The role of satire in politics

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.


  1. sheikh mahandi says

    The political satires I fondly remember from the past in the U.K. were “Spitting Image” and “Drop the Dead Donkey”, drop was set in a newsroom and was a barely disguised “attack” on Rupert Murdoch -- When he was a British citizen (having abandoned his Australian citizenship, and before he took U.S. citizenship and kicked off Faux Noise. Spitting Image was more completely political aiming at Margaret Thatcher, and her cabinet, while still getting hits in on David Steel (leader of the Liberal party), the Social Democrats (later rolled into the Liberal party).

  2. Ed says

    I have a somewhat dark sense of humor, so there is no contradiction for me in seeing the amusing side of a situation in one context and being horrified outraged by it in another. The satirical stance of people like Stewart can be a very good thing as it allows the viewer to freely admit the absurdity of many powerful figures and social norms. Appearing ridiculous is the authoritarian`s nightmare.

  3. says

    I agree with Mr. Singham that the folks who are worried about comedy creating cynicism, or are waiting for John Steward to get “truly political”, are both building castles in the air. The reality is simple: corporate media has very narrow parameters in which it is allowed to operate, as Mr. Todd explained when he said he can’t afford to ask difficult questions of his powerful guests. This limits its usefulness. It is also true that comedians have a somewhat more expansive domain, and are able to make points that the corporate media shies away from. But none of this should imply that the comedians and the corporate media are on different political sides. They just have different jobs.

  4. Katydid says

    I remember Spitting Image in the 1980s! I found it useful as a way to find out more about the politicians.

    I love The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, even though I skew old for their target demographic. My local news stations will blather on for 20 minutes about the Kardasians or about the local football or baseball team, whereas the “fake” news shows actually discuss important topics. My family watches the next-day repeats while we eat dinner and discuss the program. There have been times when the kids have gone on to research some topic brought up on TDS or Colbert, and I like the idea that it’s vital to think critically about what news is broadcasted, instead of blindly parroting.

  5. Dunc says

    I’m cynical because I follow politics. I watch satire to take the bitter edge off. I don’t watch the news any more, because it makes me shout at my TV and want to set things on fire.

  6. doublereed says

    Well, maybe we should have some serious news organizations, rather than ridiculous ones like Fox, CNN, and MSNBC.

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