As the legendarily acerbic newspaper man H.L. Mencken once said, "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard." That's a maxim clearly taken to heart with equal vigor by both politicos and entertainers. Mencken also famously noted, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," and that certainly seems true when considering what has often passed for political satire in this country over the decades. The sheer absurdity and abject horror of the current administration has seemingly awakened a latent taste for irony in the masses and made stars of smarty pants like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher but it's a fairly recent development.
In years past, if you were a comedian who wanted to slip the powerful a bitter pill, you had to coat it in a thick dollop of honey to enjoy even modest success, or simply resort to smashing watermelons if you wanted to play the big rooms. Sure, there have always been impressionists, those who studiously copied Reagan's stammer, Nixon's wagging jowls or Jerry Ford's pratfalls, but this seldom amounted to more than simple mockery. And, yes, there was Mark Russell, with his bow tie and Cheshire cat grin, amusing PBS-watching senior citizens with his vanilla piano ditties about Tip O'Neill, but his humor sported about as many cutting edges as a pool table. True and probing political satire, the kind that's funny till it hurts, has been relegated to the fringes of showbiz or quietly snuck in through the back door.
That's how satirist Dave Lippman works. He fights the good and lonely fight, chasing after Capitol Hill dragons with a guitar slung over his shoulder and a pair of mirrored aviators plastered to his face. Billed as "America's most dangerous political satirist," Lippman performs as both himself and his uptight alter ego George Shrub, "the world's only known singing CIA agent." Having honed his folk iconoclast credentials in the golden age of rebellion as a '60s college campus rabble-rouser in the San Francisco area, he began writing songs, one of which was recorded by Country Joe Macdonald. In the early '80s, he developed his Shrub persona, based very loosely on the elder Bush, but also used as a comic mouthpiece to echo all manner of right-wing paranoia (an act that's never gone out of style or run out of inspiration over the decades). Over the years, Lippman has trekked across the globe, performing in Europe, such Latin American hot spots as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Venezuela, and most recently in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Described by the Los Angeles Times as a "mix of Phil Ochs and David Byrne," his performance is part parody, part geopolitical lecture and folk music concert. He jams out on tunes like "The Twelve Days of Bushmas," "I Wonder Who's Kissinger Now" and the ironically feel-good anthem "I Hate Wal-Mart." Lippman also incorporates multimedia into his presentation, mixing travelogue and oral history in his piece "Star of Goliath," which chronicles the long journey of the Palestinian people, the Jewish perspective and the tortured history of the Holy Land. Detroiters will have three separate opportunities to discover Lippman's unusual talents on the local leg of his tour.
While the powerbrokers, hawks and plutocrats continue to own the airwaves, with their own pundits and media cheerleaders to spew out the same old claptrap, there is solace in artists like Lippman, who do what they can try to change the world one mind at a time.
Lippman performs at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 9, at UAW Local 22, 4300 Michigan Ave., Detroit, 313-706-2985; and at 7 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 10, at First United Methodist Church, 22331 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-545-4467.Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]