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Politics! The Musical

In recent years, the Internet has been overrun with the rise of satirical websites, Twitter feeds and blogs. The publishing and entertainment industries have come bounding at the heels of these trends, trying to turn a profit by repackaging Web-based material into book form and, sometimes, even into a television format.

Though there have been successful transitions of print media to the Web, there has yet to be a truly successful transition in the reverse. For fans of Internet-based satire, such as the kind found on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, this is wildly disappointing. Unfortunately, the new book “The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals” doesn’t successfully translate Web to paper either. 

The book’s 100-plus comedic vignettes were written specifically for the Web. They are short and punchy, which is generally the best way to get a laugh. But in book form, these flashes often fall flat and land just to one side of funny. Most likely it’s because by the time the jokes move from the Web to the page they’ve been heard over and over, leaving the reader with a uncomfortable feeling of comedy déjà vu.

Still, there are some items that translate, with the jokes that are fresh and hit the mark. The laugh-out-loud piece “The Only Thing That Can Stop This Asteroid Is Your Liberal Arts Degree” by Mike Lacher is one such example.

An asteroid the size of Montana is careening toward Earth and America doesn’t “need some pencil neck with four PhDs, one thousand hours of simulator time, and the ability to operate a robot crane in low-Earth orbit,” the narrator barks. “I need someone with four years of broad-but-humanities-focused studies, three subsequent years in temp jobs, and the ability to reason across multiple areas of study. I need someone who can read ‘The Bell Jar’ and make strong observations about its representations of mental health and the repression of women.”

For the bookish among us, it is nice to think that for once, the country might call the nerdy, introverted English majors to serve in a pinch, not just the roughnecks and mavericks. But no matter how much the geeky dreamers in liberal arts colleges around the nation might hope, most people would rather survive than make us feel better about ourselves by demanding a critical analysis of a classic feminist novel STAT! Go figure.

“Don’t think I don’t have misgivings about sending some hot shot Asian Studies minor into space for the first time,” the narrator continues. “This is NASA, not Grinnell. I don’t have the time or patience for your renegade attitude and macho bravado.”

What Lacher does in this piece is reveal the soft spot between Hollywood clichés, secret desires of those who smirk at clichés and the reality that neither a roughneck on an oil rig, nor a comparative literature major will be called in to save the nation on a grand scale. The item also archly suggests that the country does need critical thinkers, though perhaps not so obviously in times of immediate crisis.

This piece was stronger than some of the other overtly political send-ups because the author wasn’t simply making fun of a profession, in this case politics, in which they seem to have little practical experience. He took an element of the broader cultural landscape to focus his humor.

Another delightfully wicked little vignette is Pete Reynolds’ “An Anti-Washington Candidate’s Stump Speech.”

“Now, I’m not from Washington, D.C. No one can say I’m a part of the Washington establishment. You won’t find me at a Washington, D.C., cocktail party, laughing and wife-swapping on the taxpayer’s dime while the economy crumbles,” the anti-Washington candidate insists. “No, sir. I’ve never been to Washington, D.C. Actually, I’d go so far as to say that I literally could not even find Washington, D.C., on a map, and not because I don’t know how to use a map.

“My friends, I’ve never even heard of Washington, D.C.,” the candidate continues. “I do not even believe in the concept of Washington, D.C. And as I stand before you here today, I can promise you that Washington, D.C., is not even a term I understand as a proper noun.”

This piece cleverly picks a simple cliché of the political insider pretending to be an outsider and the political outsider pretending he doesn’t want to be on the inside. The transparency of this oft-told fable is ignored by the media, the public and, of course, the politician himself. 

At first, the reader is struck by the outlandishness of the candidate’s claim, and then by the dawning realization that elements of this speech aren’t so far removed from the monologues currently being delivered by leading politicians on the national stage.

The most problematic sections of the book, however, are the mock musicals and screenplays. From Wendy Molyneux’s imagined Sarah Palin action movie screenplay to Ben Greenman’s fake musicals, “BAILOUT! THE MUSICAL!,” “WEINER! THE MUSICAL!,” “PALIN! THE MUSICAL!” “WIKILEAKS! THE MUSICAL!” “HOT PLANET! THE MUSICAL!” “SANTORUM! THE MUSICAL!” and “STRONG GOVERNMENT! THE MUSICAL.”

The jokes will feel old, especially to a Washington audience. This community is heavily seeped in a constant flow of political news, and nearly immediate political satire. At a rapid fire clip, humorists in and around Washington will beat a joke silly, so that what was funny two months ago is kind of lame now. 

There is not a joke about disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner, for example, that wasn’t lobbed through a tweet or a blog post during the summer of 2011. Therefore, to devote an entire mock-musical to a joke that died a year ago feels redundant at best. What else is there to mock about Weiner, action figure Palin or the financial bailout? The trouble with revisiting these well-trodden satirical roads is that the chances of finding something new to laugh about are slim to none. This is another difficulty of translating the immediacy of the Web to the constancy of the page — the jokes don’t hold up over time.

In addition, many of the politicians skewered in the pages, including Weiner and Palin, simply aren’t players anymore. To kick these politicians while they are irrelevant seems to suggest that the author is either out of touch, a little bit mean or the smallest bit lazy.

For satire to work, it must be a clever critique of the subject, not simply a reveal of the author’s own bias. The pieces collected in “The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals” might be gleaned from some of the funniest writers and one of the funniest sites on the Internet, but this work does not always succeed in a more permanent book form. Indeed, the collection serves to remind the reader how temporary a medium Web-based satire is.