What do these news comedy programs add to our understanding of contemporary life which may be missing from mainstream news?
What these programs excel at is deconstructing the scripted quality of the contemporary political conversation. Though we may be aware that politicians and corporate spokespeople are all carefully groomed and staged, and that their PR people are experts at getting the talking points on television, the news media rarely actually point this out, nor do they do the work of moving the conversation beyond the talking points. Satire, then, offers a way of satisfyingly breaking through the existing script. Stewart and Colbert (as well as their counterparts in other countries) have built a reputation on their repeated attempts to demonstrate the ways in which the public political conversation is being manipulated, and to gesture to some of the very real issues that are being obscured.
Is there anything journalists could learn from and emulate from these forms of political humor which would not compromise their self-construction as neutral and objective voices?
Journalists likely shouldn’t start copying the fart jokes or sexual innuendo, but they could certainly learn how to hold public figures and pundits more accountable, how to push interviewees beyond the sound-bites, and – oddly- how to do more investigative reporting. When a politician suddenly does an about-face on an issue due to political expediency, Stewart and Colbert seize the opportunity to point it out by juxtaposing particularly revealing clips. Journalists should definitely not aim to ridicule public figures, but they should hold them accountable to their own statements and attempt to ask them hard questions.
How has the shift from broadcast to narrowcast impacted the nature of political humor on television? What do you see as the potential shifts that are occuring with the rise of online content in this site?
Narrowcasting has allowed for the development of much edgier, more critical satire. In the broadcast era, there were very few examples of true satire on television. Programs that did veer toward that territory typically attracted a great deal of controversy and did not last long, as producers were wary of alienating any of the viewing public.
Longer-running programs like Saturday Night Live have had moments of incisive critique (particularly in the beginning), but have stayed far more firmly in the realm of personality-focused political humor discussed above. In the age of narrowcasting, however, there has been an explosion of niche programming (including a great deal of satiric programs) designed to appeal to select audiences without as much worry about potentially offending viewers.
The rise of online content seems to be further fueling the changes brought about by narrowcasting in that it has become easier for content to find receptive fans and for fans to come together around particular material.
Your account of comedy news stresses the careful balance that needs to be achieved between being the clown and being the preacher. Your book ends before Colbert and Stewart staged their march for sanity on Washington. What do you think this event did to the public’s perception of them?
That is an interesting question, and I think the answer depends on who you are. The press did not know what to make of the event. For the most part, they interpreted it as silly comedy with no larger message whatsoever. The preacher part of the equation totally went over their heads.
On the flip side, partisans on the political right interpreted it as narrowly political, either assuming that it was somehow meant to be in support of Obama and the Democrats, or that it was aimed solely at poking fun of Glen Beck.
Partisans on the political left were hoping that Stewart and Colbert would step forward as political leaders or activists and were ultimately disappointed.
However, most of the long-time fans I spoke with on the mall that day seemed ecstatic to be there. For fans, the rally was perfectly consistent with both the comedy and the critique they were familiar with from the programs. It highlighted the extreme polarization of political debate in this country and lambasted cable news for playing to the extremes, failing to investigate the facts, and wallowing in sensationalism. This critique was made in playful form throughout the variety acts and then by Stewart in a heartfelt plea at the end. The palpable excitement in the crowd that day was over being able to publicly perform support for that critique.
As far as the performers themselves are concerned, in interviews before and after the event, they were careful to continue maintaining the balance between political truth-teller and clown, and they have continued to do so since then. The subtle change, though, seems to have been the realization that they have earned the space to occasionally indulge in moments of heartfelt expression of their views, regardless of whether it makes for uproarious comedy. Stewart, for instance, dedicated several lengthy segments and then an entire episode to drawing attention toward political foot-dragging on passing the Zadroga act (for compensating sick 9/11 first responders), and crafted a dead-serious episode on his response to the Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting.
What do you see as the strengths and limitations of satire as a form of political activism?
The limitation of satire as a form of activism is that it can exacerbate polarization and feed a form of in-group elitism. That being said, what irony and satire are good at is creating a feeling of community, which I would argue is a crucial component of political organizing. Ironic activism works to hail people who already might have similar beliefs or sensibilities and remind them that there are others who share their feelings, fueling the sense of community in opposition.
Many would dismiss that as merely “preaching to the converted,” but I argue that the so-called “converted” are often discouraged or apathetic, or are simply not focusing on that particular belief at that moment in time. This sort of activism, then, fulfills the integral function of providing affirmation and reinforcement. Ironic activists challenge their audiences to not only get the joke and fill in the unsaid ironic meaning, but to actively identify with the issues as their own.
Additionally, ironic activism works to push issues that may be peripheral to the wider public debate into the dominant public sphere, ideally helping to incrementally shift or reframe that debate. What the genre is good at is engaging an audience, attracting attention, and rallying support.
Does satire necessarily express an oppositional position or are there ways that satire can be a vehicle of the utopian imagination?
I think it absolutely can do both. Certainly most satire is created in reaction to a situation deemed in need of critique. However, I think it does possess the capability of presenting alternatives or even painting a picture of a utopian future.
That is why I end the book with a discussion of the fake New York Times stunt engineered by The Yes Men (in cooperation with a number of other activist groups) in late 2008. About a week after Obama was elected they printed and distributed thousands of copies of a parody version of the New York Times, but rather than critique the state of the news media or spoof a particular story, the activists created a vision of the world they hoped to see in the not too distant future.
The physical object was a very convincing Times look-alike but the lead headline proclaimed the war in Iraq over, while the rest of the stories covered topics like Congress passing a “maximum wage law” and the creation of a national health care bill. The end result was a wide-ranging utopian vision for what they believed the new Obama era should look like. The overall message was that some of it could be possible if everyone got involved and pushed to make it happen. It was designed precisely to spark the collective utopian imagination.
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.
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