Satire isn't easy. For a piece of satire to work, it needs to strike the perfect balance of humor and truth — and to be received by an audience that has enough knowledge of the original subject to appreciate all the intricately crafted, slightly askew details contained within. As a result, a successful piece of satire can provide the most astute commentary on life as we know it. And with the release of a parody magazine called Paul Ryan, a brand-new bar has been set for how to knock satire out of the park.
The brainchild of Andrew Lipstein and James Folta — the creative force behind last year's New Yorker parody, Neu Jorker — Paul Ryan takes the form of a glossy magazine, right down to the full-page ads and bonus puzzle section. For all intents and purposes, it's a publication that you might find on a table in the waiting room of a dentist's office or slotted into a rack in an airport kiosk . . . right down to every last, perfectly placed detail. But there's a very good reason you probably won't be thumbing through the pages of Paul Ryan anywhere but in the comfort of your own home: at the end of the day, it's a blistering parody of the unwavering adoration that the GOP has for our current speaker of the House. Yet there's so, so much more to the magazine than just the jabs it takes at Paul Ryan.
"We figured, like everyone, that Hillary [Clinton] was going to win and that Paul Ryan would be the guy left holding the bag," Folta told me when I caught up with him and Lipstein by phone in early December, describing how they'd started working on the idea before Donald Trump became president but decided to stick with it regardless. "Like a lot of Republicans, Paul Ryan paved the way for — and abided — Trump's rise, so he still seemed like the perfect paradigm figure to go after."
And there's a very good reason Paul Ryan is the perfect candidate for a satirical publication: he barely seems real. "I think that it only works because a lot of people do wonder about Paul Ryan and have some idea of what he stands for, but overall it seems like he is this impenetrable vacuum that you can get at from any angle, which sort of allowed us to do just that," Lipstein said. "To have an ESPN mock draft about him or a People-esque story about him — you can see him through any angle because that's sort of what he represents to America is a kind of 'fill in the blank.' Whatever you believe in, whatever your values are, as long as you're relatively conservative, Paul Ryan is your guy."
Knowing that they had the perfect subject matter was only half the battle, though. From there, they had to deal with the fact that the duo couldn't just ignore the fact that Trump was president. Instead, they rallied the contributors who were already on board, pushing them toward a more intense vision of what was to come. "We ended up upping the satire and upping the aggressiveness of a lot of the jokes after the election, which came from both us as well as our writers having increased zeal for wanting to go after Ryan and the others," Folta said.
"We first contacted writers last year," Lipstein said, noting that the process for recruiting talent was fundamentally different this time around than with their last endeavor. "When we were parodying The New Yorker, we basically found someone for each piece. It was like, one person's going to do this food-and-drink story — and before I even saw the piece, I knew the concept. But for Paul Ryan, we really just took pitches [for one-off stories]. There's a huge overlap in the writers and illustrators who are involved with both projects . . . but this time, we asked people what they wanted to do."
"The Neu Jorker was based on one magazine, so the tone and the style and the design — the general thrust of the content, really — was all decided beforehand," Folta added. "But for this one, the pitches were a little more complex in that we were asking people to not only come up with a piece and a comedic angle, but also format it like a magazine, column, article, or some existing reference point that they would be directly satirizing. So there was an added layer of complexity in it that made things a little trickier on all levels, which we did intentionally. We wanted to do something much crazier and more intense."
But finding the right writers to shape each section of the magazine was crucial — and not something that Folta and Lipstein took lightly. The idea was that each person had to be able to successfully conjure up a piece that brought you into an alternate universe that resembles our reality, but with the right level of skew. To make the whole magazine work as a cohesive unit, they needed to make sure that each piece felt like it added up to an organic whole. But that's what the duo is best at: working together, as a team, to create a work far larger than what they would've done alone.
Lipstein and Folta initially met while doing improv comedy years ago, and they instantly bonded over their shared love for reading, writing, and literature. As creative partners, they survive mainly on their dual willingness to do something they feel passionate about, without having to worry about it potentially going wrong.
"I think the reason why we were able to work together on both these projects is because we both have this blind willingness to do something that goes off momentum alone, going through the phases of actually accomplishing it as if we aren't aware of how much work it's going to be, or how many people are going to have to get involved, or the many things that don't make sense about it," Lipstein said. "Actually, both with this project and The Neu Jorker, I remember telling people about it, and while they didn't say it was a terrible idea, you could tell they just didn't get it or thought it just didn't make any sense."
Even if it didn't make sense to some people, neither Folta nor Lipstein felt like that was a deterrent to the creative process. In fact, it only drove them harder toward an idea that they knew was unique, untapped, and unparalleled. "I think that the opposite metric is used all the time, to terrible results, this whole 'this seems like a really good idea that doesn't have a lot of downsides' thing. If it seems like that, then there are probably a whole lot of other people who are doing it, or at least trying to. It's like that whole 'pivot to video' thing," Lipstein said. "'Everyone else is doing it. It seems like an easy thing.'"
But if there's one thing that has never, ever been an easy thing, it's satire. And in Trump's America, it's even harder to get the tone right in a way that doesn't feel like pandering or a cheap shot. And that sentiment is lost in the ever-increasing sea of content centered on Trump that is exaggerated, goofy, and clearly crafted toward outrage.
"I feel like a lot of people will tell us, 'Oh, wow. The Trump administration must be so good for you as a comedy person. You must be so happy — there's so much to do!'" Folta said. "But combined with the fact that everyone's making jokes on Twitter all the time, political jokes are as common as anything. All these first-level jokes like 'he has small hands' or 'his hair is ridiculous' have been around forever and will keep being beaten to death forever until Trump is blessedly out of office. It makes it hard to do something that feels fresh, that feels interesting, that feels like it's challenging in a way that satire kind of has to be or is pushing a boundary in a way that satire needs to be."
"I think that's one of the reasons why we really wanted Paul Ryan to push the boundaries," he added. "To challenge that first-pass, simple take on everything. But it feels hard to make jokes about politics now when the news is already so crazy. It's hard to know where to heighten things when it's already so heightened and so scary every day."
From Lipstein's perspective, the more we pile on the same topics, the less challenging and hard-hitting the humor becomes. And then it becomes more a matter of making people laugh on Twitter and not about crafting a perfect work of comedy that has a lasting effect.
"Before the Trump era, liberal comedians were actually more able to look inward to create humor and make fun of themselves. But because we now have a certifiable enemy and somebody who is so easy to poke fun of, we're all looking in that direction. And it's not that funny because it's like everyone's in on it, the humor's straightforward, and while it's political and it feels right, it isn't challenging," he told me. "And it doesn't create the sort of uncomfortable urge in yourself that, I think, is where all humor is. There's probably more humor out there than there's ever been. I mean, every single humor section of The New Yorker since Trump was elected has just been a kind of very straightforward poke at him, but it doesn't feel as angsty or even as existential — though I hate to use that word — as it did before that era."
The decision to create Paul Ryan, then, was more about bucking that norm than anything else. And the decision to create something that praised him to the heavens makes it a complicated kind of comedy that possesses a strength well beyond anything we see on TV or read on blogs.
"In a lot of real ways, Paul Ryan actually is praiseworthy, and it's scary because he's such a political ninja," Lipstein said. "So there are a lot of aspects within the magazine that, of course it's satire, but if you are actually a fan of him, you might well just read that as actual praise for him. Which kind of feels like — what's the word? Subversive. Subversive against liberal comedy in a way that I appreciate."
Ultimately, the type of smart, savvy satire that is found in the pages of Paul Ryan is the most organic kind of humor that can be found in the world right now. It's the type of comedy that makes us feel disquieted, question what we know, and wonder if we're actually in on the joke after all — all while laughing our asses off. And that, in my book, makes it something that we all should have a bit more of in our lives these days. And I can't recommend highly enough that everyone pick up a copy and spend some real quality time with one hell of a piece of satire.