It did happen here

Lauren Grill, Arts & Entertainment Columnist

In March of 2020, Twitter declared that America was trapped in a Parks and Recreation episode. Whether this sentiment was attached to a headline stating that a “coronavirus conference was ‘canceled due to coronavirus’” or a video of presidential candidate Tom Steyer dancing with a rapper onstage at a campaign event, it was clear to everyone that U.S. politics has morphed into something we should’ve been watching on scripted television. While political satire used to be comforting and humorous to some, it has started hitting too close to home in the political climate of 2020.

Political satire dates back to the beginning of politics when political cartoons served as a way for people to commiserate over current issues, especially in a time when many were illiterate. Since then, satire has produced countless books, plays, and movies. These pieces of media were written with a specific time and place in mind. However, today some of these theoretical satire pieces seem eerily familiar. The 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis was written during the rise of fascism in Europe. The book follows the rise of a charismatic, inexperienced leader elected President of the United States because of his desire to return to traditional, patriotic views. Sound like anyone?

Because of the uncanny timeliness of the piece, the Berkeley Repertory Theater produced a radio play of the theatrical adaptation of the book. Sitting there with my earbuds hanging from my computer, I listened as fictional voters praised their president’s ability to speak his mind while the president attacked protestors and citizens spoke about fleeing to Canada. It seemed impossible to me that this was written nearly a century ago. The storyline perfectly reflected what was on the news every night.

It Can’t Happen Here is supposed to be a comedy, something the audience should take caution of but can still laugh at. Listening to the radio play last week, I struggled to find any humor. I could only concentrate on the world outside, the one that failed to heed Sinclair’s warning. 

This is why satire isn’t always funny in times like these. I find political humor more disturbing than hilarious these days. Watching election coverage this past week, I couldn’t help but think about an episode of Veep, a show about a power-hungry vice president’s journey to the top. The season five episode aptly titled “Nev-AD-a” satirizes the endless technicalities of the electoral college and the recount process. In the episode, a campaign team flip-flops between starting and stopping a recount in order for their candidate to win the presidency. The episode literally shows crowds of protesters chanting “stop the count.” Back in July when I first viewed this, I thought it was hysterical. But going back to rewatch it now, I found myself wondering how America ended up in a situation concocted by comedy writers trying to come up with something extremely exaggerated for the sake of humor. 

It’s okay to laugh at our situation sometimes. It is ridiculous to think that our headlines could have easily been written by a team of political comedians. But while we’re chuckling our way through this “Parks and Rec episode”, we should look around at the systems that got us in this strange purgatory in the first place, and make sure we don’t end up in a different story entirely- one that is far from comedy.  

Berkeley Rep’s It Can’t Happen Here can be found at this link, and is streaming through November 13th.