Political Comedy Loves the 80s

Recently the news has been feeling a little too familiar. Old characters have been making comebacks, and old jokes have come out of retirement. With today’s comic focus on Moammar Gadhafi, tax cuts, and union workers, not to mention the omnipresence of Brat Pack associate Charlie Sheen and his non-stop talk of cocaine, you’d be forgiven for thinking the 80s are here again.

It’s been heartening to see the unions in the spotlight again. The 80s were the beginning of the end for unions as a central part of American life. As any article about the standoff in Wisconsin will mention, union power began to wane after Ronald Regan busted the air-traffic controllers union in 1981, crippling the ability of workers to fight for higher raises. (It’s a separate topic, but this was also the exact moment income inequality started rising again in America after a half-century decline, a trend that has never stopped.) Culturally, the 80s was a last hurrah for what could be termed “labor” comedies, such as Michael Keaton’s Gung Ho (1986). These movies, with their socialism-tainted theme of sticking together, had to make way in the canon of work movies for the late-90s office comedies such as Office Space (1999), with their emphasis on worker alienation.

Today, the treatment of the unions in political comedy shows a slow but steady promise. While in its earliest coverage, the Daily Show dismissed the union protesters as The Bizarro Tea Party, both the public and comedians have grown more sympathetic with the union workers as the struggle drags on.

But the true 80s comeback star is Qaddafi. For me, the most memorable Qaddafi parody comes not from reaction to the current Libyan uprising, or from recent crazy episodes like Tent-gate, but from my childhood. For a time in 1986 (okay, a short time), my favorite song was “Qaddafi Sucks”, a morning zoo parody of the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls. It is still the first thing that pops into my head whenever the Libyan dictator makes an appearance.

Just like Ronald Reagan is the godfather of the modern Republican Party, Mohammar Ghaddafi is the progenitor of the modern dictator parody. His appearance in the news in the mid-80s, pledging a campaign of terrorist violence against America that culminated in the Lockerbie bombing, corresponded with a Reagan-era growth in appetite and outlets for political comedy. The comic beating Ghaddafi took also represented a turn in the wider American attitude towards our enemies. The purpose of these caricatures was not primarily comedic but jingoistic; it aided in galvanizing American patriotic sentiment against an unfamiliar enemy. Political caricatures for such propagandistic purposes were not new per se, but the impersonation of Ghaddafi in TV and movies turned the dictator into a familiar stock character for ridicule. This was a change from our treatment of the leaders of our more “respectable” enemies, like Russia.

The 80s Kaddafi parodies defined the idea of Middle East dictator as bumbling hack. In February 1986, Saturday Night Live performed a skit called “Kaddafi’s Line of Death,” in which two vacationing yachtgoers (Jerry Hall and Jan Hooks) sailed into Libyan territory and were intercepted by Kaddafi (played by Jon Lovitz!!). The jokes haven’t changed much in twenty-five years: One of the first lines out of Lovitz’s character was “Moamar Kaddafi. Spell it any way you want.” In blundering dictator fashion, Kaddafi tries to send his freedom fighters to commandeer the American girls’ yacht, but his freedom fighters can’t swim. Hall and Hooks’ characters accuse Kaddafi of wanting to date them, a coincidental anticipation of recent revelations about Kaddafi’s unique brand of randiness: his Ukranian nurse, his elite female bodyguards. The vacationers, finally tired of Kaddafi’s antics, leisurely sail away.

Khadafi was also a frequent presence in that high water mark of British political comedy in the 80s, Spitting Image. According to the Spitting Image Wiki, their exaggeration of choice was “a preposterously large military hat on his head.” For Americans, our familiarity with Spitting Image likely first came through the Genesis video for Land of Confusion. And indeed, Khadafi makes two menacing appearances there.

The development of the Khaddhafi persona paved the way for later comic portrayals of Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, and eventually, Osama bin Laden. Hussein’s caricature, taking its most scathing form in South Park, could be seen as the furthest extreme of this strategy: an attempt to dehumanize the enemy. Its culmination did not even happen in comedy, but in the US military’s distribution of photos of Saddam in his underwear, a final act of humiliation before we let the Iraqis hang him.

The most lasting caricature of a Middle East dictator would have to be the Ayatollah. Not for any particular Ayatollah parody, though the 1988 Naked Gun scene is quite good:

But for the Ayatollah anti-parody in the classic Simpsons’ episode “Two Bad Neighbors,” when Homer passionately attempts to save his “Ayatollah Assaholla” T-shirt from consignment to the garage sale heap: “But Marge, it works on any Ayatollah! Ayatollah Nakhbadeh, Ayatollah Zahedi… Even as we speak, Ayatollah Razmara and his cadre of fanatics are consolidating their power!”

It’s a timeless Simpsons scene not just because it nails the exploitation behind this brand of crass anti-Islamic merchandising, but for the emotional attachment that Homer feels for this expired enemy from a previous decade. Just like the nostalgic welcome we’ve bestowed on our prodigal enemy Kadhafi, after so long being away, Homer clings to the Assaholla T-shirt with a touching sort of fondness.

We miss the dictators of our youth.

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I spent too much time this week hunting the internet in vain for that elusive mp3 of “Qhaddafi Sucks.” I called and called into the search engines, but it would not yield the song. Even eBay, with its deep trove of discount Morning Zoo compilation cassettes, could give me nothing. The lyrics have yet to be transcribed. However, there is evidence online of the song’s lasting influence, and at least one conservative figurehead can trace his rise back to the song’s patriotic message:

The birth of Glenn Beck as Radio Super Patriot can be traced to the morning of April 15, 1986. This was the morning after Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. warplanes to bomb Moammar Gadhafi’s Tripoli palace in response to the bombing of a Berlin nightclub frequented by U.S. servicemen. … After opening the show with a prayer and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” Beck played patriotic music through the morning. The only track receiving multiple plays was a New Wave-ish spoof titled “Qaddafi Sucks.” The song was a huge hit with listeners, dozens of whom called Beck to tell him how inspired they were by his patriotism. Caller after caller applauded him for “standing up for America.”

It seems everywhere we look, we’re still paying the price for what we did in the 80s.

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.

Political Comedy Loves the 80s