In case anyone was wondering, I’m not dead…yet. I seem to have spent the past few weeks AWOL on this blog, having gotten my rhythm thrown off over a particular intense period of activity on my part. Every day, I’ve been deluding myself into thinking I’d jump back into the swing of things, and I’ve been busy planning some really cool stuff for the summer which I will be announcing soon, but I’ve been silent. Sorry, guys.
This week, I want to share with you an interview with Amber Day, the author of a fascinating new book, Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate. Day writes here about Colbert, Stewart, Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, the Yes Men, not to mention a range of international satirists (mostly British and Canadian) who are at the bleeding edge between comedy and documentary. She challenges those who think news-comedy is trivializing or cynical; she makes a compelling case for why these kinds of expression encourage healthy skepticism and earnest participation in the political process, helping to foster media literacy skills which can allow us to critically engage with political rhetoric (the so-called talking points) and the frames which the mainstream media constructs around current events. She certainly speaks to the controversies which surround such texts and as such, it is a helpful guide to contemporary debates about the relations between news, popular culture, and civic engagement, but she also offers cogent challenges to anyone who finds it quick and easy to dismiss the importance of what’s happening here. This book is in dialogue with other contemporary writers on the theme of news-comedy including Stephen Duncombe, Meghan Boler, Jonathon Gray, among others, so I figured it would be of interest to many of my readers. Enjoy this interview with the writer, which will give you a taste of what’s in the book.
Your book, Satire and Dissent, discusses comedy news casts (such as The Daily Show), satirical documentaries (such as those of Michael Moore), parodic activists (such as the Yes Men), and to a smaller degree, parodies on YouTube. What do you see as the major similarities and differences in these forms of political humor?
The impetus for beginning this research was the feeling that there was a sort of renaissance taking place in political satire and parody, one made up of strikingly earnest, deeply political forms of satire. So it was definitely the similarities that piqued my interest.
All of the different case studies I focus on have developed out of previous genres, but the contemporary incarnations differ from many of the previous forms in that there is a more complicated inter-penetration of the real and the satiric. Rather than relying on impersonations or fictional scenarios and one-liners about political figures, they are trespassing deeper into the realm of traditional political debate. Michael Moore, for instance, accosts real officials, forcing them to play themselves in the satiric script he has set up. Similarly, when Jon Stewart plays clips of a politician directly contradicting himself, it becomes evidence in the real political debate, while the Yes Men attempt to speak on behalf of real corporations as a way of hijacking the public conversation. All tend to be interested in actively intervening in the debate rather than just commenting on it.
The differences between them are primarily traceable to the different media forms, as there is a fairly wide distance between the aims of a television program and those of an activist group. However, it was the fact that there were so many striking similarities that made me want to investigate why these forms were all exploding at this moment.
As you note, many have assumed that the rise of comedy news programs may foster cynicism about political participant. Yet, throughout the book, you want to challenge these assertions. What evidence do we have that the skepticism fostered by political humor may encourage rather than discourage political participation?
I think it very much depends on the type of political humor. Most of the traditional late-night comedians like Leno and Letterman do traffic in a more cynical form of political humor. The jokes are primarily aimed at the personal foibles of particular public figures, sending the overall message that all politicians are corrupt/lazy/stupid, etc. and that there is not much we can do about it except feel superior. That type of political humor arguably does foster a cynical distrust of politics.
However, I think the satirists surveyed in the book are doing something far different. For starters, both the humor and the critique tend to be aimed at policy as opposed to just personalities. While someone like Jon Stewart, for instance, does not necessarily pass up all opportunities to take pot shots at particular people, his primary focus is more often on a particular bill, an ideological fight, or the way in which a substantive issue is being framed by the news media.
This type of humor is not ultimately about how useless it is to care about political issues; rather it is premised on the feeling that there are political issues out there that we should care deeply about. Indeed, Stewart’s interview segments often then demonstrate an attempt to find solutions to problems through earnest debate with his guests.
Further, in the case of the documentarians and activists I examine, their work is aimed almost exclusively at getting people engaged, often imploring their audiences to take action, which is the antithesis of cynical withdrawal. Finally, the fan communities coalescing around these forms overwhelmingly demonstrate an avid engagement with the larger political debate.
As you note, many writers have assumed that parody and satire represent conservative forces on society, where-as many have seen the artists you are exploring as essentially progressive. How do you explain the disjuncture in how we evaluate political humor?
I don’t think satire is inherently progressive or conservative. Rather, it can be mobilized in many different ways. There has been a tendency, particularly when examining classical literary satire, to assume that it functions conservatively because it has often been used (as discussed above) to criticize personalities rather than larger political systems or to disparage unconventional behavior, all while the satirists remain safely on the sidelines.
However, as I’ve said, these satirists are clearly not as removed from the political realm (often even using their own bodies as primary components of the stunts). They are also interested in pointing to alternatives and often in entreating viewers to take action.
Further, these forms of satire tend to be mobilized in a fairly populist register, as the satirists position themselves as stand-ins for the everyman citizen frustrated at the dissembling of public figures and the irresponsibility of the press corps.
I would definitely describe these examples of contemporary political satire as progressive. This certainly does not apply to all types of satire across all media in all periods of time, but it does demonstrate that satire has become a particularly attractive mode of intervening in the larger political debate at this moment.
Amber Day is Assistant Professor of Performance Studies in the English and Cultural Studies Department at Bryant University. She is the author of the book Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.