Stuff about Facebook having a lot of fake news. So everybody supposedly gets their news from fake news. I think it was a factor. But if fake news was influential, Trump wouldn't have been elected.
So why don't satirists, like yourself — and please correct me if the premise is off — don't more often go after Hillary's email, Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick, etc. Is there not a responsibility for satirists to be equal opportunity comedians?
It depends on whom you're talking about. This question comes up a lot: "Why is most satire from the left?" My conservative haters would disagree with this. I consider myself a centrist, sort of like Obama, whom everybody thought a progressive but people got frustrated with him. That's where I am politically, though people may disagree.
I would say there is a lot of comedy from the right wing but not what people on the left would consider comedy. Take Rush Limbaugh, whom I don't agree with and don't think is funny at all. But if you listen to his radio show, it is working as comedy for his choir. In the way that (Stephen) Colbert is preaching to the choir. There is nothing wrong with that. I am of the view, and this is showing my bias, that when you have a presidency endangering so many of our institutions, including the First Amendment, there is no shame in being completely biased against that.
I think some things have one side. I don't want to represent the White Lives Matter side. And I do think there are a lot of voices … Fox News is very sarcastic and tries to score a lot of comedy points. I think there's a lot of endless ridicule of Hillary and Black Lives Matter.