When humour meets politics

Satire is a potent tool for social commentary as it provokes public discussion and raises awareness

Bill Suddick, cartoonist for Beach Metro Community News, in his home studio with his creations. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” he said. “And satire is that bit of life and personality that the cartoonist puts into the picture. The bottom line is telling a story and making a point. And if you can do it with humour, as I try to do with my cartoons, it softens the blow a little bit and maybe makes people think about that point.” (Khaleda Khan/Toronto Observer) 

Meir Straus, 18, is the youngest candidate in the race to be Toronto’s next mayor. He hopes to engage the public, prompt more interest in the byelection, and increase voter turnout through his satirical campaign.

With over 100 contenders on the ballot, there is a diverse range of visions and promises, and Straus’s platform for issues such as public safety, transportation, political reform, diversity, and infrastructure are bound to bring a smile to your face.

Meir Straus, 18, is running to be Toronto’s next mayor. Handout/Meir Straus

“There’s a lot of awfulness going on, even in local politics, so having a satirical candidate to do surreal and absurd things to make people laugh is necessary,” he said. “And I’m glad to be that person.” 

Quoting examples from his own campaign stance, Straus says that “being able to meet that (reality) with surreal and absurd things like removing all speed bumps and just turning off the stars is able to highlight the actual surrealities of everyday life.” 

With the mayoral byelection coming just eight months after a record-low voter turnout in the 2022 municipal election, the role of satirical campaigns may be the key to restoring public engagement and political participation. Having trained for the job since he was “named for it” at eight days old, Straus hopes to engage voters and “add smiles to an otherwise bleak landscape.” 

Political satire is largely an umbrella term — the general consensus among political scientists is that it is the art of cultivating humour that sometimes exaggerates reality while entertaining its viewers. 

The ultimate form of free speech

“Satire is, in a way, the ultimate form of free speech. It’s one where you are allowed to let your imagination run and in many respects, it is designed to provoke,” said Canadian historian Robert Bothwell.

Satire may be a sign of a healthy democracy, he said. “I think that the nature of satire is, at the very least, to make you think. It’s designed to have an impact on society.”

In 2020, the Art Gallery of Ontario held an exhibition on the evolution of political satire from the 19th century to today. 

In visual forms, such as cartoons, it can range from light humour that might use metaphorical devices and analogy to the present absurd and cynical notions as fact. 

A political cartoon by Theo Moudakis of the Toronto Star. Courtesy of Moudakis’ Twitter account.

Here’s a look at some of the most iconic satirical candidates that registered, ran, and won people’s hearts instead of the ballot over the last 60 years. 

1963 Canadian federal election: The Rhinoceros Party

The Rhinoceros Party is a federal party that actively campaigned for nearly three consecutive decades, from 1963 to 1993. It was later refounded in 2006 in Montreal and registered as an official party in 2007. One of the party’s fundamental platform points, if elected, was “not to keep any of its promises.” 

The Rhinoceros Party was famous for its outlandish and absurd schemes to entertain the voting public. Writer Jacques Ferron started the party in 1963. Poet Gaston Miron joined in 1972, and singer Michel Rivard followed in 1980, running against former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who called the Rhinos “the court jesters of the nation.

The party’s mascot was chosen because like rhinos, according to the party, it declared politicians, are “thick-skinned, slow-moving and not too bright, but can move fast as hell when in danger.” 

In the late 1970s, the party campaigned on gender issues, energy and changes to the government structure — for example, they vowed that lottery winners would be appointed seats to the Senate rather than winning the award money. 

In the early 1980s, the Rhinoceros Party’s campaigns shifted to the economy and public infrastructure and works, such as replacing small businesses with very small businesses that had less than one employee. Some of their other general campaigns included repealing the law of gravity, changing the Canadian currency to bubble gum so it could be inflated or deflated with ease, and painting coastal sea limits in watercolor so that Canadian fish wouldn’t get lost. 

1982 Toronto mayoral election: A. Hummer of the Hummer Sisters

Canadian artist, actress and cultural icon Deanne Taylor ran for a seat in Toronto’s mayoral election in 1982 against incumbent Art Eggleton under the pseudonym A. Hummer. Her campaign slogan was “ART vs. Art” — representing artists, she became popular with a lot of people in the creative and artistic fields as they came to intersect more frequently with politics. 

Artist, performer and actress Deanne Taylor (centre), a member of the performance art group the Hummer Sisters, ran for the mayor during the 1982 Toronto municipal election under the pseudonym, A. Hummer. Image courtesy of the Toronto Public Library’s digital archive

Taylor was a member of the Hummer Sisters, a performance artist troupe, and was known for her fierce contributions to Canadian culture that appealed to Toronto youth, particularly in the realms of art, media, and political satire. 

2010: Cartoonist mocks Toronto mayoral candidates

In 2010, Canadian illustrator and writer Steve Murray, who goes by the pseudonym Chip Zdarsky, was a cartoonist at the National Post. He spearheaded the Murray4Mayor campaign, even though he was too late to register, and gave interviews to the Torontoist and National Post staff. Murray’s vision for Toronto had one all-encompassing theme: that the city is in general decline, whether it be from the high taxes or TTC service.

Murray’s satirical campaign had competition. Written by columnist Shawn Micallef of the Toronto Star and Eye Weekly at the time, Micallef created a Twitter account whose position was the reincarnated persona of Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie. 

In a column reflecting on the @RebelMayor, Micallef shared his thoughts on the public’s reaction to using social media for election campaigns. 

He described his character through his tweets and made jokes that were self-deprecating, but they were also at the expense of others. Micallef’s personal beliefs also aligned with those of his character.

A political cartoon by Bill Suddick of Beach Metro Community News.

A critical reflection of the times

Paul Knox, associate professor emeritus at Toronto Metropolitan University, said that satirical campaigns have an edge in the general political climate. 

“Electoral politics isn’t what it used to be — in terms of the way that people see it as being a way to make real changes,” Knox said. “There’s a lot of cynicism around, and there’s a lot of belief that it doesn’t really matter who you vote for, and that it seems to be hard to change things anyway,” he said. 

The art of political satire embodies a critical reflection on the prevailing system of power and often adds layers of humour to a rather bleak reality. While some forms of political satire can be exaggerated, they may also use light humour to depict a larger situation without losing its depth. 

Among elections, “meeting absurdity with absurdity is the best way to find humour, joy and positivity,” said Straus. 

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Posted: Jun 25 2023 1:00 pm
Filed under: News