God Save the Comedians: Satire in the Time of Despair

When Jon Stewart, undisputed king of American political satire, retired from his 16 year stint as the host of THE DAILY SHOW, with emotional tributes from collaborators, friends and even a good-natured “So long, jackass” from long-time foe, Senator John McCain, he signed off on a typically acerbic note, observing “Bullshit is everywhere. The good news is this: bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy, and their work is easily detected. And looking for it is kind of a pleasant way to pass the time, like an I Spy of bullshit. So I say to you tonight, my friends, the best defense against bullshit is vigilance—so if you smell something, say something.”, mocking the US Department of Homeland Security’s sometimes-controversial “If you see something, say something” post-9/11 citizen vigilance project that was criticized for fostering paranoia and distrust against minorities, as well the Fox News-led culture of high-decibel partisan brinkmanship in political discussion in mainstream media. Because the fact is that polemics are a hopelessly naïve, often destructive, answer to political obstacles and deadlocks, and are antithetical to the functioning of a democratic system – political realities are so complicated in real life that my-way-or-the-highway certainty obfuscates far more than it clarifies.

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

And it is obfuscation which is perhaps the biggest threat to democratic functioning in today’s climate, for we are squarely in the age of information overload. As Neil Postman remarked in his landmark media ecology text AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH – POLITICAL DISCOURSE IN THE AGE OF SHOW-BUSINESS, while many were happy that 1984 had come and gone without the realization of George Orwell’s dystopian Oceania, what few realized was that there was an older, lesser-known prognostication about a possible dystopia which was eerily similar to our real-life situation – Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD: 

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”

This moral obfuscation is being carried out on a widespread scale throughout all of pop-culture, infantilizing entire demographics through the manipulation of the language we speak, the media we consume, the standards we hold ourselves to and the goals we aspire towards – cynicism is cool, snark cooler, and we bow to apathy in its gilded halls of “lel k”.

And this phenomenon is hardly American in scope – witness for example the contrasting kinds of media coverage devoted to the titillating Sheena Bora murder case and to the brutal murder of Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi over a freedom of speech conflict. The former feeds into and indulges the fraught relationship between India’s aspirational classes and the uber-rich, a confusing mixture of schadenfreude and admiration, and resembles an Abbas-Mustan film. The latter forces us to examine the society we live in and deal with often complicated issues, sort of like a Hansal Mehta film. No prizes for guessing who won the TRP battle. And no matter how much we may decry the transformation of news media into entertainment, the fact remains that the market will always respond to the demand.

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

And it is here that American political satire provides a refreshing model for meaningful discourse in our current climate. Jon Stewart took over the reins of THE DAILY SHOW from Craig Kilborn in 1999, when it was still largely a lightweight parody show on Comedy Central, with segments like “This Day in Hasselhoff History” and fake Jeopardy! games, and for a while, he continued in a similar vein. But like the best right-person-at-the-right-time narratives, Stewart came into his own during the most-fraught years of the George W. Bush presidency. Part of this was hiring the former editor of the satirical news website THE ONION, Ben Karlin, as part of the writing staff, which led to the shift in focus from human interest stories to issues of greater topical political significance. But if there was one single event that led to Jon Stewart finally becoming Jon Stewart, it was the September 11 attacks in 2001. In a famous broadcast 9 days after the attacks, Stewart’s opening monologue put him firmly on the map:

“The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center. Now it’s gone. They attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.”

For many of the younger generation whose political consciousness developed during the Bush years, Stewart provided a no-holds-barred, bitingly funny critique of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in a way that most other newscasters and political pundits weren’t able to. Jon Stewart’s secret weapon – he was a comedian on Comedy Central. He was simply not judged to be a big enough threat to the political machinery by the powers that be, who were left feeling hopelessly clueless when The Daily Show very quickly became the highest-rated news program in the influential 18-49 demographic. He became the voice of a generation, the one guy out there speaking the truth, and tearing the hair out of his head on national television every day because he could not believe how crazy his country had gotten.

ORG XMIT: NYET770 FILE - In this Oct. 2, 2010 file photo, Stephen Colbert, left, and Jon Stewart appear on stage at Comedy Central's 'Night Of Too Many Stars: An Overbooked Concert For Autism Education' at the Beacon Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)

Stephen Colbert and his mentor, Jon Stewart

Of course, generational spokesperson is a hefty job title and bigger men than Stewart have shunned it – Cobain shot himself and Dylan spent decades reinventing himself and denying his own importance to his fellows. Stewart too was a victim of this phenomenon, and he tried too often to deny his own relevance or the good he was doing – his stock response to uncomfortable questions about his own responsibility towards journalistic integrity was to say he was a comedian whose show is preceded by a show about puppets making prank calls.

And yet he did not entirely shirk off his responsibility. In 2004, he went on CNN’s CROSSFIRE, then a popular news and analysis show, and ravaged them for “hurting the American public” and for their “partisan hackery”, arguing vociferously that they had let down their responsibility to educate the American public on issues of significance by indulging in the high-decibel rhetoric that would in later years find traction with Fox News and our very own Times Now. A year later, Crossfire was canceled, mostly on the strength of Stewart’s criticism. In 2004, when, even in the wake of revelations about Abu Ghraib, Fallujah and Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction which had started the entire Iraq war, Bush was re-elected, the news world got together in a frenzy of analysis and debate – Stewart threw his papers in the air, slumped over his desk in defeat and wept on live TV. In 2010, he and his longtime collaborator Stephen Colbert hosted THE RALLY TO RESTORE SANITY (AND/OR FEAR!) at the National Mall in Washington D.C., in response to the anti-government conservative rhetoric of the Tea Party, which was attended by over 200,000 people – while the themes and message of the show was oddly empty and left something to be desired, it showed Stewart was ready to acknowledge his own power and popularity and live up this reputation as a journalist, faux or not.

But the fundamental problem with messiahs is that they’re just one person, and the era of the single most trusted man on television is gone now – one person cannot appropriate the identities or struggles of a diversity of voices comprising the population, or accurately reflect on the narratives of a thousand different voices and issues. Stewart was ultimately a victim of his own format. But his legacy extends beyond just the Daily Show – it also applies to the wealth of voices he nourished as correspondents on the show, people like Aasif Mandvi, Steve Carrell, Rob Corrdry, Kristen Schaal, Larry Wilmore, Wyatt Cenac, and perhaps most importantly Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.

The_Daily_Show_cast_2007-1

Jon Stewart with his correspondents Samantha Bee, Aasif Mandvi, Jason Jones, John Oliver and Rob Riggle

For most of the latter half of the Daily Show, it was locked in tight ratings competition with one of its own alumni and spinoffs – The Colbert Report, where Stephen Colbert satirized conservative (and sometimes liberal) hypocrisy with ebullient sarcasm, adopting the tone of a self-important Conservative blowhard in the mould of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. This gimmick allowed him to tackle hypocrisy in a much more visceral way than Stewart ever could, by taking deconstruction to a whole new level. And he followed his mentor in taking the fight to the authorities, by performing a blistering routine at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, where he ripped into Bush’s policies and his hypocrisy by pretending to believe in them himself.

“Over the last five years, you people were so good—over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out, […] And then you write, […] “Oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!”

At a time of high tensions between the media and the administration, his mercilessly satirical comments were greeted with cold silence inside the room, but by then Colbert had become a cult viral hero online. And yet despite his self-deprecating brand of humor, his influence was undeniable. In 2010, he was invited to testify before a Congressional subcommittee on migrant workers and immigration, which is an enormous honor considering he’s a parody comedian on Comedy Central. His efforts to educate the American public about political campaign finance through his own Super PAC fund called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow was lauded as one of the most influential pieces of political journalism in recent times. And it is perhaps a clinching testimony to his iconic impact that when Colbert retired from his show, it was to take over the reins of The Late Show from David Letterman, perhaps the most profile job in late-night television.

John Oliver with the man he has succeeded as Most Trusted Man on Television, Jon Stewart

John Oliver with the man he has succeeded as Most Trusted Man on Television, Jon Stewart

But the most important of all the Daily Show alumni is currently John Oliver through his weekly HBO show LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER. Free of the shackles of daily programming, Oliver and his wonderfully talented team of writers have made it their sworn duty to tackle the issues no one else will – from civil forfeiture to net neutrality to the corruption inside FIFA. The fact that anyone, let alone a British outsider like Oliver, could be given a half-hour slot right after Game of Thrones to talk, without ad breaks, about complicated topics like the death penalty and nuclear weapons, was in itself a surreal choice, but it has born tremendous dividends for the channel, with almost 6 million viewers watching the show every week. Also, Oliver has been far less reticent about the power that the show provides him, and has involved a prominent activism side to his weekly rants, involving his viewers in his crusades. The situation is eerily reminiscent of the doomsday prophet Howard Beale in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece NETWORK, where an enraged TV newscaster hallucinating about being God’s chosen representative, manages to inspire millions of citizens to vent their frustration out loud by screaming from their windows, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

oliver

John Oliver

Oliver’s impact though has been far more tangible than that. According to an op-ed in TIME magazine, the “Oliver effect” has so far managed to end bail regulations unfair to low-income defendants in New York, cause the resignation of Sepp Blatter from FIFA on charges of corruption, crash the website of the Federal Communication Commission by asking viewers to submit their complaints against a possible regulation against net neutrality, raised money for female engineers, as well of awareness of civil forfeiture laws, protest against televangelism and the economic exploitation they perpetuate by starting his own church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, and diverting all donations to it to the charity Doctors without Borders, and even manage to get cited in a number of judicial judgments on issues he has managed to bring to the fore. He has also managed to interview people as diverse as whistle-blower fugitive Edward Snowden, legendary cosmologist Stephen Hawking and NSA director General Keith Alexander.

A huge part of why these comedians and satirists have managed to attain this level of significance and impact is because of the Internet. As Malcolm Gladwell noted in the wake of social media-catalyzed revolutions across the Arab world, basing off the work of sociologist Mark Granovetter in his 1973 paper “The Strength of Weak Ties”, the Internet and social media specialize in the forming of large weak-tie networks between friends of friends and casual acquaintances, that cause an effective rallying effect in times of crisis and in the mobilization of citizen activism. The popularity of these shows on the web has also made any censorship of their TV shows fruitless to attempt, since online content goes viral even more explosively than an iconic television broadcast. The access to the internet has also ensured that these shows and their notable moments have a very long shelf life, constantly gaining new viewers, fans and disciples long after their original broadcast date. In countries like India, with a patchy record of protecting the right to freedom of speech, the Internet provides one of the last bastions for political and social satire, which is now slowly starting to be utilized by comedy groups such as The Viral Fever, The East India Company or Facebook pages such as the ones parodying Subramaniam Swamy, Narendra Modi, Sonia Gandhi etc.

Yet another crucial factor is that comedy provides a language for talking about confusing and polarising issues while also keeping it entertaining and relevant to a young demographic. Consider for example how Oliver, during the course of his interview with Snowden, showed through various man-on-the-street interviews that the average American didn’t know or care about the PRISM mass surveillance program that Snowden had exposed. And so he found a new question that would prove more relevant to Americans across the board – “Can they see my dick?” While unconventional and certainly a little too crude for some tastes, it brought back national attention to the debate on mass governmental surveillance. The subversive nature of intelligent comedy has been used for years by mavericks like Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce etc. but their explosion on mainstream television has found a way to make political discourse cool again, and provided an effective and inspirational alternative to either chest-beating optimism or snarky nihilism. Infotainment has found a new lease of life after its early 2000s zeitgeist.

And that perhaps is the takeaway from the legacy of the new wave of comedian-journalists – self-serious commentators and pundits are not taken seriously anymore. A postmodern world demands a postmodern mode of journalism, and satire and spoof has filled in that slot very well. The next generation of path breaking journalists won’t be the ones who push boundaries to report from the frontlines of foreign wars. It’ll be the ones fighting the war at home, having the courage to point towards the Emperor and saying that he has no clothes. And then maybe making a very funny joke about it.

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