When I was in elementary school, my parents loved watching a TV program on NBC called That Was the Week That Was. Biting political satire was TW3’s forté, and nothing was off limits, from abhorent civil rights murders in Mississippi* to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential bid. Adapted from the BBC original, the US program ran from 1964-1965, and introduced host David Frost to American audiences in the second season. Among the regulars were Henry Morgan, Phyllis Newman, Alan Alda, and Nancy Ames. Tom Lehrer wrote some his most famous songs for the program, including Vatican Rag and National Brotherhood Week.
I was so inspired by the show that in the sixth grade, I convinced one of my friends to help me write a version of the TW3 theme song as “That Was the Year That Was” to present to our fellow classmates as an idea for a class play. Needless to say, it went over like a lead balloon, because none of the other kids had any idea what we were singing about. But I have to credit my teacher, who at least let us give it a try. And, fortunately, there was no backlash from parents over our left-leaning politics.
There’s no shortage of political satire on TV and the Internet today, certainly, but TW3 originated the genre, and I wonder what they would have made of 2022. Plenty of material to parody, from botched Covid messaging to outrageous candidates in the Midterms. I just wish today’s TV satirists would rely less on obscenities for laughs and more on the kind of wry, pointed political commentary that TW3 pioneered.
This past year has been laden with so many tragic events—brutal war, needless deaths from the pandemic, too many mass shootings (and by that I mean even one is too many, which we’ve far exceeded), over-the-top partisanship and division, devastating storms driven by climate change—that it sometimes feels hard to find something to laugh about. But we lose our sense of humor at our peril. To quote the ever-quotable Mark Twain, “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”
As we say goodbye to 2022 this weekend and welcome (perhaps with some trepidation after the last few years) what 2023 has in store, here’s hoping that whatever comes, we all find some good reasons to laugh at our very human foibles, make some time to be silly, and face truths worth contemplating at the heart of the joke.
* Some readers may find this YouTube clip offensive. I doubt if it would be allowed on TV today, risking backlash from both ends of the political spectrum. But the musical sketch was intended to shock, for obvious reasons that still sting the American psyche today—as well it should.
Image: “Men, possibly broadcasting technicians, seated in front of bank of television sets at the Democratic Headquarters at the Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C. on election night, November 3, 1964.” Library of Congress PPOC