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Political Humor



Italian Humor






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Humor and politics go together like peaches and cream.  Political humor is one of the proud legacies of open societies, something you can’t find in totalitarian societies.  Could you imagine Will Rogers (1879-1935) daring to voice these quips in Egypt or Saudi Arabia?

  • I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.

  • If you ever injected truth into politics you have no politics.

  • It's easy being a humorist when you've got the whole government working for you.

  • Everything is changing.  People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.

  • Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for.

Some writers in closed societies do dare voice criticism even as witticisms.  Most often they’re arrested, put through a kangaroo court and jailed.  Open societies step up to defend the ‘criminals’ and point the finger at the offending country’s corrupt and sadistic political leaders. 

But the message of tolerance for political humor is a difficult one to convey to dictators.  One visiting dictator actually asked President Clinton why he didn’t just arrest those commenting publicly on his ‘lapses of personal judgment’ in the Oval Office.   

Just imagine how strong-men leaders would respond to a local Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), whose famous novel Gulliver’s Travels was a political satire that, by the way, gave us the words hooligan and yahoo.  Jonathan Swift had a very low view of politics and politicians.

  • All government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery.

  • I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.

  • Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.

  • Politics, as the word is commonly understood, are nothing but corruptions.

  • Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.  

  • It is in disputes, as in armies, where the weaker side sets up false lights, and makes a great noise, to make the enemy believe them more numerous and strong than they really are.

In Italy, there’s very little really biting political satire on current Italian television.  This is because some channels are run by the government.  Other channels are owned by Berlusconi, the head of the ruling party and the Prime Minister (Presidente del Consiglio) of the current government (2006).

Most newspapers used to put political cartoons on the front page, but only the Corriere della Sera still does that, mainly because it is the only major paper not owned by Berlusconi (yet?).  If you're lucky, you can catch some standup comedians performing in Italy, and most touch on politics.  Italians are generally very politically aware and have a very long tradition of poking fun of authority figures.  Their jokes quickly make the rounds.

The political humor that always survives, makes the rounds in the form of jokes told at the bar, at work and at home (and now on the Internet).  But true to Italy’s macho traditions, many of the jokes are sexual or vulgar or both.  For example, criticism of the Lega Nord, the anti-south, separatist party can be found in a joke comparing the party to a sexual act.  And there is plenty of ridicule of male politicians married to feminists.  The general message is that the men have no genitals and the wives are less than feminine.

But most political jokes these days are about Berlusconi (aka: Il Cavaliere).  They play on his perceived arrogance, ignorance, megalomania, hubris, small stature, failure to improve their lives, tendency to exaggerate, wife’s affairs, and his gaffes with foreign dignitaries.  There are also the requisite Italian jokes about him being the son of a prostitute, but that’s an insult used against everyone for generations.  Here are a few Berlusconi jokes.

  • When the Pope died, President Berlusconi decided to temporarily fill the position of Pope, taking the name Pio Tutto (Pious Everything).

  • Uncle Pasquale returns to Italy after a life as an immigrant in America.  He meets his old friend Natale, and he brags about the qualities of Americans.  “In America we had George W. Bush, Bob Hope and Johnny Cash.”  Natale answers, “Insead, in Italy we have Silvio Berlusconi, no hope, and no cash.  

  • Berlusconi goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doctor, I have a serious problem!  The Italians don’t love me anymore, my adversaries and even my allies tell me I’m pretentious.  They even say that I think I’m God.  Please, help me!”  And the Doctor says, “All right, Cavaliere, tell me everything, from the beginning.”  Berlusconi responds, “ Certainly, listen:  In the beginning, I created the heavens and the Earth…”

  • Berlusconi goes to Montezemolo (a race track) and on the Fiorano track, he wants to showoff and try to drive a round in a Formula 1 racecar.  Practically immediately he runs off the track at high speed into an adjoining field.  There’s a profound silence at the track, then panic, because the head of state might be--well, a car going out of control at that speed--he’s probably dead.  The emergency crews finally rush to the scene but find no trace of Il Cavaliere.  There’s no body anywhere near the car.  But standing nearby is a farmer with a shovel.  When asked about Il Cavaliere, he says, “He looked dead!  But when I got close to him, he opened his eyes and said that he was okay, only frightened.  But knowing all the lies he tells, I buried him anyway.”

  • A plane crashes and on board are Bush, Blair and Berlusconi.  All three die and go immediately to Hell.  When they arrive, Bush asks Satin if he can call the White House and let them know what happened.  Satin shows him the phone in his office and says, “You can use my phone, but I charge rates by distance.”  Bush talks on the phone for two minutes.  Satin charges him, “200 Dollars”.  Bush pays.  Blair asks if he can call 10 Downing Street.  Satin agrees and explains again that he charges by distance.  Blair speaks for two minutes and Satin charges him “200 Pounds”.  Berlusconi, not wanting to look unimportant in front of the other leaders, asks to use the phone too, even though there’s no one he needs to call.  Berlusconi calls all his government ministers in Italy and talks for two hours about nonsense.  When he finally hangs up, Satin charges him “5 Euro cents”.  Berlusconi is furious because he wanted to show up the others by talking more and paying a higher rate.  He says, “What do you mean?  I called longer than the others and I can certainly afford to pay a higher bill than the others!”  Satin explains, “After all the Italian government’s actions since you’ve been Prime Minister, Italy has gone to Hell, so local rates apply.”

  • A fire destroys Silvio Berlusconi’s personal library.  Both books are destroyed.  Il Cavaliere is very upset because he hadn’t finished coloring in the second one.  (I've actually heard this same joke told about George Bush.)

  • Berlusconi meets a child in the street.  He pats the boy’s head and says, “Hi, cute kid.  What’s your name?”  “Marco,” says the boy.  “And how old are you, Marco?”  Marco answers, “Nine.”  Il Cavaliere says, “Shame on you!  By your age, I was at least ten!”

  • Berlusconi’s maid falls down.  Il Cavaliere graciously helps her up.  The woman says, “Cavaliere, how kind.  How can I ever thank you?”  Berlusconi says, “In a few days there’s an election.  You could vote for me!”  The woman says with surprise, “I fell on my ass, not my head!”

If you understand Italian, here are some links to pages with more Berlusconi satire:,,

In the U.S. and Britain, spoof campaigns for office are a common occurrence.  While in too many countries, elections are uncommon occurrences!  Will Rogers once ran a spoof campaign for President.  He promised that if elected he’d immediately resign.  When asked what he stood for as a candidate, he said he stood for whatever the other guy wasn’t standing for.  He had other fun views on elections.

  • A fool and his money are soon elected.

  • Anything important is never left to the vote of the people.  We only get to vote on some man; we never get to vote on what he is to do.

  • Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.

Comedian Pat Paulson (1927-1997) continuously ran a spoof campaign for U.S. President beginning in 1968 when he appeared regularly on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour TV show.  Some of his platform included these bits on congressional ethics.

  • Everywhere you go lately you hear this Senator or that Congressman accused of padding expense accounts...milking campaign funds...or engaging in some form of financial hanky panky.  We deplore this loose, unpatriotic talk.  It can only lead to investigations...and convictions...and before long, no one would be left to run our government....of course, there are abuses...but usually there are reasons.

  • These lawmakers don't like to take graft and big bribes...but how else can they get the money to buy votes

  • A lot of these criticisms don't even make sense.  I read one article that spent two pages proving how corrupt our Congressmen are...and another two pages complaining that they never show up for roll calls.  If they're so crooked who wants 'em around?

  • We have a government "of the people...for the people...and buy the people..." and there are very few people in our government that you can't buy.

The British famously developed the Spitting Image TV-puppet show.  The puppets were of major world and national leaders, including their royal family.  Each week the puppets said what the public imagined the leaders really wanted to say, to the audience’s joy and the leaders’ horror.  If a leader wanted to know how they were really seen by the public, all they had to do was tune in and watch the puppets perform in the alternate reality that was Spitting Image.

George Bernard Shaw, the Anglo-Irish playwright (1856-1950) had a long career as a political humorist.  Each of his plays had something to say about the politics of his day and society in general.  Even Pygmalion, his famous play that later became the musical My Fair Lady, exposed the hypocrisies of the British class system, supporting the British Socialists who advocated a fairer education system.  He also held these strong and humorously put ideas.

  • Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.

  • A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.

  • An election is a moral horror, as bad as a battle except for the blood; a mud bath for every soul concerned in it.

  • Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.

  • Democracy is a form of government that substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.

  • He knows nothing and thinks he knows everything.  That points clearly to a political career.

Political humor is nothing new.  Actually, it’s as old as politics.  One example of political humor from the ancient past that’s still making people laugh today is ancient Greece’s play Lysistrata by their most famous comic playwright, Aristophanes (444-322 B.C.).

Lysistrata tells the story of a town of women who are fed up with seeing their war-mongering men-folk only between battles.  The men rush home to father more children, before rushing back to the battlefront for more macho fun.  The women stage a marital-relations strike, with bawdy results, until the men sue for peace with the enemy, and promise to stay home for good.

In a piece about political humor, how could one leave out Mark Twain (1835-1910)?  His sharp observations and simple twists of words and ideas brought focus to the daily facts of U.S. politics in a rough and tumble democracy with two dominant parties and an active Congress.

  • Loyalty to the country always.  Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.

  • It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class, except Congress.

  • Reader, suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress.  But I repeat myself.

  • God made the idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board.

Mr. Twain did not have a high opinion of mankind in general, and an even lower one of politicians.  He didn’t seem too sure about himself, either.

  • I am opposed to millionaires, but it would be dangerous to offer me the position.

  • Laws control the lesser man... Right conduct controls the greater one.

  • Always acknowledge a fault.  This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you an opportunity to commit more.

  • I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices.  All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse.

Will Rogers, too, had a very low opinion of the U.S. Senate.  Ironically, his son served as a U.S. Congressman, but only for a short while.  Perhaps he found his father had been right all along?

  • About all I can say for the United States Senate is that it opens with a prayer and closes with an investigation.

  • Ancient Rome declined because it had a Senate, now what's going to happen to us with both a House and a Senate?

  • And the thing about my jokes is, they don't hurt anybody.  You can take 'em or leave 'em - you can say they're funny or they're terrible or they're good, or whatever, but you can just pass 'em by.  But with Congress, every time they make a joke, it's a law!  And every time they make a law, it's a joke!

  • Our constitution protects aliens, drunks and U.S. Senators.

  • If I studied all my life, I couldn't think up half the number of funny things passed in one session of Congress.

  • This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.

British political comedy can often be inspired silliness, like the 1980s TV sketch show The Goodies.  They took the phrase ‘puppet government’ and turned it into a surreal running gag of actual animal hand-puppets running the British government, sitting in Parliament, advising the puppet Prime Minister in puppet-filled cabinets.  Then they had a giant puppet dog destroy the whole government in one classic episode.

Political humor crept into escapist Hollywood movies when irreverent comics like the Marx Brothers slipped it in as asides.  Groucho Marx (1890-1977) always had the best lines.

  • All people are born alike - except Republicans and Democrats.

  • Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.

  • Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.

  • Politics doesn't make strange bedfellows - marriage does.

  • Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

Standup political humorists burst onto the growing club scene in the U.S. in the 1960s.  They were usually from the left of the political spectrum.  By the 1980s, audiences seemed to lose interest in the biting satire of comedians like Mort Sahl.  But in recent times, they’ve enjoyed a comeback.  Here are a few Mort Sahl quotes, and he doesn’t shy away from joking about his fellow liberals.

  • God is watching us (liberals). If we support someone we don't believe in and say he's electable, then God will make sure he's not elected--and hope we do better the next time.

  • I've arranged with my executor to be buried in Chicago.  Because when I die, I want to still remain active politically.

  • There were four million people in the Colonies and we had Jefferson and Franklin.  Now we have over 200 million and the two top guys are Clinton and Dole.  What can you draw from this?  Darwin was wrong!

  • Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions.  Conservatives feel they deserve everything they've stolen.

  • Will Rogers...used to come out with a newspaper and pretend he was a yokel criticizing the intellectuals who ran the government. I come out with a newspaper and pretend I’m an intellectual making fun of the yokels running the government.

Will Rogers was well aware of U.S. history, too,  and didn’t think his current crop of politicians in the same class as the previous generation of leaders.

  • Alexander Hamilton started the U.S. Treasury with nothing, and that was the closest our country has ever been to being even.

  • I bet after seeing us, George Washington would sue us for calling him "father."

  • Ohio claims they are due a president as they haven't had one since Taft.  Look at the United States, they haven’t had one since Lincoln.

The U.S. presidential democracy and other U.S. quirks irked him, too.

  • On account of being a presidential democracy and run by the people, we are the only nation in the world that has to keep a government four years, no matter what it does.

  • The income tax has made liars out of more Americans than golf.

  • The man with the best job in the country is the vice-president.  All he has to do is get up every morning and ask, "How's the president?"

Political parties didn’t impress him much, either, not even his own party.

  • I am not a member of any organized political party.  I am a Democrat.

  • The more you observe politics, the more you've got to admit that each party is worse than the other.

He had some interesting views on diplomacy, too.

  • Diplomacy is the art of saying "Nice doggie" until you can find a rock.

  • Diplomats are just as essential to starting a war as soldiers are for finishing it... You take diplomacy out of war, and the thing would fall flat in a week.

Mark Twain understood the value of humor to stop governments from becoming hubristic and arrogant.  If only more countries could open up to political humor, they might be better run.  And if not, at least the people could distract themselves from their poor governments with a few laughs!  I’ll leave you with Mark Twain.

  • Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.

  • The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.

  • Humor is mankind's greatest blessing.