Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain), between 1900 and 1910. Source: Library of Congress

National Lampoon

A History of American Satire

The election of Donald Trump has been a boon to political satirists.  “Saturday Night Live” is enjoying its highest ratings in 20 years, and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” is now the most successful late night program on TV.  Joanne, Ed and Brian look at the long history of political satire in America – how Mark Twain became the country’s most famous satirist by mostly sticking to safe subjects, a look at the 1987 Supreme Court case that made political satire protected speech, and talk to the star and director of “Ask a Slave”, the satirical web series.

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MALE SPEAKER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.


MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.

BRIAN: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Brian Balogh.

JOANNE: I’m Joanne Freeman.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Joanne, Brian, our colleague Nathan Connolly, and I are all historians, and each week we explore the history of a topic in the news.

JOANNE: OK, so Brian, Ed, let’s begin today’s show in the hallowed chamber of the United States Supreme Court.

MALE SPEAKER: We’ll hear argument first this morning number 86-1278.

JOANNE: In December of 1987, the court’s nine justices heard from a rather odd couple.

MALE SPEAKER: Hustler Magazine and Larry C. Flynn versus Jerry Falwell.

JOANNE: The case before them was Hustler v. Falwell, a publisher of pornography versus a polarizing preacher. The justices faced a novel argument, that Hustler Magazine had a First Amendment right to make fun of the Reverend Falwell without fear of being sued. Here’s how Hustler’s lawyer put it.

MALE SPEAKER: In this situation, the new area that is sought to be protected is satirical critical commentary of a public figure, which does not contain any assertions of fact.

JOANNE: In other words, satirizing a public figure, no matter how cruel or insulting, should be free speech that’s protected by the First Amendment.


ED: The battle began with a fake ad in Hustler a few years earlier. It spoofed popular Campari liqueur ads of the early ’80s that featured celebrities provocatively recounting their first time. Now the punchline and the real ads was that the celebrities were, of course, recalling their first sip of Campari, not their first sexual experience.

RODNEY SMOLLA: So Hustler did an exact replica of the Campari ads.

ED: This is Rodney Smolla, Dean of the Delaware Law School at Weidner University.

RODNEY SMOLLA: But they did a very vicious twist on it.

ED: Hustler’s ad featured a fake interview of Falwell in which he described his first time.

RODNEY SMOLLA: But it was enormously vulgar. So it begins with my first time was in an outhouse with my mother, and that’s about as far as we can go on radio, I think, without having you lose your license from the FCC.

ED: Flynt and Falwell had a long history of targeting each other. But this time, Falwell said, Flynt had crossed a line.

RODNEY SMOLLA: And the idea of him having an incestuous relationship with his mother made him absolutely livid with rage. And he instantly made the decision, I can’t let this stand. I have to fight back.

ED: But Falwell couldn’t just sue Flynt for publishing a lie. The Hustler ad included a footnote that said, ad parody, not to be taken seriously. So Falwell also sought damages for emotional distress.


ED: As the case wound its way to the Supreme Court, media organizations, serious and satirical alike, paid close attention.

RODNEY SMOLLA: This was not just a case about a pornographic magazine, but a case that really put the whole world of satire and parody and harsh criticism of public figures on trial.

ED: That’s when Smolla got involved. As a young lawyer, he represented mainstream media companies, like The New York Times, concerned that a ruling against Flynt would affect what they could say about public figures. Flynt’s lawyer, Alan Isaacman, summed up the stakes for the justices this way.

ALAN ISAACMAN: Is rhetorical hyperbole, satire, parody protected by the First Amendment?

ED: Falwell’s lawyers argued that Flynt’s crude satire contributed to the degradation of American culture.

RODNEY SMOLLA: And it’s going to become the law of the jungle and our society will be made more coarse if you don’t draw the line somewhere.

ED: But vulgarity is a vague concept, and the justices carefully tested the arguments. They pressed both sides to pinpoint a clear definition of acceptable satire that could help measure emotional distress. Smolla says that in the end the case hinged on one particular moment. An unintentional laugh line.

RODNEY SMOLLA: I’ll never forget I sat right behind the lawyer, Alan Isaacman. He’s searching for some way to put it. And he says–

ALAN ISAACMAN: Instead of Joe Falwell speaking from the television with a beatific look on his face and–

RODNEY SMOLLA: And then Isaacman put his hands out like he was gesturing to the court, and he said–

ALAN ISAACMAN: Instead of that situation, Hustler is saying, let’s deflate this stuffed shirt. Let’s bring him down to our level.

RODNEY SMOLLA: And it looked like he was saying, you know, down to Thurgood Marshall’s level, you know, or [INAUDIBLE] level. And it just caused the justices to laugh. And William Rehnquist, the Chief Justice, he laughed so hard he went under the bench for a second like he doubled over and got up. And I remember looking to another one of my colleagues, and I whispered, we just won the case. Because if they could laugh about it, I thought they could see we cannot, we cannot rule this out of bounds in American society.


JOANNE: The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Flynt, and in essence, in favor of the American tradition of satire. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist invoked jokes about the tall and gangly Abraham Lincoln. He also mentioned Thomas Nast cartoons, skewering New York machine politician Boss Tweed, and drawings of Teddy Roosevelt with enormous teeth. This case had no legal precedent, but there were plenty of historical precedents.

RODNEY SMOLLA: There had been a long American tradition of political cartoons, political lampoons, vicious attacks on public figures, sometimes funny, sometimes not funny that had always been part of our culture.

JOANNE: Rehnquist wrote, from the viewpoint of history, it is clear that our political discourse would have been considerably poor without them.


BRIAN: It’s been 30 years since Hustler v. Falwell and it’s safe to say political satire in America is alive and well. Since the election of Donald Trump, comedy shows like Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Stephen Colbert, and The Daily Show have enjoyed a surge in popularity by skewering American politics.

JOANNE: So today we’re revisiting some of our stories on the history of satire in America.

ED: We’ll talk about why conservative satire doesn’t seem to get the same traction as SNL and Stephen Colbert, we’ll explore the roots of America’s unique style of political satire, and we’ll talk to two satirists of history.


JOANNE: But first, a topic so charged that even one of America’s greatest satirists backed away.

ED: In 1901, Mark Twain read a newspaper story about a lynching in Missouri. Twain was appalled, not only at the gruesome act, but also by the growing number of lynchings in the American South. So he sat down at his typewriter and pounded out a response. What, he asked, could possibly provoke Americans to commit such a grotesque act of violence?

ACTOR AS MARK TWAIN: Is it because men think a lurid and terrible punishment a more forcible object lesson and a more effective deterrent than a sober and colorless hanging done privately in a jail would be?

JOANNE: Twain then switched from moral outrage to sarcasm and offered a solution to the crime of lynching. Stephen Railton is a Twain scholar at the University of Virginia. He says Twain pointed to one group of Americans who could stop lynchings.

STEPHEN RAILTON: The missionaries, the Christian missionaries, who were in China.

JOANNE: There were hundreds of Protestant missionaries scattered across China in the early 20th century.

STEPHEN RAILTON: Spreading civilization was what they said, he said that was the worst gift we could possibly give anybody– our civilization.

JOANNE: Twain’s sarcastic solution was to unleash that so-called civilization on the God-fearing American South. So instead of saving Chinese souls, these missionaries would save the souls of their fellow Americans.

ACTOR AS MARK TWAIN: We implore them to come back and help us in our need. They have the martyr spirit, and nothing but the martyr spirit can brave a lynching mob, and cow it and scatter it.

MALE SPEAKER: Twain planned to publish the essay in an anthology chronicling lynching in America.

STEPHEN RAILTON: He sent the idea for this book, along with the essay, to his publisher, a guy named Bliss. And Bliss wrote him back, as Twain explained to a friend, to say that if they published that book, he wouldn’t have even half a friend left in the South.

MALE SPEAKER: Twain never published the United States of Lyncherdom, though it recently enjoyed a renewed burst of publicity in the wake of the racially motivated mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Twain’s self-censorship might seem odd to many Americans. After all, Railton says he didn’t shy away from satirizing racism in the American South in works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So I asked, why did Twain publish that critique, but he pulled his punches when it came to his lynching essay?

STEPHEN RAILTON: If you’re writing Huck Finn in the 1880s and you’re making fun of the antebellum South 50 years ago, nobody in your audience is going to identify with the people along that river.

MALE SPEAKER: Ah, so he used history.

STEPHEN RAILTON: Used the past, use distance in time or distance in space as a way of creating safe targets to be both funny and satirical. That was the formula for his great success. And all his work takes some other place or some other time as it’s setting.

He was best known to his contemporaries for his travel books. His first book and his biggest success in the course of his lifetime was a book about going to Europe and the Holy Land right after the Civil War called Innocents Abroad where he makes fun of the Catholics in Italy and the Arabs in the Holy Land. But the older he got and the more success he had, the more he wanted to really express what he felt about his world. Not about the past or some other world.

And that’s the kind of thing that the United States of Lyncherdom is. But he always felt very vulnerable when he started in that direction toward confronting his audience with their own failures. And in many cases, like this particular essay, at the last minute he lost his nerve and decided to put it in a box.

MALE SPEAKER: Well, I’m curious about this business of writing something and not publishing it. How many other things did Mark Twain write and not publish?

STEPHEN RAILTON: A lot. More and more as his career went on, the manuscripts just piled up. Not long after his death his literary executor began publishing them, but there are still many things that are unpublished. One of the most frequently reproduced pieces from the whole of Mark Twain’s career these days is a very short and amazingly powerful critique of war called The War Prayer, which he wrote four years after The United States of Lyncherdom.

It’s set in a country that’s about to go to war and it describes a church service in which the minister prays fervently for the troops to be successful in war, for God to bless the cause and the flag. And in the middle of that service, an angel comes down from God to say, do you know what you’re really praying for? You’re praying for widows. You’re praying for destroyed homes. You’re praying for refugees. And when the United States was in Vietnam, for example, or when the United States went into Iraq, The War Prayer showed up all over the place. It’s been probably reproduced as often as Huck Finn, but Mark Twain never published it.

MALE SPEAKER: Why would it have been so dangerous to publish in 1905?

STEPHEN RAILTON: Well, Mark Twain was extremely sensitive about risking all that he had earned, the fame, and the popularity, and the financial success, by entertaining his audience. So he was always worried that he could lose all of that very quickly if he said something that would offend rather than entertain that audience. What he said was, I have told the truth too plainly in that piece, and that’s something no man can afford to do until I am dead. So– but he felt that about a lot of things.

Mark Twain’s contemporaries knew that he was a satirist, knew that he was a critic of a lot of things, like shams and hypocrisies. But they had no idea what he really thought about an awful lot of things. We still don’t know exactly what Sam Clemens– that’s the distinction I like to make. That the difference between what Sam Clemens thought and what Mark Twain was allowed to say. And Mark Twain is a very carefully performed an edited version of Sam Clemens.

MALE SPEAKER: Well, Steve, thank you for joining us today on BackStory.

STEPHEN RAILTON: It was a pleasure.

ED AYERS: Stephen Railton is an English professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Mark Twain: A Short Introduction.

So Joanne, I take great pride, as a honorary member of the 19th century American United States, of claiming the invention of American humor with this Mark Twain guy and some other pretty funny people. Thomas Nast is a cartoonist. But was there nobody funny until Mark Twain come along in American history?

JOANNE: There was no humor before Mark Twain.

MALE SPEAKER: It explains a lot. I’m guessing maybe there was something funny.

JOANNE: There was a lot of humor. I mean, it might not always be humor that translates into the 21st century, but there was a lot of humor. But in particular, there was one kind of a strain of humor that seems to have been typical, certainly, in the mid and late 18th century. And that is this tendency to take this sort of rustic American guy, this sort of unsophisticated, unschooled guy and sort of turn that on its head and say, yeah, that’s exactly who we are and we got a thing to say.

You know, we’re going to tell you something or other. Something that actually one would not expect from John Adams. But Adams in the 1760s actually had a couple of columns in a newspaper that he pretended to be somebody else. And he played this sort of rustic American guy. He adopted the name Humphrey Ploughjogger.

And as Humphrey Ploughjogger he sort of poked fun at local politicians and weighed in in print, and basically did what satire does really well, which is to poke fun at authority under something of a mask. So it’s pointed, but it doesn’t seem as pointed as it would if he came out and did that in person.

MALE SPEAKER: Wouldn’t be nearly as funny if the real Humphrey Ploughjogger had been stepping forward, right?

JOANNE: No. The real Humphrey would’ve gotten in trouble. So there’s that tradition. You know, another thing that plugs into that tradition is the song “Yankee Doodle,” which started out actually as a song, a British song making fun of these rustic colonials. And Americans essentially said, well, yeah? We are that person. So what? We’re Yankee Doodle. Yeah, that’s going to be our song. And they turned it around and sort of threw it at the British.

MALE SPEAKER: And you know, Joanne, that tradition continues even into the dark era of the Civil War when, ironically, American satire flourishes. This is when Mark Twain first becomes prominent. It’s also when one of my favorite people in American history becomes prominent, and his name is Petroleum V. Nasby and–

JOANNE: You made that up.

MALE SPEAKER: I thought that was a Supreme Court decision. No, it sounds like it, doesn’t it? No, Petroleum V. Nasby is the stage name, a guy named David Locke. And he takes on the voice of an ignorant northern Democrat racist voter who doesn’t understand anything that’s going in the Civil War, hates Abraham Lincoln.

And here’s what was so funny about it is every Republican paper in the North would reprint these things, which would make the Democrats look like idiots. Lincoln would actually read these aloud in accent, and the last thing that we know that Lincoln read on the day that he was assassinated was regaling dinner companions with stories from Petroleum V. Nasby.

The slight difference with this, Joanne, in the Civil War is they’re using the yokel’s voice to make fun of the yokel. You know, they’re not merely hiding behind the rustic identity of the American against the corruption of the English. They’re actually showing, this is what these idiots actually say among themselves.

And it’s right out of that tradition that Mark Twain himself comes with his greatest hits in the immediate wake of the Civil War.

MALE SPEAKER: Well, I could certainly extend that into the 20th century, and certainly the satirist who picked up the mantle from Mark Twain was H.L. Mencken–


MALE SPEAKER: –who was renowned, especially in the 1920s, for making fun of rubes, of small town America at the very moment that America was no longer a majority of small town Americans.

JOANNE: So I’ve heard of Mencken. I don’t think I’ve actually read Mencken. So do either one of you guys know what he sounds like? What his humor looks like?

MALE SPEAKER: Yeah, it’s mean.


MALE SPEAKER: It’s very patronizing, condescending. He glories in his cigar, in his Baltimore setting, in his drinking–

MALE SPEAKER: He’s an op ed writer and each piece kind of skewers one element of country life. So why were these regular folks in the country powerful in Mencken’s mind? It’s because together they could push through measures like prohibition that meant city people couldn’t drink.

MALE SPEAKER: And the anti-evolution crusade, which becomes a major focus of Mencken.

MALE SPEAKER: Exactly. So I want to just pose a question to you folks. It seems to me that perhaps what makes American satire particularly distinctive is that the satirist is not particularly afraid of the state, not afraid of the king. What they’re afraid of is not appealing to the market. They’re not worried about government censorship.

MALE SPEAKER: They’re afraid about bombing.

JOANNE: Right.

MALE SPEAKER: So I would say that the market looms particularly large in reining in how satirists have to operate.

JOANNE: But that becomes really complicated when the market’s polarized, right?


BRIAN BALOGH: Absolutely.

ED AYERS: Even with a highly polarized and fairly evenly divided viewership and electorate, the mainstream comedy shows are all just going after Trump full bore and flourishing in the market, confirming Trump supporters belief that smug coastal elites are making fun of them. So we’re kind of going back to the very beginning of the story that Joanne talked about.

It’s still rube versus sophisticate, and now you got the market overlay and it depends what’s going to pay to actually make fun of somebody. So Colbert’s ratings flourish by attacking Trump. Jimmy Fallon takes it easier and is suffering as a result. So ironically, playing it safe for the market doesn’t really seem to work anymore.

JOANNE: Well, so yes, obviously, satirists are going to be interested in the market. But I think, don’t you feel that there is a sort of sense of public need of satire here that I– obviously, plugs into the market, but also goes beyond that? That some of these people who are doing political satire have some sense that they’re serving a minor political role or something? That they’re stepping into the public venue to say something that they think is important.

ED AYERS: Joanne, does it strike you that one reason that satire is such a prominent theme in today’s culture is because traditional journalism just doesn’t really know what to do with this historical moment?

JOANNE: Well, you know, what strikes me is we’re in this weird moment where we’re questioning journalism and we’re questioning facts. Maybe in this environment where we’re not sure where to look for facts or what facts are, humor becomes the most powerful tool.


BRIAN: When we first aired this episode two years ago, one of our listeners called in with a question about partisan satire.

MARGO: Hi, this is Margo from Washington, DC. Why does it seem like liberals have a monopoly on satire? Why isn’t there a conservative version of The Daily Show or Colbert Report or Last Week Tonight? Did conservatives ever have popular satire?

BRIAN: We got political historian Brian Rosenwald on the line to answer Margo’s questions. He told me one of the biggest names in conservative media today actually struck a satirical chord early in his career.

BRIAN ROSENWALD: It might surprise people today because this show has changed over time, but especially in the early days when Rush Limbaugh went national in 1988, he did all kinds of satirical bits. He did one thing where he played a record and he told his audience, if you play it backwards you’re going to hear the devil. And he had someone overdub voice parts in so that when he played it backwards you heard this voice speaking to you, and silly, fun kind of things like that.

BRIAN: And was it the voice of Ted Kennedy?

BRIAN ROSENWALD: I can’t remember who did the voice, but Ted Kennedy is a frequent target on conservative talk radio in a satirical way. Rush did a parody to the tune of Dion’s “The Wanderer” that was called “The Philanderer.”

BRIAN: The lyrics include lines like, I’m the type of guy who’ll never settle down because I’m a philanderer. Yes, a philanderer. I sleep around, around, around, around.

BRIAN ROSENWALD: And he makes jokes. He used to say he was a supporter of the women’s movement when he was behind it. You know, things that to a certain ear were very funny, and to other people they were horrible. But just like, you know, Jon Stewart can make a joke about white Christian men in a way that his audience might find funny, Rush Limbaugh can do that with minority groups.

BRIAN: But if conservatives can do satire, why isn’t there a conservative version of The Daily Show or the Colbert Report?

BRIAN ROSENWALD: Actually, Brian, they’ve tried. There was a Fox show called The 1/2 Hour News Program that didn’t last very long, frankly because it wasn’t very good. And it’s the same problem liberals had in talk radio. They’re not as focused on entertaining. They have more political goals. So the venue and the audience really matter incredibly.

BRIAN: Brian, it seems like both liberal and conservative satirists need to make fun of somebody. Somebody needs to be, quote, “victimized” by their humor. But is it possible that conservatives more often make fun of groups that are currently or quite– or at least were quite recently / not really part of the / genuinely discriminated against?

BRIAN ROSENWALD: I think that’s true. But I think to understand from a conservative perspective, satire at its best is challenging established power structures. And I think to a lot of conservatives, because the status quo was changed through the rights movements of the ’60s and ’70s, they feel like groups were being favored by government.

They feel like they are being put down and are powerless themselves. And so to them targeting those people, they don’t see minority groups. It’s one reason that conservative satire can be so controversial. To a liberal ear, the bits sound horrible. They sound racist. They sound sexist. To a conservative ear, it sounds like these people who are getting the government to go to bat for them and be on their side and advantage them over you the long-suffering conservative who feels marginalized and maligned, and isn’t sure what you can say in polite company anymore. It’s nice to be able to hear someone saying the things that you’re thinking and doing it in a funny way.

ED AYERS: We called Margo back to see if Brian Rosenwald answered the question.

MARGO: I think that was very surprising to learn that conservative group might themselves feel maligned. And as a fairly liberal person, it would be hard for me to see it that way. So it’s interesting.

ED AYERS: Margo, did you find “The Philanderer,” which I will deem classic satire, did you find it funny?

MARGO: It was bordering on funny. I wouldn’t say it was great satire because it’s just making fun of someone for something they already know. It didn’t really seem to connect any dots that things like The Daily Show are really famous for kind of making those points or calling out hypocritical people. You know, it’s just making fun of Ted Kennedy for being a philanderer, which I guess is kind of funny.

ED AYERS: Margo, not kidding about this. Thank you so much.

MARGO: Thank you.


JOANNE: Brian Rosenwald is a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. He and University of Virginia historian Nicole Hemmer are starting a new blog on the Washington Post web page called Made By History. It will debut in June.


JOANNE: OK, so now we’re going to turn from the history of satire to satire about history. A web series called Ask a Slave caught our eye. It debuted in 2013 and it quickly went viral. And it’s produced by these two.

JORDAN BLACK: Hey, I’m Jordan Black and I directed Ask a Slave.

AZIE DUNGEY: Hi, I’m Azie Dungey and I wrote and starred in Ask a Slave.

JOANNE: Dungy plays a character named Lizzie Mae. She’s based on a real enslaved woman Dungey played when she worked as a living history actor at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Good day to you, lords and ladies. I’m Lizzie Mae, personal housemaid to President and Lady Washington.

JOANNE: In the series, she appears in period costume on a set made to resemble a real room at Mount Vernon. People acting as contemporary visitors to the estate ask Lizzie Mae questions.

MALE SPEAKER: These are actual questions that Dungey fielded from real visitors while working at Mount Vernon. Here’s a sampling.


FEMALE SPEAKER: If you’re a slave, why do you have clothes?

MALE SPEAKER: Why are you a slave? Is it through an internship? Are there other internships that you can apply for?

FEMALE SPEAKER: What does George Washington think of Abraham Lincoln freeing all of his slaves?

MALE SPEAKER: I know slavery was bad and all, but aren’t you glad we made you black people Christian so you can go to heaven now?

FEMALE SPEAKER: Who invented slavery?

AZIE DUNGEY: And I took all the most outrageous, disturbing, offensive, enlightening questions and tried to build a show around it.

ED: We asked Dungey and Black to tell us how the reading of history shaped the show.

JORDAN BLACK: We’re using the past to satirize the present. So the lessons to be learned and, you know, the comedic commenting that we’re doing is for the way that people think today, in my opinion, how some people think today.


JORDAN BLACK: People don’t know anything about slavery. Like, you have a conversation with people, they know nothing about slavery. They just flat out don’t. Most people don’t know anything other than slaves worked for free, and then we had the Civil War and they fought, and then they got freed.

AZIE DUNGEY: Yeah, and I think, I think in the end it’s also a matter of equality because if we can’t even– we can’t even give equal representation to our past, then I question whether we’ve really come to a place where we understand racial equality in our present.


AZIE DUNGEY: This history, our history is just as important and as profound and as fundamental to the origins of this country as white history.

MALE SPEAKER: How did you get to be housemaid for such a distinguished founding father? Did you see the advertisement in the newspaper?

FEMALE SPEAKER: Did I read the advertisement in the newspaper? Why, yes. It said, wanted, one housemaid, no pay, preferably mulatto.

JORDAN BLACK: There’s so many moments. I’ll say my favorite– I think a good one for me was our second episode with the abolitionists.

FEMALE SPEAKER: But today we have a special guest, Mr. Tobias Leah.

JORDAN BLACK: And you think like, oh, good. He’s an abolitionist. So he’s on our side.

MALE SPEAKER: I detest the institution of slavery.

JORDAN BLACK: And then you learn, like, he wants to send all the blacks back to Africa. He doesn’t want slavery, but he also doesn’t want black people to live in America or anywhere near him.

MALE SPEAKER: Well I am from New Hampshire where we do not have slaves. In fact, we do not have any Negroes whatsoever in New Hampshire.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Well, Virginia must have been quite a shock.

MALE SPEAKER: So many Negroes. More than I ever thought that were actually on the planet. You seem to be all here.

JORDAN BLACK: He’s not comfortable around black people at all. He just wants them gone. And why I think it correlates to modern times is for me is that, like, there’s a certain liberal white person who only views blacks as people who need help. And then when they are confronted with a black person or a black movement that’s saying we actually don’t want your help, they’re offended. And that for me is saying you don’t see us as equal then.


JORDAN BLACK: And black people don’t like to talk about this either, just so you Know


JORDAN BLACK: There’s a lot of embarrassment about slavery and about Jim Crow. So they’d rather just not talk about it at all. So sometimes it’s like, why do we always have to talk about slavery? Why do I have to talk about racism? Why can’t we talk– and it’s just like, well, until we talk about it openly, we can’t really solve anything.

And I think what’s good about doing something like Ask a Slave is that it’s easier for people to– you know, it’s like taking a little sugar with your medicine. I think it’s easier for people to swallow it if they’re kind of laughing at the same time.

AZIE DUNGEY: Exactly. I got a really nice email from a woman who teaches eighth grade. And she was saying that she uses it in her classroom because she noticed that whenever she got to the subject of slavery, she saw everyone’s face just sort of wash out and disconnect. And these were black and Latino students, for the most part. And she realized that when she showed my show, she noticed that they felt more engaged. They could have discussions about it, and they had a totally different relationship to the history after seeing my show. And I think part of that is the laughter. But I think the other part of that is the fact that the point of view is more empowering for them. It’s like that in and of itself is enough, and then the historians can come and fill in the rest.


MALE SPEAKER: Azie Dungey created Ask a Slave and writes for The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. Jordan Black directed the Ask a Slave series. He’s also an actor and creator of the improv comedy troupe The Black Version.


That’s going to do it for today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode, or ask us your questions about American history. You’ll find us at BackStoryradio dot org. Or send an email to BackStory at Virginia dot edu. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at BackStory radio. And if you like the show, feel free to review it in Apple podcasts. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

This episode of BackStory was produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Millner is our technical director, Diana Williams is our digital editor, and Joey Thompson is our researcher. Our theme song was written by Nick Thorburn. Other music and our show came from Podington Bear, Ketsa, and Jahzzar. And thanks to the Johns Hopkins University Studio in Baltimore.

FEMALE SPEAKER: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. We’re a proud member of the Panoply Podcast Network. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the provost’s office at the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis foundations.

Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia, and the Dorothy Compton professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.