It might seem like political comedians have an easy job -- to take shots at leaders and bureaucrats for whom the public at large already have a healthy dose of cynical mistrust. But the best political comedians do more than take shots; they shape the discussion and become part of the process through the act of telling jokes. They can be more than simple commentators; they can be voices. Funny, funny voices.
Though the majority of political comedians do tend to lean left, there are those who speak to conservatives and others who elect not to choose sides. All are represented here, in varying numbers and degrees.
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Though he had been a stand-up comic for almost 15 years, it wasn't until Bill Maher became host of Politically Incorrect in 1993 that the country really took notice. On that show and its follow-up, the HBO talk show Real Time with Bill Maher, he regularly mixes it up with politicians, pundits and celebrities on a wide range of issues. A self-described "libertarian," Maher is an equal-opportunity offender, willing to make fun of all political parties. During the Bush II administration, he became far more critical of the conservative right, but he's still willing to speak his mind and make jokes based on what he believes -- even when it's unpopular. No comedian has done as much for the mixture of politics and comedy in the last 20 years...
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...With the possible exception of Jon Stewart. Taking over Comedy Central's nightly news spoof The Daily Show in 1999, Stewart quickly became one of the country's go-to comics for political comedy. The genius of Jon Stewart isn't just his quick wit or sharp writing; what makes him great is that he is truly passionate about the political problems Americans face today. It would be easy to remain at a distance, criticizing everything underneath a guard of ironic cool (just ask Stewart's predecessor, Craig Kilborn). But Stewart is more than the class smart-ass; underneath the political commentary and jokes is the distinct feeling that yes, he gets it. And he cares.
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Lewis Black has allowed politics to drive him nuts. Unlike Bill Maher's smirkiness and Jon Stewart's bafflement, Black's political comedy is flourished with his trademark rage -- no one can build to a frustrated scream quite like Black. Another comedian who's critical of both major political parties (he calls himself a socialist...oooh...), Black is a comic whose name has become synonymous with political humor. He makes regular appearances on The Daily Show to offer political commentary, and the majority of his Grammy-winning stand-up album, The Carnegie Hall Performance, is an indictment of the Bush/Cheney administration. What resonates with Black is his rage -- and even when we don't agree with his politics, we can all relate to that.
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George Carlin wasn't an exclusively political comic, but when his act did turn to politics he proved to be one of the sharpest minds on the subject ever to grace the stage. The oldest and most seasoned comic on the list, Carlin was able to cover four decades of politics in his act; revisiting any of his 14 comedy albums now is like opening a political time capsule. Carlin loved to point out the hypocrisy in any institution, and there were few institutions he saw more hypocrisy in than government (though The Church comes a close second). Carlin had a natural gift for cutting through b.s., and it served him well as a political comedian -- he's one of the few comics who could change your mind about something with a joke. He is missed.
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For whatever reason, there aren't a whole lot of "conservative" comedians (actually, I can think of about 10 reasons, but I won't get into them here). So, as the only real conservative comic on the list, Dennis Miller represents a very different point of view when it comes to political comedy. Once a more liberal-minded Bush I basher (during his days on Saturday Night Live and as the host of his own often-political talk show on HBO), Miller has claimed that America's response to 9/11 changed his political views. He's since become the go-to comic for the conservative right and FOX News, but lost most of his edge in the process. It's not just that I disagree with most of his politics; it's that he simply isn't as funny anymore.
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Over the course of his career, D.L. Hughley transitioned from a funny observational comic into one of the foremost political comedians of the 2000s. Taking a page from Richard Pryor and even Chris Rock, Hughley's comedy is tinged with brutal honesty and frustration about race and the status quo. He hosted his own news and political discussion show for a brief time -- D.L. Hughley Breaks the News -- on CNN, and continues to be a vital and necessary voice in today's comedy landscape.
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Stephen Colbert might seem like another conservative comedian, but only to viewers who don't get the joke (and, really, who doesn't get the joke?). As host of his own Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report, Colbert savages right-wing pundits four nights a week; he's a sly satirist disguised as every thick-headed conservative blowhard on FOX News. Colbert has even used his status as a political comedian to enter the realm of politics; he spoke at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2006 and even entertained a brief run for the White House in the 2008 election. Combined with his lead-in, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show (where Colbert got his start), Colbert is part of the best hour of political satire on TV.
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Chris Rock, like George Carlin before him, isn't always political (though, again like Carlin, he is always
societal). But his acts are always at least somewhat
political -- typically critical of government and often invoking race. Almost all of his stand-up specials address the political climate of the times they're born out of, up to and include a large part of his 2008 stand-up special, Kill the Messenger
, devoted to politics and the potential election of the first African American president. When it comes to politics, Rock is willing to say things other comics won't -- not for shock value, but in the interest of speaking his view of the truth.
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Janeane Garofalo is another comedian who didn't begin politically, but whose career has shifted towards politics over the years. Though she started out as a more observational, alternative comic -- joking about Weezer concerts and body image -- she has gradually become an active political voice in comedy. She appears regularly on Real Time with Bill Maher and hosted her own radio show on the left-wing Air America network. Her politics don't always mix with her comedy the same way as some others on this list -- though fiercely left-wing, she doesn't necessarily incorporate those ideas into her act -- but she still remains one of the foremost political comics in the country.
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David Cross spends more than half of his first stand-up album, Shut Up You Fucking Baby
, criticizing the Bush II administration and the American political establishment in the wake of September 11th. And, just in case audiences hadn't yet gotten the message, he did it again on his follow-up album, It's Not Funny
. Cross makes no bones about despising the Bush presidency, calling him "the worst president in history" and lambasting the country for going along with the politics of fear. Like a lot of political comedians, Cross is angry and funnels that anger through his comedy. Also, like a lot of political comedians, he can sometimes be condescending. It helps that his rants are very, very funny -- otherwise, he'd be just another complainer.