Political humor relies on two elements that may be at odds: the politics and the humor. Mock trivial matters and the best jokes may be met with a shrug. Take on concerns of dire import, and you can swamp your audience's willingness to laugh.
Four new books, all released with an eye to the holiday gift-giving season, wrestle with political issues of varying magnitudes. Each book originates with a medium outside book publishing, and the ones that risk the most reap the greatest creative rewards. I Am America (and So Can You)! extends Stephen Colbert's highly amusing persona as host of "The Colbert Report," a parody of conservative pundit programs like "The O'Reilly Factor." In the book as on the show, Colbert weighs in on hot-button issues of the current conservative moment, carrying them to logical extremes until they collapse under their own fatuousness.
Written by Colbert and at least a dozen others, I Am America perfectly captures the way the host's confidence becomes more brazen the more he reveals his ignorance. The book features plenty of playful photos and graphics, but its inventive wordplay makes it succeed as prose. Opposing the idea of "science," Colbert argues that physics is nothing more than unnecessary regulations: "Physics is the ultimate Big Government interference – universal laws meant to constrain us at every turn. Hey, is it wrong that I sometimes want to act without having to deal with an equal and opposite reaction?"
Despite taking on safe targets, Colbert's book proves perfectly attuned to the modern zeitgeist. Another fake journalist, Kazakhstan's Borat Sagdiyev (an alter ego of British comic Sacha Baron Cohen) proves more dated with his new travel book, Touristic Guidings to Minor Nation of U.S. and A. Flip it upside down and it becomes Touristic Guidings to Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Despite quality binding and glossy paper, Touristic Guidings is meant to be a crappily published book, riddled with spelling and typesetting errors that evoke Borat's broken English. The American half derives heavily from the jokes in last year's Borat "moviefilm," but without having the real interviewees to give comedic friction to Borat's clueless behavior. The book has no "straight men" – unless you happen to be a sexist anti-Semite who hates gypsies and Uzbeks, nodding along in agreement – and then you won't realize that the joke is on you.
The Kazakh section features fresher jokes, including details about the country's colossal statue of Great Melvin the Redeemer, erected to celebrate Mel Gibson's views on the Jews. Nevertheless, surprise is a crucial element in any kind of comedy, and in Touristic Guidings the shock value of references to rape or the sex industry wear off quickly, and the faux-happy descriptions of bigotry and abuse become merely depressing.
The Onion: Our Dumb World shares with the Borat book nearly the same joke about Kazakhstan's equine space program. Our Dumb World proves to be a far more effective piece of parody. It's such a letter-perfect replica that an unsuspecting reader might take it for an actual world atlas until noticing such graphics as global "Bono Awareness." The book traffics in predictable stereotypes when covering the United States and the major nations of Europe, although the entries with local interest avoid the Southeast's racist legacy. An arrow points at the location of the Georgia capital and reads, "Ted Turner drinking Coke while flying Delta – there, you happy Atlanta?"
When Our Dumb World takes on the Third World, however, the satire approaches Swiftian levels of wit and righteousness. The headline for Mauritania reads "Holy Living Fuck – They Still Have Slaves Here." The map of the chaotic Democratic Republic of Congo identifies such landmarks as, "Most depressed statistician in the world," and, "Opposite of what's happening here actually quite heartening." Between the lines, you can almost see bourgeois American humor writers trying to grapple with global tragedies. Finding any kind of irony in famine or genocide seems like the hardest job in comedy, and the book deserves credit for keeping its social conscience intact.
G.B. Trudeau's The War Within: One More Step at a Time tackles subject matter that's equally heavy but more hopeful. Trudeau's comic strip "Doonesbury" can be easily taken for granted, but its depictions of the Iraq war and the plight of its veterans are arguably the most sensitive, closely observed such portrayals in all of pop culture. The War Within focuses solely on former army reservist B.D., who lost his leg in Iraq and struggles with post-traumatic stress syndrome at home. Snappy dialogue lightens the grim mood; when air-headed Zonker says, "Sorry about the PMS, dude," B.D. snaps, "It's PTSD, pin-head." B.D.'s wife remarks, "Some similarities, actually."
Some of the strips avoid conventional punch lines as B.D. reluctantly enters counseling and begins exorcising his demons at the local V.A. center. Trudeau has clearly done his homework on the subject and gives the strips a nearly documentary quality. Like Our Dumb World, The War Within can be a gift with a hidden agenda: It can politicize readers while they laugh.