A billionaire stands on a street corner. Sounds like the opening of a joke—and it is. Only that this billionaire is a “Billionaire,” one of a national network of social activists using caricature, street theater, and satire as a way to amplify the nation’s economic divide in a very public, very funny way. It’s a subject that will be revisited, undoubtedly, now that the 114th Congress has been sworn in.

Wearing top hats and tiaras and brandishing slogans like “Corporations Are People, Too” and “Still Loyal to Big Oil,” the Billionaires began appearing at public events and urban protests during the 2000 and 2004 presidential election years. Deploying satire as a means for reform, they playfully mocked the behavior and policies of some elites by using their wit and extravagant costumes. The satirical Billionaires adopted fictive names like Phil T. Rich, Tex Shelter, and Meg A. Bucks. It was revolution by way of laughter.

Although the most obvious political satirists working today—Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, the former host of The Colbert Report, and Bill Maher of Real Time With Bill Maher—have eclipsed the reach of these activists’ early work, Angelique Haugerud, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences, says the value of humor as a way to convey messages has always been a powerful tool for the disenfranchised.

“Humor holds a mirror up to society,” Haugerud says. “We’re laughing at ourselves and at our society. For the Billionaires, it’s a way of building solidarity and reaching across boundaries, and doing it empathetically,” she says. The author of the book No Billionaire Left Behind: Satirical Activism in America (Stanford University Press, 2013), she “embedded” with the New York City chapter of the Billionaires to chart the way their particular brand of satire played out on the streets.

In staging protests at the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 2000 and 2004, using ballroom dancing flashmobs, and standing in front of post offices where they thanked citizens for mailing in their tax returns, the Billionaires were hailed by the news media as “the rock stars of the protest scene.”

Haugerud, whose research targets issues of wealth, democracy, inequality, and economic mobility, says that she was continually impressed by the way serious social content was communicated through satire and a sense of play. Some of the best practitioners were able to conduct entire interviews with establishment journalists while remaining in polished, urbane, endearing Billionaire character. And people on the streets loved the appearances.

“I found it striking how well informed they were about policy issues,” says

Haugerud. “You had writers, artists, corporate actors, PR people, true policy wonks. It is a rich, diverse talent pool: brilliant people thinking very deeply about how to translate these issues of wealth inequality and the role of big money in electoral politics,” with $4 billion in campaign donations spent during the 2014 midterm elections.

“The tools they use are caricature, sharp wit, a good sense of irony, and a capacity to create compelling parodies in a way that is conciliatory rather than aggressive,” she continues. “They build positive energy, shake things up, and work with wordplay and surprise. They have a set of messages but they don’t hit people over the head with them. People on the street would ask me, ‘Are they serious?’ It was really good theater.”

The Billionaires’ approach evidently resonates with political comedians such as Stewart, Colbert, and Maher, Haugerud believes. They appreciate the value of humor as a conduit to a larger truth. The Billionaires’ aim is to get people to pause, reconsider, and laugh—whether they agree with the message or not.

Jon Stewart, the well-known host of The Daily Show.


In a recent interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program, Jon Stewart, the well-known host of The Daily Show, told host Terry Gross, “humor survives in the bleakest conditions.” Stewart wrote and directed Rosewater, a drama about Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who was placed in solitary confinement after appearing on The Daily Show.

Haugerud says that satire flourishes in many countries, often where there is a demagogue or a dictator trying just as mightily to suppress it. “Satire can be cathartic for those with little power, and it can help to build solidarity,” she says. In a recent interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program, Jon Stewart told host Terry Gross, “humor survives in the bleakest conditions.” Stewart wrote and directed Rosewater, a drama about Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who was placed in solitary confinement for 118 days on charges of being a spy after his appearance in a skit on The Daily Show in which Stewart cohort Jason Jones blunders his way through Iran pretending to be an American spy. Even though Bahari’s Daily Show appearance may have ultimately not  been the reason for his detention, his incarceration was a harbinger that not everybody appreciates a joke. With surprising and alarming swiftness, satire can veer from amusement to provocation to danger, as was evident in the deadly terrorist attack directed at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the alleged North Korean government’s cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment over the studio’s planned release of its satirical film, The Interview.

Despite these isolated reactions born of deadly intolerance, political satire is far more often greeted with a measured reception. And the power of this brand of humor to keep political life healthy should not be overlooked, says Haugerud. “Many satirists see themselves as the David to Goliath: the little guys up against the giants. It is a way of speaking truth to power.”

Haugerud notes that where journalists and others saw the Billionaires as perhaps the most likeable protest group ever, Colbert himself will soon be challenged by his own success on The Colbert Report when he takes over for David Letterman as the host of the Late Show. “I am really curious to see how Colbert is going to make the transition,” Haugerud says. “How much of a political edge will the network allow him to have? But you really need some humor in the body politic.” •