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Move Over, SNL: Now Politicians Get Parodied In GTA RP

GTA and political satire have come full circle

Squeex

Multimillionaire biotech exec turned Republican presidential wannabe Vivek Ramaswamy is chatting animatedly with a journalist. He’s having his feet held to the fire over a crime he may or may not have committed, but he stands resolute. "I think, if anything, I received street cred,” he says in a Trump-affected tone. “I've started being way more hip. My hats have been turning backward. I'm wearing a fur coat. I think I am quite lit, and I'm so excited to gyatt back to work.” Not long after, he hits the griddy

Except this is not Vivek Ramaswamy. Instead it’s his Grand Theft Auto doppelganger, Vivek Ramasquamy, puppeteered by popular Twitch streamer Squeex on a role-playing server in which nearly every character is played by a real human being attempting to (wackily) approximate their actual profession. The scenario, though ridiculous, verges on plausible: Politicians commit crimes all the time, and more pertinently, IRL Ramaswamy recently committed something that should be considered a crime by appearing in a TikTok in which he danced alongside YouTuber/prolific puncher of old men Jake Paul. Ramaswamy would, in other words, very much like the kind of crowd that watches GTA RP – or is at least aware of it – to think he’s cool. Squeex’s take on the soon-to-be-failed politician dials that element of his persona up to 11. 

The real Ramaswamy has walked a comically fine line of declaring Trump the greatest president ever and ostensibly trying to usurp him ever since he first made waves during the inaugural Republican presidential debate last summer. Ramaswamy’s particular brand of Trump-lite swagger and Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ near-superhuman lack of charisma made the former seem almost viable for a moment if you squinted and bashed yourself over the head with a rock until you forgot Trump existed. 

It also made Ramaswamy extremely meme-able, which he – at the ripe young age of 37 – capitalized on via stunts like the aforementioned Jake Paul video and a podcast that’s played host to everyone from crackpots (Alex Jones) to dipshits (John “Papa John” Schnatter) to domestic terrorists (Libs of TikTok). Since that initial peak, however, Ramaswamy’s campaign has cratered: According to Huffington Post, he’s in fourth place in Iowa with an average of six percent support. He’s polling even lower in New Hampshire. Around Christmas, his campaign stopped advertising on TV. 

Ramaswamy began his campaign on the far right – decrying “woke-ism” and the covid vaccine early and often – and has only embraced far-right conspiracy theories further as his campaign has faltered. Squeex’s Twitch parody gestures at this: "Whoever disagrees with me is part of the woke mob," he said last night while ranting about his plans to protest an in-game mayoral election he’s been barred from with a “peaceful” demonstration on January 6, a day he picked extremely purposefully. Squeex, as Ramasquamy, and his campaign staff run around GTA’s city of Los Santos repeating these sorts of lines, getting up to sometimes-violent shenanigans, and dancing. If somebody asks him anything – anything at all – there is a 70 percent likelihood he will begin his reply by saying in a pitch-perfect politician voice, “Thank you so much for the question and your concern. I really appreciate it, and I love talking to voters like yourself” or something to that effect. It gets funnier every time.

The whole routine is very on the nose, funny not because it’s uniquely incisive or critical comedy, but because of Squeex’s knack for timing and rapid-fire comebacks, as well as the presence of this larger-than-life meme man in absurd role-playing scenarios he seems ideally suited to. Ramaswamy – or this portrayal of him – is a bit like New York City mayor Eric Adams: You get the impression that both would be more at home in Grand Theft Auto than the real world. In this way, a Ramaswamy parody running amok in GTA RP brings the whole enterprise full-circle: The Grand Theft Auto series has always included a component of cartoonish political parody, and now players on community-created role-playing servers are embodying that spirit. This in mind, it’s little wonder that Squeex’s parody of Ramaswamy is landing for so many people.

The surface-level nature of the satire – combined with a reliance on escalating absurdity just a step or two removed from the real world – calls to mind another, very different cultural touchstone: Saturday Night Live. It’s easy to see shades of Alec Baldwin’s sneering Trump parody in what Squeex is doing, or perhaps more insightful interpretations like that of 2021 SNL addition James Austin Johnson. The difference here, though, is that Squeex’s Ramaswamy is resonating with the younger audiences that found SNL’s Trumps tired and cringe-y. 

This despite the fact that a lot of GTA RP humor is cringe-y – or would be if deployed in basically any other setting. Players regularly find themselves at a loss for words or just blurt the most outrageous thing they can think of, sometimes while yelling over each other. But because everybody is improv-ing – and because many popular streamers, who only dip into GTA RP sporadically, are way outside of their comfort zones in ways that keep things fresh for their longtime viewers – scenes transcend their bare components. The humor is a product of the totality of the thing, rather than a single punchline, or even a series of them. Nobody is artfully building toward anything, and some players spend much of their time delivering un-funny lines or trading in crude stereotypes, but the resulting chaos produces moments millions of people find funny.

Success at this scale calls to mind the same sort of questions faced by previous generations’ satirical establishments, especially those that gave a gentle lift to Trump as he sailed into power: After a point, do these sorts of parodies – or other SNL trademarks like Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, or numerous recurring cartoon parodies of politicians in shows like South Park and The Simpsons – offer a veneer of likability to awful people? Does the parody, which seeks to make people laugh and feel good as it criticizes, begin to subsume people’s perception of the actual person? (Tina Fey’s own show, the timelessly funny but politically – and this is putting it lightly – confused 30 Rock went on to grapple with this exact question in one episode.) In an information-overburdened society where, for terrible people, any attention can be good attention, is satire even capable of cutting its targets down to size?

In Ramaswamy’s case, the stakes are not particularly high. There’s no way he’s going to win the Republican primary, he’s already incredibly wealthy, and he’s got a future in podcasting if he really wants it. Memes and parody will not tip those scales in any meaningful direction, not even in the way we’ve seen with, for example, George Santos. The scales are already anchored where they lie. But as humor evolves to fit new mediums, it is worth considering why we employ the forms we do and who – depending on how those forms are employed – they end up serving. 

There is a lineage here, though it might feel strange to trace given how little cultural overlap it seems like there is between GTA RP on Twitch and an older institution like SNL. New mediums have a way of recycling old ideas, rebranding and refreshing them so that what was once cringe can be funny again. Ramaswamy might be the political meme of the day, but he won’t be the last. GTA might be the comedic playground of the day, but it won’t be the last. These cycles will keep repeating themselves in games, media, and mediums still to come – potentially in more consequential ways. If you stop connecting the dots between generations, you just keep winding up with the same questions over and over and over again, never any closer to answers.

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