The second Golden Probes taped on Saturday. In the words of creator Lizz Winstead, the satirical awards show “honors so many shitbags.”
Hosted by Margaret Cho and featured presenters including Stormy Daniels, Michelle Buteau, Dan Savage and cast members from Orange is the New Black, the show streams online this Sunday, Oct. 28. During the taping, politicians were skewered on their abortion records just as coverage of the midterm elections heated up.
Award announcements for categories like “Best Acting Like You Care About Women in a Non-Supportive Role,” “Best Original Science,” and “Legislature of the Year” were punctuated with commentary from presenters. Musical comedy duo Reformed Whores and other acts performed legislative-themed covers like “Ohio Ooh Na Na” to the tune of “Havana” as dancers in football jerseys rolled around on stage.
“They say you catch more flies with honey, so we use pageantry,” Winstead told AM New York before the taping.
Just before intermission, Margaret Cho looked out on the audience members holding cardboard masks of Trump administration faces and quipped that each of Trump’s children were also in attendance. “The other Trump children couldn’t make it tonight, thanks to Roe v. Wade,” she said to applause.
Though the lineup was stacked with funny comics, it was unsettling to watch a series of videos of elected officials making long, disturbing statements against abortion rights.
The nominees included Mark Harris, a North Carolina pastor and Congressional candidate who has said that women should submit fully to their husbands, and Minnesota State Representative Abigail Whelan, who responded to a question about offshore tax havens during a Minnesota House debate by saying that despite their efforts to legislate in a “divided government,” Jesus Christ is “the hope of this state and of this country,” and encouraged constituents to call her to talk about Jesus.
As in a typical awards show, the videos for each category were played in succession. But in the context of a comedy show, I questioned whether the actual clips from real elected officials played to laughs from the audience represented an all-too-familiar collapse of the line between sharp satire and unscripted, terrifying reality–a reality in which an Idaho politician implied that women who get abortions should receive the death penalty.
But the live taping is not the event’s end product. The show is put on by Lady Parts Justice, a political advocacy organization that makes media like podcasts and sketches, and organizes events to support abortion clinics around the country. More than 22,000 people watched the 2016 Golden Probes, and there were watch parties in 30 states.
“The Golden Probes is not only a hilarious night of exposing politicians devoted to creating an eight-lane highway to Gilead, it is also a voter guide to inspire people to get to the polls, to make sure these politicians lose their jobs,” Lizz Winstead said in a statement. Winstead is the founder of Lady Parts Justice and co-creator of The Daily Show.
I watched the 2016 Golden Probes videos online, and it did have a different effect than the in-person experience; it was easier to watch the videos with the mediation of my screen and bite-sized YouTube clips than on a giant theater screen, in a live audience.
It’s clear that the Golden Probes organizers are thoughtful about putting political comedy to a productive end–and the outrage I felt at the video clips is part of that goal. In an op-ed about the show for Allure, Winstead says that after decades in political comedy, she was tired of being an “anger fluffer”: “Sure — I could continue making my jokes and we could all be pissed off together, but where the hell was that anger supposed to go?” she wrote.
But sitting in the Town Hall venue in Midtown, it was hard to square righteous anger with boozy laughter. We talk about the passive activism on social media, and the act of being an audience at the Golden Probes–part of the raw material for an even larger project of media for political mobilization–felt like another instance of politics as a lifestyle aesthetic, or a product to be consumed. Is that the fault of the brand of political comedy Winstead helped pioneer, or a larger zeitgeist?
The Daily Show, where Winstead was head writer in the Craig Kilborn era, has been criticized along with similar shows for providing a false catharsis as a kind of sedative to political action, and a tacit support for the status quo.
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have always staunchly rejected any perception that they’re political actors, or working for a specific agenda–and both have used the phrase “release valve” to describe their work as emotionally gratifying for viewers, not a call to action.
John O’Farrell, former writer for the British satirical puppet show Spitting Image, echoed Stewart in a 2016 Guardian interview about the use of comedy in today’s political era. “George Orwell said that every joke is a tiny revolution, which I like as a soundbite. But I think every joke is instead of a tiny revolution.”
Lady Parts Justice is a direct counter to this assumption, as it tries to finally connect the realms of comedy and advocacy in an intentional, productive way. Maybe it will end up being worth it.
“If you’re still laughing, that means you haven’t given up hope,” Winstead said in the Allure op-ed. “So laugh with us and we’ll put you to work, because we weren’t kidding when we said we’re plotting a feminist takeover of the United States government.”