Alex Huntley is a former policy analyst turned political satirist. He is currently a writer and editor at The Beaverton, a Canadian news satire publication. He is co-author of The Beaverton’s book, The Beaverton Presents Glorious And/or Free: The True History of Canada. He spoke with the Ryerson Review of Journalism about writing comedy in the Trump era, the role of satire in political journalism, and how to write jokes about a politician like Doug Ford.
How long have you been writing political satire?
Six years, maybe six and a half.
You used to be a policy analyst. Do you have any non-comedic reporting experience or did you go straight from that into satire?
I just jumped right in. Albeit, I wrote anonymously while I was a policy analyst [because of] the conflict of interest rules and so forth.
What inspired you to start doing political satire?
Working for the public service under both Harper and Trudeau was a source of inspiration, and I’ve always enjoyed satire from the inside, kind of like the old British show Yes, Prime Minister. It’s fun to work and see the numerous contradictions and hypocrisy as a cog in the government machine. Often you’re just going with it and not really thinking about it, but at other times it is necessary [to speak out].
What role do you see satire playing in politics or political coverage?
A lot of people call it just catharsis, but I think it goes beyond that, because you want people to critically think about it. Satire goes beyond normal journalism because you’re allowed more leverage to be fake and illustrate your point through art […] to highlight an important issue. That’s kind of the roots of traditional satire. Through hyperbole, exaggeration, and the occasional sarcastic comment, you can really flush [sic] out the problems with a politician’s view, or [those of] a government, society, even other journalists, and it can be really fun.
So with satire, the role is obviously less to inform than with traditional journalism.
Yeah, I think you need to rely on having a generally informed audience for people to understand the satire. With The Beaverton, we have more of an educated audience, but we still need to keep some things a little more relatable and not too obscure so even people who may not necessarily have an interest in politics can still get the joke or understand the problems that we’re illustrating through our humour.
An issue journalists have had with Ford and his cabinet has been a lack of transparency amid a whirlwind of confusing things happening that they still have an obligation to inform their readers about. Have these challenges impacted you at all?
Absolutely. As a joke, we created Ontario News Net, which parallels the Ford government’s Ontario News Now. We dubbed one of his videos with what [we felt] should have been actually said, and that was a form of attracting a fun audience.
How do you approach writing satire about an unconventional politician like Ford?
The thing is with Ford is that there’s so much low hanging fruit, jokes that have already been said, that are funny but don’t fully illustrate the problem, and it doesn’t always use the imagination and creativity which satire should have. One of the ways that we’ve caricatured Ford is through his drug dealing habit back when he was in his twenties. We’re trying to continue this character of him using drug terms and him having a meeting in a back alley about how this legalization of cannabis is going to work, because that’s yet another hypocrisy of the Ford government. This guy doesn’t want to confront his past. He threatened to sue The Globe and Mail and the [Toronto] Star for the great investigative work that they did on him back in 2013, before he ran for mayor. It’s an issue that the media doesn’t want to talk about his past anymore, just because he initially threatened to sue…There’s a lot of material that we can cover with Doug Ford, but we try to be a little more creative in our approaches with it.
Do you have a vision for The Beaverton’s online direction with Ford going forward?
We want to still talk about the problems that everyone jokes about, but also the unseen things that are going on. The one risk is doing too much on Ford and not paying attention to Trudeau or other political leaders. We have to give ourselves the right comedic pace for jokes; we can’t do two Doug Ford articles in one day. We try not to, unless he’s done something really stupid, but, you know, people get sick of that. And I think that’s one of the risks that a lot of satire in the United States has with Trump, because it’s every day and that turns some people off. Trump is a horrible president, in my opinion, and a risk to both national and international security, but we can’t just cover him and ignore the other stuff that happens around us that has the same brand of populism or other kinds of corruption that you may not see. That’s where both journalism and satire kind of go into the fray in the same respect.
In the early weeks and months of Ford’s term it was quite hard to pin down some issues such as sex-ed. It’s been difficult for people to get the ministers to talk about it. Do you think that’s an area where you might have an edge as a satirist?
For sure. We can put words in anyone’s mouth so long as people recognize that it is satire so we can avoid being sued for libel. We always take that precaution, but certainly, I think that is an advantage that we have. I also think it’s a better way to start a conversation for people who may be apolitical or adversarial towards a view if the idea is presented within a satirical format.
Do your stories about Ford tend to garner even more social media engagement than other stories?
Actually, the best article we have in terms of Ontario politics was a fake editorial by Kathleen Wynne that satirized both Ford and Wynne, titled “Good Fucking Luck, Ontario.” Ford is still more entertaining, but does he pick up more traction? I don’t think so. We have followers of all different political stripes…I think every politician has their little niche that we joke about. I think Ford overall attracts more satire, even in the United States. Back in 2014 when Ford was running for mayor of Toronto, John Oliver did a piece on him […] after he had been accused of saying something anti-Semitic…That absurdity attracts more jokes, and when you have such a saturation point of jokes and tweets and memes, then it becomes a little more difficult. Had we been the only source of joke making then I’m sure Ford would pick up more traction, but since joke making is quite democratic–and I think that’s a good thing–it makes it more challenging. I think we’re up for that kind of challenge.
What has been The Beaverton’s most popular Ford article?
Looking at the analytics, we have “Ontario PCs elect drug dealer to replace sex criminal,” and “Doug Ford finds millions in efficiencies in brother’s widow’s inheritance.” There’s also “Doug Ford replaces sex-ed curriculum with old copy of Playboy found in woods,” and “Mid-level drug dealer announces bid for Ontario PC leadership.” So drugs and his buffoonish policies probably get the most traction. A change of government for the better is a good thing, and maybe in this situation it’s a pleasant reminder of why we should vote. We still have three years and 200 days left, so it’ll be fun, but also kind of tragic.
Is it easier to write satire about politicians like Trump and Ford?
A lot of people think the election of Trump is a goldmine for satire, but that’s actually a bad thing because one, there’s so much low-hanging fruit, and two, the policy consequences hurt people. There’s a lot of similarities between Trump and Ford, and even François Legault in Quebec. We’ll see what happens, [but] I don’t think it’s a good thing for comedy. I have to work harder as a satirist to say, “Oh, somebody’s already done that joke.” We want to be original.
So the abundance of material actually makes your job more difficult?
Absolutely. I mean, it’s hard to compete with reality sometimes.