What's the Half-Life of Satire in the Age of Twitter?

Most viral jokes are only funny for a while, but that's always been the case with political humor.

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Comedy Central

If you were one of the people firing off 140-character opinions while watching last night's presidential debate, congratulations—you were a part of the most tweeted-about event in U.S. political history. With tweets, of course, come jokes, and so it's not a stretch to say that the debate may also have become, instantaneously, the most quickly satirized event in political history.

As both Obama and Romney steamrolled hapless moderator Jim Lehrer during the debate, a Twitter account called SilentJimLehrer popped up almost instantly, tweeting mostly "ums" and "yeahs." And just minutes after Romney conceded that he'd stop subsidizing PBS if elected, even though he "[loves] Big Bird," an account called FiredBigBird began tweeting missives like "Mitt Romney will end Bert and Ernie's right to a civil union." In a little over an hour, the FiredBigBird account had amassed over 15,000 followers.

And then there's ObamaTranslated, a Twitter account that's been around for a comparatively ancient 10 months. ObamaTranslated is a Twitter extension of the best-known sketch from Comedy Central's Key & Peele, in which a characteristically unflappable "President Obama" introduces Luther, his "anger translator," to the world:

The original sketch has more than four million views on YouTube, but nearly a year later, the ObamaTranslated Twitter account kept the jokes coming. As Obama stoically rattled off his closing remarks at the debate's end, the account tweeted "I KILLED OSAMA BIN LADEN. NIGHT YALL!"—a message that earned hundreds of retweets. A lot of online sympathizers said they wished that the fake anger translator could inject some energy into the real-life—but lifeless—Obama.

American political satire has existed for as long as American politics have existed, but the rise of the Internet—and recently, the rise of Twitter—has helped democratize satire. This stuff is funny in the moment, but will any of it endure? I recently spoke to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele about the Anger Translator sketch and the rest of their politically tinged humor (though both men are reluctant to be pegged as political satirists).

"We only want to hit the politics at the right point—at precision moments," Peele says. "We want our show to be something that will live on... You know the Saturday Night Live Dukakis sketch—'I can't believe I'm losing to this guy'? It's one of the best scenes in SNL history—and you can't really get it anymore."

Modern-day equivalents of the SNL Dukakis sketch are legion. Take, for example, BaneCapital, a Twitter account that sprang up in July after Rush Limbaugh made the bizarre claim that Bane, the villain of The Dark Knight Rises, was a leftist Hollywood jab at Mitt Romney's Bain Capital. Though Limbaugh's quote has been all but forgotten, BaneCapital remains, as both the movie and the controversy recede into the past. Accounts like BaneCapital, SilentJimLehrer, and FiredBigBird have some of the same DNA as classic satires like Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," but it's hard to imagine they'll be talked about next week—let alone for the next few centuries.

In a 24-hour news cycle, the key to writing long-lasting political humor may be to find a way to be simultaneously specific and universal. There's a reason that Veep, which is probably the darkest political satire in American television history, has found traction on HBO. Selina Meyer, the idiotic, self-absorbed vice president played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is a barely exaggerated caricature of the worst claims made about politicians. But Veep's trick—which is simultaneously the series' cleverest decision and nastiest piece of satire—is that Selina's political affiliation is never revealed. Veep is set in the world of contemporary American politics, but its depiction of politics as a world of petty narcissism is as old and universal as it gets.

According to Key and Peele, their Anger Translator sketches are aiming for a similar effect."If there was television in the 1920s, we could have done a Calvin Coolidge and his anger translator scene," Key says. "Calvin Coolidge had a very unassuming disposition, much like Obama does. We approach the scene as comedians: 'This is what a president would be thinking.' It just so happens that this president is a liberal."

As Election Day draws closer, political satirists—both amateur and professional—will find no shortage of material. Many humorists, like Michael-Keegan Key and Jordan Peele, will think of themselves as comedians first and political figures second. But anyone who doubts the potential impact of political satire needs only to look back to the 2008 presidential election, when Tina Fey's withering Sarah Palin impression on Saturday Night Live helped to pigeonhole the vice presidential candidate as ditzy and unqualified:

The real Sarah Palin may not have said "I can see Russia from my house," but the sketch convinced plenty of people that she would say something like that, and that was enough. SNL hasn't yet produced a parody as indelible for this year's election cycle, but if it doesn't, there are more satirists than ever ready to pick up where they left off.