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It’s just a joke!

By Matthew Flinders

Satire is dangerous because some people just don’t get it. They don’t get it in the sense that they seem unable to grasp the fact that the role of a comedian or talk-show host is to get laughs by launching a barrage of cheap shots at politicians. Some politicians undoubtedly deserve it and to some extent standing for political office comes with a side-order of politically barbed jokes and insults and the link between politics and satire goes back centuries — Aristophanes, Aristotle, and even Machiavelli understood the advantages of incorporating humour into political commentary — but my concern is that not only has the nature of the audience changed but so has the nature of political comedy and satire itself.

In modern comedy and comment it is possible to identify a subtle change from using wit and sarcasm as an element of constructive social criticism towards a use of comedy as an element of toxic, destructive ‘attack politics’, which perpetuates a shallow and misleading view of politics. In his book Snark: It’s Mean, it’s Personal and it’s Destroying our Conversation (2010), David Denby illustrates the emergence of a form of humour that aims to reinforce pre-existing prejudices (through a combination of personal, low, teasing, rug-pulling, finger-pointing, snide, obvious, and knowing sneering, etc.) rather than developing substantive critiques. A vast body of scholarship on modern comedy and satire from Iceland to Israel charts the manner in which comedy now tends to focus on the physical flaws and personal failings of politicians rather than their achievements or long-term commitment to social causes. It reveals a focus on the trivial, rather than issues that are central to political affairs, and an approach with a high degree of negativism that frames almost all politicians as selfish, incapable, and corrupt.

Moreover, where issues of substance are raised, the challenges are defined not by way of the natural complexities of modern democratic governance but simply as a function of the absurdity and incompetence of political elites. From The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in the United States, through Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week in the United Kingdom, to This Hour has 22 Minutes in Canada, the world of contemporary political comedy and satire is a crude gutter-level version of anti-politics reigns supreme.

But the audience has also changed in important ways. The broader ‘democratic malaise’ in which large sections of the public have become disinterested, apathetic, and disengaged from conventional party politics has created the situation in which younger people are increasingly tuning in to late-night comedy as their main source of political information. The main audience for political comedy and satire is therefore almost primed to absorb the ‘bad faith model of politics’ that is offered (or should I say ‘spewed out’). If this was not bad enough, recent research also suggests that an increasing number of television viewers cannot easily distinguish between entertainment and fictional dramatizations on the one hand, and news or current affairs programmes on the other (meaning the former significantly effects how they think about ‘real’ politics). Moreover, opinion polls reveal that most people trust comedians and talk-show hosts far more than politicians to tell the truth and accurately represent issues.

Is kicking the life out of politics and politicians really that funny, or do comedians and writers need to spend more time thinking about their social responsibilities and less time thinking about how to get cheap laughs? Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, might with justice respond that his programme “is comedy, not even pretending to be information,” but a lot of viewers don’t seem to understand this. The aim of political comedy and satire, as I am sure Stewart understands, is to convey a point, argument, or message. It has become one that almost exclusively promotes distrust and the abuse of those in politics. In March 2006 Michael Kalin used his column in the Boston Globe to explain ‘Why Jon Stewart isn’t funny’ in the following terms:

The ascension of Stewart and The Daily Show into the public eye is no laughing matter. Stewart’s daily dose of political parody characterized by asinine alliteration leads to a ‘holier than thou’ attitude towards our national leaders. People who possess the wit, intelligence, and self-awareness of viewers of The Daily Show would never choose to enter the political fray full of buffoons and idiots.

I can already hear the massed ranks of comedians and dramatists screaming: “That academic bore needs to get a life . . . it’s just a joke!’” Yet my concern is that this shift from healthy scepticism to destructive cynicism is actually exerting a real-world effect of sustaining or fuelling political cynicism. Although proving this link in hard terms is incredibly difficult, persuasion models from the discipline of social psychology reveal how the constant repetition of clear messages, in contexts that reinforce the credibility of those messages, tend to change attitudes. Comedians are seen as credible and programmes like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Saturday Night Live provide softened echoes of hard news content but usually with an anti-political barb. Jay Leno may well promote a view of comedians and writers as thermometers rather than thermostats of public opinion about politics by arguing that “we reinforce what people already believe,” but studies suggest that comedy and satire may well have a more influential and darker edge.

To suggest that writers, comedians, or satirists have real political power is by no means new. Aristophanes’ powers of political ridicule were feared and acknowledged to the extent that Plato singled out his play The Clouds as contributing to the trial and execution of Socrates. The media (in all its forms) is a largely invisible political actor that arguably wields great power with very little responsibility. In From Art to Politics (1995) Maurice Edelman explored the link between comedy and public attitudes. He suggested that because only a very small proportion of the public has any direct involvement in politics or with politicians, fiction supplied a substitute form of knowledge that was unchallenged by personal familiarity. “Art is,” he argued, “the fountainhead from which political discourse, beliefs about politics and consequent actions ultimately spring.” For many people the jokes they hear comedians telling and what they hear on the late-night talk show is their main, if not their only, source of information about politics. What this very brief foray into the sphere of political comedy and satire suggests, however, is that comedians, satirists, and writers are themselves political actors. They frame and discuss certain events, so their role has very real social implications in terms of either fostering public understanding and engagement or creating a generation of ‘disaffected democrats’.

Comedy and satire can be used to foster political engagement by building a sense of community amongst viewers and making politics more enjoyable. This is exactly what happened in October 2010 when thousands marched through Washington, DC to attend a mass rally organized by the Comedy Central team of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert under the banner of ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’. Linked rallies were also held in over twenty American cities.The aim of the event was described as allowing the mass public to express their voice in order to promote reasoned discussion and end the ‘partisan hockey’ (whereby the more extreme voices of American politics dominated debates and engaged in shallow forms of demonization that alienated most of the public). Maybe hope does lie in humour after all, but there was a subtle irony in the manner in which, despite Stewart’s insistence to the contrary, most news coverage across America portrayed the rally as nothing more than a ‘spoof’ event that was designed to mock Al Sharpton’s ‘Reclaim the Dream’ rally that had been held a couple of months earlier.

Whatever the underlying aims of the ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ were, the simple fact is that events of this kind, alongside more constructive forms of behaviour, represent very much the exception rather than the rule. As P.J. O’Rourke’s painful Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards (2010) illustrates, politics is for most comedians and satirists little more than a punch-bag that deserves to be hit. But I can’t help wondering whether the time might have come to turn-the-tables on the comedians who have become such masters at heckling from the sidelines (and have become very rich in the process). For those who deride democratic politics – and therefore politicians – let me leave you with Theodore Rooselvelt’s famous speech about ‘The Man in the Arena’ and his warning that “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man [or woman] who is actually in the arena.”

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Parliamentary Government & Governance at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century. His book Delegated Governance and the British State was awarded the W.J.M. Mackenzie Prize in 2009 for the best book in political science. He is also the author of Democratic Drift and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of British Politics.

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