It is a source of increasing concern to the establishment media that younger people are tuning in to comedy shows like The Daily Show that skewer the supposedly serious news shows and not tuning in to them, causing the demographic of their viewers to steadily inch upwards and well into retirement ages. This has naturally discomfited the people who host those shows and caused some of them to argue that this satirical attitude is making younger people more cynical about the political system and the media.
We now see the beginnings of a pushback. Salon magazine had been leading the charge with an article by Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny titled The day Jon Stewart quit: Why “The Daily Show” isn’t the satire America needs to argue that the show is actually harmful to meaningful political activism because it promotes a lazy cynicism, and that if the show were really a threat to the establishment, the parent corporation Viacom would immediately yank it off the airwaves. More recently Elias Isquith wrote in an article titled Jon Stewart’s expiration date: Why liberalism needs to outgrow the snark that Stewart is not properly playing the role of the liberal standard bearer.
Viacom is a massive corporation dedicated to making money and no doubt they are pleased that these shows make money. It is undoubtedly true that Viacom will not let the show go too far in criticizing the capitalist system that it feeds upon. But there is no danger of that because Stewart and others are by no means political radicals. They are not critical of capitalism itself but just some of its excesses.
It seems like these critics are expecting too much from political satire and that Stewart and others should shoulder the role of being in the political vanguard of leading a political revolution. I have already said that Stewart’s interviewing skills are awful when dealing with politicians and ideologues and don’t even bother to watch them anymore. What his show does well is point out the absurdities of politics and the disconnect between what people think and say and the reality.
What is useful is to have is a discussion is the role of comedy and satire in politics. Is it subversive or does it act as a safety valve to divert into passive entertainment political energy that might be targeted towards real change? The fact that authoritarian regimes around the world see satirists as people to persecute and suppress suggest the former but maybe they are over-reacting and would be better served by giving them freer rein as is done in the US.
Chuck Todd, new host of the Sunday morning talk show Meet the Press, had on a panel consisting of comedy writer Laura Krafft and comedians W. Kamau Bell and Lewis Black to discuss the role of satire in politics and it was a lot better than the usual gang of beltway characters that infest these shows who say the same predictable things over and over again. In it he admitted what I said a long time ago, that if he asks his guest a tough question, the guest won’t return. Since these shows are entirely dependent on booking big name guests, they have no choice but to ask softball questions and pretend that it is news.
Shows like The Daily Show undoubtedly have their limitations. What they do, and do well, is expose the absurdities and criminalities of politics and business that lie close to the surface and generate outrage along with laughter. It is up to us to dig deeper and act on the information.