Comedy, Satire, and Politics
Political comedy is old. How old is it? Well, in all seriousness, it is as old as democracy itself. Satire, parody, and comically charged commentary has served as a weapon in the electoral wars since ancient Greece. In the context of modern American politics, comedy continues to serve as comment on the day’s news and, increasingly, has become an important source for genuine information. Modern American politics has an uneasy relationship with the comedians who make their living mocking and satirizing those in power. Programs like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight have joined the more veteran late-night talk shows and Saturday Night Live in the nightly examination of the more ridiculous elements of modern politics and the flawed media that attempts to report on it. These video compatriots are joined by countless websites that construct often cruel, crude, and hilarious memes and satirical articles in the likes of The Onion.
Greek playwright Aristophanes lampooned not just policies and war but also specific Athenians in his plays. Dante put some of his contemporary political leaders in his hell. William Shakespeare carefully commented on royal houses in his historical plays, and William Hogarth in the eighteenth century used his drawings to blast English leaders and society of the day. This long history of art and comedy as tools of critique and commentary was baked in to the United States. Although it existed in the colonial era, and those arguing for a United States famously used a political cartoon of a severed snake to push for more unity, the idea of humor for political impact really caught fire in the nineteenth century. Newspapers increasingly Page 122 | Top of Articlesought to appeal to a wide variety of readers in order to make money, so political cartoons and humor grew in prominence. Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist without parallel, took to the pages of major newspapers to comment on political corruption and the elites—his cartoons are what gave us the Republican elephant, but it was not meant as a compliment.
In print and early broadcast, voices like Will Rogers would gently, but firmly, poke fun at those in power. Even into the twentieth century the business of political humor remained a restrained art. Art Buchwald, whose columns served up clear yet subtle political humor, was viewed in as many as 500 papers over the years. He often threw punches, but he did so wearing thickly padded gloves, rarely appearing too angry or partisan. By the 1960s, though, “Mr. Buchwald’s satire grew more biting in Washington. When President Lyndon B. Johnson sent troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965 with the stated purpose of protecting Americans there during a rebellion, Mr. Buchwald wrote a column about the last remaining one, a tourist named Sidney, who was being detained by the Dominican authorities so that the American soldiers would not pull out” ( Severo 2007 ). On television, late-night hosts like Johnny Carson would offer one-liners on President Nixon and others news of the day. But both Buchwald and Carson, to some degree, still aimed generally not to offend.
Historian Gerald Gardner, who documented the role of comedy and politics in this era, noted that there was often an economic reason that early political comedy tended to be less sharp-edged, telling NPR, “Political humor was kind of a benign art form at that time, perhaps because Buchwald knew he would lose newspapers, and Carson knew he would lose affiliates” ( Keyes 2008 ). In the 1970s, though, a new breed of political comedy was on the rise, fueled more by an abrasiveness and anger over a political system seen as corrupt. Frustration over policies like the war in Vietnam and the political scandal of Watergate gave rise to new humor that had sting. These comic tendencies gave rise to NBC’s Saturday Night Live. The program, in only its fourth episode, had Chevy Chase portray President Gerald Ford as a bumbling, stumbling fool. Unlike the more benign comedy of presidential impersonators like Rich Little who frequented Carson’s Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live did not worry about the impersonation; their point was more raw and angry. And it was wildly popular.
Throughouth the 1980s and ’90s the business of television and comedy was increasingly drawing audiences by being more provocative. Late-night comics like David Letterman and Jay Leno made increasingly caustic jokes about political events. A new strand of comic, represented by Bill Maher, was increasingly focusing all of their comedic work on current events. When Maher’s program Politically Incorrect left cable’s Comedy Central for ABC in 1997, Comedy Central decided to launch a parody news program called The Daily Show. The new program was hosted by popular ESPN anchor Craig Kilborn and featured news reporters offering taped reports, much like the traditional nightly news. Co-creator Lizz Winstead would later recall the early discussions about how much focus the program should have on Page 123 | Top of Articlepolitics, saying, “When we first launched, we would always have constant philosophical debates about how political the show should be. The network wanted it to be a little more of a hybrid of entertainment and politics, and I always thought politics was the way to go, because if you’re going to satirize, it’s nice to have big, powerful people to satirize. Sometimes I think when people veer into satirizing entertainment figures and stuff like that, it just gets kind of mean and cruel” ( Roberts 2008 ). By 1999, the program had a new host, Jon Stewart, and a clear political direction. Stewart and his program would spark a series of spin-offs, including the Colbert Report that sought to satirize Fox News’s O’Reilly Factor and later John Oliver’s HBO program Last Week Tonight. These programs made daily commentary about politics and media coverage of politics their primary focus.
Although Saturday Night Live really created modern biting political comedy, the program also has included politicians that are willing to play along. Sarah Palin, who was mercilessly portrayed by Tina Fey, came on and in so doing offered a presence that simultaneously said “I get the joke” and “I am not really like that.” And she was not the first. Just two days before the 2000 election, NBC put on a special edition of Saturday Night Live dubbed “Presidential Bash 2000.” The program recounted 25 years of political comedy on the program, dating back to Chase and Aykroyd, up through their playful portrayals of Democrat Al Gore as a boring technocrat/robot and George W. Bush as a squinting word-murderer. Both Gore and Bush taped segments for the program. Their rationales for the appearances are unclear, but one scholar who has studied the intersection of politics and comedy offered one assessment, writing, “Perhaps they thought helpful to show the candidates’ humaneness or sense of humor. Or perhaps it was simply a more to get free prime-time airtime two days before the election. Or perhaps they realized that by embracing the comedic routines of SNL, they were in essence neutralizing the routines from their potential negative effect. Whatever the reasons, SNL’s political humor did not seem dangerous enough for either candidate to refuse to poke fun so close to an election” ( Jones 2009 ). Other programs would take their political satire further than SNL, pushing the envelope of acceptable comedy. Key & Peele would introduce a character named Luther to serve as mild-mannered Barack Obama’s “anger translator,” poking some fun at Obama but also conveying Obama as a fiery and passionate leader who only sounds mild-mannered. Others were much more biting, like Lil’ Bush, a cartoon that cast President George W. Bush as a destructive and dim-witted elementary school child. The program targeted all members of the president’s national security team and cast them as not just silly, but dangerous and misguided. The entire program was a brutal satire about the struggles of the Bush administration during its final two years.
For politicians the question remains how to handle satire and when to be funny. Many candidates view programs like SNL and the late-night comedy programs as a necessary part of their campaign strategy. Some candidates have actually officially announced their campaigns while sitting in the chair of The Daily Show or the Tonight Show and many have appeared on the programs during their race for the nomination Page 124 | Top of Articleor the White House. But how and when to be a part of the joke remains a dicey proposition. Jimmy Carter famously snapped at his staff, when they tried to insert a joke, “If the American people wanted Bob Hope for their president, they should have elected him.” But most modern candidates try to use humor to defuse certain issues or appeal to voters, and they use many of the late night talk shows as a way to humanize themselves. Democratic adviser Jon Mack, who wrote for Jay Leno’s Tonight Show for more than two decades, explained the appeal for candidates to go on those shows, telling NBC, “If a candidate goes on and says, ‘Let me tell you about my three-point plan, Mr. Fallon,’ that’s a disaster. They want to hear personal stories about who these people are … I believe the late-night camera lenses give people a better sense of who these candidates are than even Sunday show camera lenses can” ( Rafferty 2015 ). So, in critical ways, these programs offer candidates a platform to connect with voters outside of the policy debates and confrontational questions that they face on traditional news programs.
One of the outstanding issues about the role of satire and comedy in politics is to what extent viewers who might otherwise not follow politics are engaged through these programs to learn more about the politicians and central issues facing the country. Some observers have pointed to programs like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live as serving as an entryway to politics for young people and those not willing or interested in sitting through a 30-minute hard news report. By watching these entertainment programs, the argument goes, they receive a baseline level of information and may be driven to get online and seek more coverage of the issue to better get the jokes. This would explain these programs’ ability to get leading political figures to appear on their shows and sit down for interviews often more quickly then the campaigns will send those same candidates to regular news programs. Going even further, the relatively new HBO program Last Week Tonight hosted by The Daily Show alum John Oliver has moved from informing public opinion to explicitly calling for action. His 13-minute, obscenity-laden rant about net neutrality ended with a call for the trolls of the Internet (and assumedly the less vile viewers at home and online) to take to the Federal Communications Commission website to comment on the proposed end of a federal policy of offering equal access to the Internet for all content and content providers. The FCC site crashed under the pressure of the commenters the next day, and over the ensuing weeks millions of comments flooded the agency. Lobbyists who had been working to protect the net neutrality rules later said that Oliver’s program had done more to mobilize the public than any other action they had taken and helped push the FCC to dump the idea.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this demonstration of political power, some see the idea of viewers receiving their political information from comedy programs as dangerous. These experts view the goal of Comedy Central and other programs as entertainment and humor, and therefore people investing the same kind of issue-focused attention to Jon Stewart that they do to CBS’s Scott Pelley threatens to skew their perspective of the real issues and perhaps increase their cynicism about the Page 125 | Top of Articlepolitical process. The answer is unclear and according to much of the research in this area very much dependent on the viewer. One study of The Daily Show viewers explored how the program is able to engage its audience and whether that audience views it as news or comedy. The results were essentially “it depends.” If the viewer believes comedy programs are trivial and entertainment, they gathered very little political information from them. But if they did see the comedy as rooted in news, they could ascertain important understanding from the programs. This prompted the researcher, Laura Feldman, to argue, “Maximize learning from entertainment-oriented political information sources, that is, by changing people’s perceptions of the task or activating an informational goal. For example, if—as the present results suggest—audiences’ preconceptions regarding the amount of mental effort required by news versus entertainment lead them to engage in differential information-processing strategies, educators or journalists could do more to emphasize the informational value of political comedy” ( Feldman 2013 ).
Some traditional journalists have raised concerns about the impact of satire on the political system, worrying that the effect of the “age of irony” is a public more cynical, more isolated, and more critical of those who do not align with their political views. For these observers, the mix of The Daily Show’s criticizing of Republicans and talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh’s caustic commentary about liberals only fuels the partisan polarization in the American public. In the days after September 11, 2001, some went so far as to partially blame this form of commentary for blinding Americans to the threats they faced. Essayist Roger Rosenblatt took to Time magazine to argue that “the ironists, seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything. The consequence of thinking that nothing is real—apart from prancing around in an air of vain stupidity—is that one will not know the difference between a joke and a menace” ( Rosenblatt 2001 ). And in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, satire did go quiet and only slowly returned, with The Onion publishing its famous article with the headline, “Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell” on September 26.
But even those early steps included some careful pokes at those in charge. The same edition of the paper had a lead story that declared, “U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We’re at War With.” SNL returned on the 29th in almost a defiant mood, declaring it would not be bowed by the attacks. Soon the comedy programs would regain their footing and reestablish their role as commentator on the news and the newsmakers. During this time, the influence of the programs and their hosts only grew. By 2009 one survey found some 33 percent of those under 40 reported they saw Stewart and Colbert replacing the role traditionally held by the nightly news. A 2012 survey found younger millenials not only get much of their political information from comedy programs, they also trusted Stewart more than most journalists ( Gottfried, Matsa, and Barthel 2015 ). While some worried what that might mean for politics, many saw these shows as important tools to engage apolitical people on important issues. Penn State professor Sophia McClennen summed it up, “For the first time in U.S. history a range of satirical news sources are providing the Page 126 | Top of Articlepublic with valuable information from which to make educated decisions. Our knowledge as voters may be coming from HBO and Comedy Central instead of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, but the satire news is helping us stay informed and stay productively critical. Contrary to some criticism, satire’s goal is not voter apathy; its goal is to encourage voters to turn their disgust into action and their frustrations into votes” ( McClennen 2014 ).
Feldman, Laura. 2013. “Learning about Politics from The Daily Show: The Role of Viewer Orientation and Processing Motivations.” In Mass Communication and Society 16, Issue 4.
Gottfried, Jeffrey, Katerina Eva Matsa, and Michael Barthel. 2015. “As Jon Stewart steps down, 5 facts about The Daily Show.” Pew Research Center. August 6. Accessed June 13, 2016. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/08/06/5-facts-daily-show/ .
Jones, Jeffrey. 2009. “With All Due Respect: Satirizing Presidents from Saturday Night Live to Lil’ Bush.” In Satire TV. Edited by Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey Jones, and Ethan Thompson. New York: NYU Press.
Keyes, Allison. 2008. “Political Humor’s Hysterical History.” NPR. October 5. Accessed January 16, 2016. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95413835 .
McClennen, Sophia. 2014. “Does Satire News Influence Elections?” Huffington Post. December 31. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sophia-a-mcclennen/does-satire-news-influenc_b_6079176.html .
Rafferty, Andrew. 2015. “2016 Candidates Flock to New Class of Late-Night Show Hosts.” NBC News. September 7. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/2016-candidates-flock-new-class-late-night-show-hosts-n422051 .
Roberts, Michael. 2008. “Q&A With Daily Show Creator Lizz Winstead.” Westword. April 23. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://www.westword.com/news/qanda-with-daily-show-creator-lizz-winstead-5892810 .
Rosenblatt, Roger. 2001. “The Age of Irony Comes to an End.” Time. September 24. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1000893,00.html#ixzz1XfB9aCeL .
Severo, Richard. 2007. “Art Buchwald, Whose Humor Poked the Powerful, Dies at 81.” New York Times. January 19. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2007/01/19/obituaries/19buchwald.html?referer= .
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