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Arts & Culture

Q&A: How Satire Influences Politics

political cartoon by Keith Knight
Courtesy of Keith Knight
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Political cartoons by Keith Knight.

Whether it's an editorial cartoon or late-night comedy show, political satire is able to inform audiences while adding some much needed humor. It has been a part of mainstream media for centuries, but has taken many forms over the years.

The 2016 Political Cartoon & Satire Festival at Duke University explores the different avenues of the mocking media. The festival includes panels on topics like writing cartoons about police brutality and blending journalistic reporting with comedy.

Host Frank Stasio talks with festival panelists Cullum Rogers, Durham-based cartoonist and co-organizer of the festival; Keith Knight, Chapel Hill-based cartoonist and creator of "The K Chronicles;” and Naureen Khan, senior researcher for the TBS program "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee."

Q: What’s the role of political satire and what we’re doing today?

Cullum: Political satire has been around for a long time and it’s largely been devoted to abuse of prominent figures, which these days, everyone is in the satire business if you look at the amount of abuse being hurled around on the political stage these days. But satirists are professionals at it and presumably bring a certain amount of skill and taste, and in the case of cartoonists, drawing ability to the exercise.

Political cartoon by artist Keith Knight
Credit Keith Knight
Political cartoon by artist Keith Knight

Q: “…Characterizations, caricatures of individuals that will remain in our memory?

Cullum: It’s a very personal art. Political cartooning tends to be a matter of bringing people, bringing prominent figures down to the size of their readers and reminding on that they put their pant suits on one leg at a time just like we do.

Q: Keith: Your cartoons do involve commentary and in a sense larger structures. You deal in particular with police brutality, other issues as well. So talk about that. The idea that you’re taking on these big, systemic ideas.

Keith: I just felt like when I started doing the strip that I would focus on particular things I saw that was not getting covered as much as I would have liked to have seen. So I’ve been covering police brutality in the black community for years. It’s kind of nice to see that society has caught up, but it’s not.

Q: The very fact that you say you’ve been covering police brutality for years is one of the saddest sentences I’ve ever heard.

Keith: It is sad but now, I’m not the lone voice in the woods now. It’s now it’s in front of everybody and with what’s going on at this point… in order for you to not see it, you really have to shut out and be in the middle of an island somewhere. But at this point, as crazy and horrible as everything is, it’s time to deal with it, you know?

political cartoon by Cullum Rogers
Credit Courtesy of Cullum Rogers
Hotel check-in scene, from this week’s Indy, dated Sept. 21, 2016. Contains a self-caricature and sketches of several folks attending the convention.

Q:  Cullem, part of your career is based on those single panel cartoons where the whole story is told on a single panel?

Cullum: Right, the standard old format, Nast was one of the inventors of that form and in some ways, it hasn’t changed. It’s a very traditional art form. And in some ways, it’s changed a lot, especially in the past few years.

Keith: I swing both ways.  I do my single panel thing cartoon, and I do the multi-panel K-chronicles, which is very wordy.

Q: And Naureen, your medium is television, so tell us how that works in terms of the way you blend storytelling and satire?

Naureen: Most of our time is taken up on commenting on this crazy election cycle. We have 22 minutes and we try to say thing that move us or try to comment on things that move us. And I’m sure on a non-election year, we’re going to get around to a lot of things. We’ve taken on the Texas abortion law, and the Roger Ailes and 2010 elections. But right now, if you look up at cable, there’s so much fun to be had in some much material to play with.

Q: It’s gotten trite to say this… but the question of whether or not you can out-funny what they’re saying. How do you get beyond what they’re saying to find the funny part in what’s already satire?

Naureen: I don’t even think we’re trying to out-funny what’s currently on the news. I think we’re trying to say something about the current moment that we’re in and what it means that Donald Trump might be president. We’re trying to add something unique and interesting to the conversation in the voice of Sam.

Q: So tell me more about that, "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee." How is it different, how is that voice different and what does it bring to the satire landscape that’s not there already?

Naureen: Most of the things that were written about when we first started was that she is the only woman on late-night. Chelsea Handler does a late night show for Netflix, but Sam is one of the only women, and I think we’ve taken that responsibility seriously and done a lot of great stuff on reproductive right and other issues that maybe some of the male can’t address in the same way that we can. Critics have certainly said we provide a level of catharsis because we definitely aim for the jugular and I think that is true. We want to have a strong voice. I don’t think if you’ll see our show, you’ll think that it’s a neutral show, and I don’t think that’s our aim. We aim to call it like we see it. That’s sort of the mission.

Q: Do you feel that there’s anything Sam can’t take on, or can’t take on as well, because Sam is a woman?

Naureen: I don’t think so. We’ve waited a long time for that platform and women have waited a long time for big platforms and we want to get in on everything. I should say, we’re not only interested in taking on “women’s issues.” I certainly feel an extra responsibility to do that kind of work.
 
Q: Keith, along the same lines, is there anything about the fact that you are an African American man that gives you a sort of a different approach, do you think, to how you approach your cartoons?

Keith: I would say I have insights into issues that affect the black community in certain ways that a white cartoonist wouldn’t have. And really it’s just important to have a diversity of opinions, diversity of angles when you’re coming at it with different mediums, different perspectives. It’s all very important.      

Q: When you think about something like racial profiling, but particularly police brutality. An unarmed black man gunned down by a police officer. Is there a moment when you just say there’s nothing funny about this? I can’t turn this into a cartoon?

Keith: There certainly isn’t anything funny about that. What I’m just trying to do is try to look at an angle that may not have been touched upon.  

 

political cartoon by Cullum Rogers
Credit Courtesy of Cullum Rogers
John Edwards in a porch swing, from the Indy for June 20, 2001. Done in ink and sticky-backed dot sheets before I switched to colored pencils.

Q: Cullum, how have things changed in the 40 years you’ve been covering this area?

Cullum: The main change I have noticed as far as what I’ve been putting in the cartoons is that back in the 70’s and 80’s, I did a great number of cartoons about the development of downtown Durham and why it wasn’t taking off and why the center of town was dead and nothing was going on and none of the efforts tended to come to fruition. And now we’re in a period where everything has come to fruition and downtown Durham is flourishing and thriving and something has paid off. Other issues have stayed the same. Back in 1978, I was drawing cartoons in water crisis in this area and water seems to have run through the cartoons ever since.

The festival is co-hosted by Duke University and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. It takes place around Duke University from Thursday, Sept. 22 to Saturday, Sept. 24.
 
 

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