During a medical checkup last summer, Sean Devlin received a curious piece of advice from his doctor: stop reading the newspaper. It seemed the daily news cycle—packed with stories of an impending environmental crisis, economic turmoil and government corruption—was getting him down.
But the 27-year-old comedian and social activist didn’t heed the doctor’s advice. With the ultimate goal of getting more disaffected young people like himself interested in politics, Devlin created Truthfool Communications. The modus operandi of the Vancouver-based online marketing agency is to produce funny skits on the Internet that serve as public awareness campaigns about serious issues. So far, clients include the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition and Climate Action Network Canada. During last month’s election, Devlin unveiled shitharperdid.ca, a website detailing—in laughably plain parlance—some of the arguably questionable policies and decisions made by the Conservative government. The site features a stencilled drawing of Prime Minister Stephen Harper smiling and holding a fluffy cat. Emblazoned beside him are one-liners like: “Stephen Harper loves handcuffs, but not, you know, the sexy kind.” And each one links to an actual news story that provides the information and context behind the joke—in this case, a Toronto Star article about the security costs and arrests made during last year’s G20 summit in Toronto.
Devlin claims to be tapping into something particular to his generation: a profound appreciation for humour. “A joke is just a way to open the door,” he says. “We try to use humour to get people’s attention, and then we explore the more serious issues.” The strategy has a long tradition in Canada, reaching back to the 1950s with Don Harron’s antics as Charlie Farquharson. More recently, Canadians have seen political knee-slappers come from the Royal Canadian Air Farce and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. But the current generation has grown up in the midst of an acute rise in the effectiveness of political satire, says Megan Boler, a professor of philosophy and media studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. It’s a generation that grew up watching The Mercer Report, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. So, as Boler points out, it shouldn’t be surprising that it was Rick Mercer who issued the call that led to a series of celebratory “vote mobs” during this year’s election campaign.
“This generation has a lot of skepticism,” says Boler. “They have a very different political world and a different sort of political sensibility.” That could be why shitharperdid.ca garnered more than four million page views in its first three days, the vast majority of which, says Devlin, came from people under 35. Journalism students at New York University also recently went for laughs by producing a music video for My Water’s On Fire Tonight (The Fracking Song), which aims to bring attention to the practice of creating fissures deep underground to loosen up fossil fuels for extraction. The song has a funky, hip-hop feel and includes lines such as, “Frack baby frack till the break of dawn.” So far, the video has been viewed nearly 100,000 times on YouTube. “In all the elections past, we’ve never really had anything aimed specifically at our generation,” says Lisa Lagace, a 25-year-old editorial and marketing assistant. “It’s just been the same old thing: a bunch of old guys talking.”
Boler says this disaffection is fed by a “crisis of faith in truth,” something she sees as an American cultural import. “There’s hardly anyone any longer who has an idealized notion that those in power—or those with economic power—have our best interests at heart,” she says. “The public has lost trust in government, in politicians, in media, in people running Wall Street.” And, she adds, “this generation is growing up in a very grim world,” where laughs are appreciated as a way of tempering the bleakness. Boler also argues that political satire can create an avenue for political engagement—even if that doesn’t always mean turning out to vote. Her proof: the 400,000 who came out for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, led by American satirists Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart last fall.
And while both Devlin and Boler say political satire is on the rise, they also see it as a revival of something “almost ancient.” Comedians have traditionally used satire to express dissent and hold leaders accountable. That’s why Devlin plans to embark on a campus tour to promote his work, while continuing to update his website over the course of the Conservatives’ majority mandate. He doesn’t just want to speak truth to power. He wants to laugh in its face.