Stephen Colbert, in the inaugural episode of the Colbert Report (October 17, 2005), coined the word truthiness to capture the underlying absurdity of the human preference to assert a truth that arises from a devout belief in one’s gut rather than one supported by facts (see:Colbert Introduces Truthiness). Truthiness reflects the desire of a formidable section of the population (or is it the entire population?) to assert that what they believe to be true is true, not necessarily because the facts support it but because they want to believe it so strongly. Colbert, in character, asserted that the nation was at war between “those who think with their heads and those who know with their hearts.” As Colbert put it in an interview with the A.V. Club by The Onion (January 26, 2006), “facts matter not at all. Perception is everything” (see: Colbert Interview).
To say that the word took off is a lame understatement. A Google search of “truthiness” yields 969,000 hits. Wikipedia–where I get all of my facts with full enjoyment of the ironic potential of that statement–has an article on the word that offers 57 footnotes pointing to a wide range of popular culture and media sources. If you are so inclined, you could follow #truthiness on Twitter and receive a constant string of observations from some of the brightest minds of the time, but I can’t recommend that in good conscience.
In no uncertain terms, truthiness is in the American grain, politically and socially. Colbert claims that the word–and its satirical context–is the thesis for the Colbert Report itself. Whether all of his viewers really get that could be debated, at least if one considers viewers early in the run of the show. See the 2009 article examining the complicated range of audience responses to the Colbert Report by Heather LeMarre here: The Irony of Satire. I have commented on that conundrum in an earlier post questioning the power of satire — Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically). That essay was followed by a first-rate essay by Sharon McCoy reaffirming at least some of my optimism — (Embracing the Ambiguity and Irony of Satire). By 2013, however, Colbert has appeared out-of-character enough and has built such a clear following, it would be much more difficult to find an audience who would be as confused regarding his true political thinking as some viewers were in 2005. He is too big, and he has appeared more often out-of-character via interviews in a variety of outlets. He is liberal, OK?
I would argue that no humorist has ever called into service a word with more usefulness to cultural and media critics, and to lovers of irony. But the concept behind truthiness is not Colbert’s. It’s the cornerstone of American humor, and our greatest writers and characters have built a tradition of humor forever exploiting the grand American attraction to self-delusion, to the power of desire over the power of facts. It is what makes us so funny.
Washington Irving gave us our first enduring humorous character through the sleepy ne’er-do-well Rip Van Winkle, a man who abandons his family for twenty years and returns after his wife’s death to become a grand old man of the town, living the life he always wanted–talking and drinking with friends. Irving brings Rip to readers through his narrator, “Geoffrey Crayon” who takes the story from “Deidrich Knickerbocker,” who takes the story verbatim from Rip himself. That’s a lot of room for creative use of truthiness. Rip is no match for the idealized romantic heroic male of the revolutionary era, the Daniel Boone’s who built it, so to speak. He presents a different kind of American. He does not fight for love of country or for political freedom; he sits out the war. He does not build a homestead thus failing to accept his role in the making of the national Jeffersonian dream. Nope. Within the story are all the facts to show that Rip is a sorry excuse for a man and a lousy American, a troubling subversive. But we love him because he seems like such a nice guy, and his wife is such a pain–as Rip tells it. Of course, his narrative is self-serving–and successful. Although some townspeople clearly know he is a liar, most accept his story of sleeping for twenty years–because it feels right, or at least it allows them to go about their business. They are willing to believe in the mysteries of the hidden corners of the Catskills, but more importantly, they are eager to believe in a man they like. It just feels right. And easier.
Readers, moreover, do the same. They like him; they hate Dame Van Winkle. They forgive Rip his indiscretions and welcome him back into the fold. They believe him because he seems so earnest. Rip abides, bless his heart. They believe, for the similar reasons, in the exploits of Daniel Boone. But I digress. All of Rip’s late-life success in becoming a center of attention is made possible by his willingness to lie and the inherent desire of most of the townspeople to believe his story simply because they want to. Facts and deductive reasoning be damned. That is funny.
Washington Irving, in giving us Rip, deserves recognition as the first worthy exploiter of truthiness in American humor. The great master of the 19th century was, of course, Mark Twain–who I will come back to in another post. There are many others, from the eternal optimism of Charlie Chaplin, to the befuddled female misfits of Dorothy Parker, to the secret dreams of Walter Mitty envisioned by James Thurber, to the disturbed struggles of Lenny Bruce, to the white Russians of the Dude from the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. It is a long list that has as its current master-artist Stephen Colbert. It is a timeline of writers, characters, comedians, and satirists covering just under two hundred years (using the 1819 publication of “Rip Van Winkle” as my starting point).
For some reason, there is still a need for satirical minds to tell subversive stories and to exploit the absurdities of American culture because there also remains a powerful urge for many Americans to shun facts and go with their gut to serve their own desires and belief systems. They find regular affirmation in popular culture and politics. One could be somewhat disappointed that after all this time there is still so much work to be done to defeat the powers of truthiness in our political systems and social structures. Not me. I believe things will get better. I can feel it in my gut.
Because Rip abides.
Last year, Jeff Melton wrote a thoughtful meditation on teaching satire for Humor in America. I had started drafting a response, but because of life’s ironies, I ended up in the oncology ward instead.
Context is everything.
Since my own sense of humor tends to be firmly grounded in what might be called the painfully funny, I do not share Jeff’s concerns about whether the serious and the humorous are diametrically opposed, or whether the study of humor needs some sense of legitimacy for my colleagues or students. For me, the serious is funny, and being funny is serious business. Without laughter, I am not sure how any of us would get through the day.
Satire is a particular form of humor that uses exaggeration, ridicule, derision, and exposure of contradictions to criticize or censure human folly or vice. As such, its foundations are always serious. But those foundations are often ambiguous, ambivalent, and complex, rather than possessing the single focus that satire is often assumed to have. The power of satire lies not in its unambiguous moral target, but in its propensity to force us to make a choice about what that target (or those targets) might be. To both force critical thinking and allow us to laugh it off — if we so choose.
It is for this reason that, unlike many other colleagues, I was not disturbed by the findings of LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam (2009), in their study, “The Irony of Satire.” In this study, the researchers showed a clip from The Colbert Report to groups of students who were self-identified political conservatives or liberals. The study found that while both groups found Colbert riotously funny, they disagreed about the nature of that humor and his genuine targets. Conservatives tended to see that Colbert “only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.” In other words, the participants interpreted the humor through the lens of their own ideological beliefs.
What a surprise.
No, seriously. I mean it. What do any of us do? We interpret events through a lens composed of our experience and our belief systems, critically assessing how the new event fits in with our experience, and dismissing aspects that our own experience denies. Satire, like all critical thinking, offers the possibility for change, but it does not guarantee that others will see it our way, whatever that way might be.
But this does not mean satire is impotent, or that any of us have to stop with looking through our own limited ideological lenses. For me, the power of the “Irony of Satire” study was that it showed opposing interpretations without trying to reconcile them, or to privilege one over the other. Yet numerous (unintentionally funny) popular news stories about the study tried to assert defensively that while the researchers pretended to draw no conclusions, clearly they knew what everyone knows, that Stephen Colbert really means . . . whatever the writer’s particular political ideology wants him to mean. The plethora of passionate and diametrically opposing responses both during the study and its aftermath should make us think.
To me, this stimulation of critical thought is the study’s real power as a teaching tool or a theoretical tool — for a close reading of the study shows that the researchers do carefully report their findings without judging their participants. And equally clearly, the different popular news stories fall all over themselves trying to assert that their personal view is the “correct” one and that not only does Colbert agree with them but the researchers really do, too. But they cannot all be right any more than the study’s participants can.
Or can they? The study asks us to think it through. And so does satire itself.
Good satire does not limit its targets to the service of a particular political ideology or reduce an issue with complex contributing factors to the responsibility of a single villain. Neither does a good satirist. As irresistible targets, neither conservatism nor liberalism has a monopoly. Satire — to be effective satire — must skewer pretension, folly, vice, and contradiction wherever it lies, regardless of political affiliation or personal preference.
And so, when Jon Stewart of The Daily Show showed reluctance in June 2011 to publicly attack a longtime friend, Anthony Weiner, after the exposure of his sexting scandal, Stewart had an obligation to turn his satiric lens on himself. In a hilarious “press conference,” Stewart takes full responsibility for his reluctance and his lack of action, even momentarily and parodically stepping down from his job and letting John Oliver take his place. The satire is pointed, against himself as well as his friend, and it is personally painful — literally so, as Stewart accidentally cuts himself during the course of the skit, bad enough to require stitches. And then there were the multiple follow-up episodes to make up for the lapse, like “The Dong Goodbye” about “the wedge between the Democratic party and their constituents” or the “Wangover” episode. Regardless of politics, regardless of friendship even, the satirist had to proceed.
But does satire alone have the power to change deeply held convictions or topple governments?
Of course not. Or war would have become obsolete long ago. And we all can see that there is little danger of this happening.
So why do we want to believe so passionately that “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand”? The quotation is attributed to Mark Twain, and he certainly wrote it, but the context is far from unambiguous. It appears in “The Chronicles of Young Satan” and is put in the mouth of the nephew of the big guy himself, sort of a Beelzebub, Jr. Appearing as the quotation does in the midst of a scathing and complex satire, it cries out to be read — well — satirically. Continue reading →
We here at Humor in America are seeking to add one or two contributing editors to replace several departing editors. The task of an editor is fairly straightforward: contribute content once per month on an area of humor studies. Our departing editors work in the fields of visual humor and stand-up, but we are open to adding solid work in almost any area of humor studies.
You will be scheduled to post a piece once per month, although I am extremely flexible about scheduling. The goal is to make your work for the site useful for your own academic interests and valuable to our readers. If you are interested, please contact Tracy Wuster at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have expressed interest before, please do so again to remind us of who you are and let us know you still might be interest.
For more information, see our “Write for Us!” page, and feel free to ask questions.
In other news, we have an open slot for a day shortly before the election, and I was hoping to post a sampling of the best political humor of the political season. What I need from you is an email with nominations–what humor (cartoons, TV satire, internet meme, video, commentary, joke, tweet, etc.) was your favorite or was most interesting in how humor and politics interact. Please email me at: email@example.com
In the meantime, here is one nomination, from Joss Whedon, on Romney and Zombies:
Most of the time, politics is a serious business. People tend to take the government fairly seriously–our laws, our government, our rights. True, traditionally Congress has been an object of fun, and politicians–from Abraham Lincoln to Sarah Palin–have been the butt of jokes. But the importance of political humor–from parody to cartoons to satire–might best be seen as a reflection of how seriously people take politics.
In this highly political year, I have been very interested in questions of how political humor functions in American society. Recently, I discussed the satire of the RNC and DNC conventions on the Daily Show. Similarly, Self Deprecate’s contributions to our site and his site have tackled the current state of political humor.
One political issue that I have been increasingly concerned with this year is distinctly not funny: voter suppression. While proponents of voter ID and other voting laws argue that voter fraud is a real issue (apart from their clownish attempts to prove voter fraud by committing voter fraud), critics of these laws have argued that they are better explained as politically motivated efforts to suppress the votes of people of color, the poor, and the elderly. As John Dean argued in a blog post entitled, “The Republican’s Shameless War on Voting“:
There is absolutely no question that Republicans are trying to suppress non-whites from voting, throughout the Southern states, in an effort that has been accelerating since 2010. It is not difficult to catalogue this abusive Republican mission, which unfortunately has spread, in a few instances, to states above the Mason-Dixon Line as well.
Other stories back up this argument:
Recent developments in voter laws in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states also testify to the seriousness of this issue. Those with any historical sense hear echoes of past efforts to restrict suffrage for political gain and based on cultural prejudice. Serious stuff.
Where does the humor come in?
Let’s start with Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” strip from July 23 of this year:
And from the next day:
But that wasn’t all…
It is a threadbare premise, for a medium still in its pull-ups. When we think of greatness, whose face goes on the largest of sculptures—formed by God but finished by men—vandalizing the Dakotan landscape?
For the field of American humor I’ve had one year to think it over. Last September my friend Steve (whose real name is Mark, but in these kinds of online articles an alias is typical) said to me:
“Twain is sort of the great white whale of American literature. Dickens assumes the same type of stature for 19th century England. And Tolstoy (sorry Mr. Dostoyevsky and my beloved Mr. Chekhov) occupies the place for Russian literature. Who for France? Hugo? What a Mount Rushmore for 19th century literature.”
I agreed with Steve, but turned the direction of our conversation to something even more trivial: American humor. Putting very little thought into it I said:
Of course, the problem is limit. I immediately regretted the absence of George Carlin, but I didn’t know if he trumped Pryor. I couldn’t remove Groucho to include both influential standups when Marx represented the long stretch of Vaudeville and Jewish humor that shaped early Hollywood. And Franklin? You don’t see a lot of comedians today reference Ben Franklin as a significant influence on their craft, but then again what politicians model themselves after Washington? At the time it didn’t matter. Steve agreed with my list.
“I think you’ve nailed the Mount Rushmore for humor…Franklin is the headwaters. Essential. But you’ve got a nice spread of eras there, too. If we were confining this to movies and television, we could throw out Franklin and Twain and make room for Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball (hate to leave Fields out). But they don’t make the cut if we’re looking to represent all of American humor. Groucho is one of the few humor masters, by the way, who mastered almost every medium available to him: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, books. And he could get laughs in a stunning variety of ways: monologues, acting, singing, dancing, ad-libbing, sophisticated word play, low slapstick. Pretty remarkable career.”
It’s president-electing season again, and the Republican and Democratic Conventions provided a bounty of material for comedians and satirists to play with. As we have discussed before on this site, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rank as two of the most important humorists of our time. Clearly in the political arena, their humor has the most resonance.
Take, for example, this piece—a satire of the campaign videos played throughout the conventions.
What is the point of this piece? Sure, it is entertaining, but what impact might it have on the audience watching. As Ruben Quintero writes in his edited volume, Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture #46: A Companion to Satire: Ancient and Modern , the key to satire is its intended effect on its audience. He writes:
The satirist, either explicitly or implicitly, tries to sway us toward an ideal alternative, toward a condition of what the satirist believes should be. It is assumed that the satirist has our best interests at heart and seeks improvement or reformation.
Improvement or reformation—those are some big and nebulous aims. Let’s put it into a modern parlance: the satirist seeks change, but what kind of change? As with Barack Obama’s political slogan, change is a concept that means different things in different contexts, and maybe we are expecting too much from a satirist to completely change minds, just as we were probably asking too much of a president to change a dysfunction and a partisanship built into the construction of our Constitution.
As Jeffrey Melton so compellingly discussed on his article on this site—Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically)—even Jon Stewart has doubts about the efficacy of his satire to effect change. As Melton wrote:
In the highly publicized article, “The Irony of Satire” (International Journal of Press/Politics 2009), Heather L. LaMarre, Kristen D. Landreville, and Michael A. Beam, indicate that the human brain may be even less likely to respond to satirical inferences than we have dared to imagine. LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam focus attention on The Colbert Report and demonstrate that viewers of the show tend to interpret Stephen Colbert’s satire directly in terms of their own political views. In other words, the message is fungible and by no means clear. In short, people see what they want to see; believe what they want to believe; and, moreover—here’s the kicker—conclude that Stephen Colbert agrees with them.
In her recent book, A Conservative Walks Into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor, Alison Dagnes writes that political satire might have important impacts, arguing that “Modern political humor has become a powerhouse of cultural influence and Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and their brethren wield an immense amount of sway among voters, especially young ones.” But I’m not young. And while I enjoy the satire, I am skeptical about its impact on my own political views.
In his review of the book in the Washington Monthly, Joshua Green quotes several satirists questioning the thesis of the book, and the very act of academic study of humor:
When Dagnes cites the studies about how satire affects political behavior, the comedian Lewis Black replies, “Well, first, tell those academics to fuck themselves.… Really, tell them it is bullshit … satire doesn’t have that effect. If satire was really that important as a way to get things done, then, you know, more shit would be getting [done].” The common thread running through all these interviews is that professional satirists are almost exclusively concerned with being funny, and while many hold liberal views, they don’t expend much effort trying to impose them on others or imagine that they’d succeed if they did.
I think this focus on the entertainment value of satire might both trivialize the effects of satire by pointing in the wrong direction for its impact. We might be making a mistake by trying to quantify change and by delinking entertainment from impact. What improvements is satire aiming at? What is the scope of reform?
Improvement or reform—the aims of satire. Two pieces of satire from this week’s Daily Show have pushed me to reconsider the aims of satire as a political force. While the aim of satire is often framed as changing minds, might one purpose of satire be to force viewers to reconsider our own views, to define and defend them in more depth, rather than to change them from one thing to another?
Let me illustrate. First, take a look at this clip on the contrast between the Republican platform and the idea of freedom.
From a liberal point of view, this piece satirizes what liberals would see as the contradictory views of Republicans on the issue of “freedom.” Keep government out of our lives, they say, except for out of women’s healthcare. And there seem to be very clear paradoxes involved there that conservative thinkers would need to explain. But I don’t think that piece would change the minds of those conservatives who believe in both limited government and regulating conception.
It might be nice to think that pointing out such hypocrisy would lead to an “A-HA!” moment. But I don’t think beliefs work that way. Let me give another example, again from The Daily Show.
From a conservative point of view, this piece accomplishes a very similar task as the previous video—it points out key internal contradictions in the internal logic of a belief system. Whereas the video about the Republican convention made me laugh at hypocrisy, the Democratic convention video made me cringe with recognition. I had been hit with satire… as someone who holds that belief system, this video doesn’t change my mind, but it does make me much more uncomfortable than the previous video.
A liberal response to the satire would seem to require thinking through this “paradox of tolerance” in order to better defend one’s beliefs from critics who point out this key contradiction: how do advocates of tolerance defend being intolerant of those they see as being intolerant? A serious question to be discussed, as is: how do those who advocate freedom from government regulation of individual liberties justify governmental restriction of personal health decisions?
Maybe the satirical assaults on these seeming hypocrisies will help young people avoid these and similar paradoxes. Maybe these satires would have more of an effect on young people—on our students—whose political views might be more malleable, or at least less entrenched. That is something to study. But satire’s effects on those of us whose political views are more settled might be worth consideration as well, not in terms of changing our views but in making us better at explaining and defending our views in ways that won’t cause people to make fun of us.
© Tracy Wuster, 2012
Would you like to write a piece on satire for this site? Please contact Tracy at firstname.lastname@example.org
According to the opinion piece–Truthinessology: The Stephen Colbert effect becomes an obsession in academia–in a recent Washington Post, academics love them some Stephen Colbert. So much so, that we write about him. Now, in the opinion of this author, writing in the voice of Colbert’s character, this is silly. He writes:
…ever since Colbert’s show, “The Colbert Report,” began airing on Comedy Central in 2005, these ivory-tower eggheads have been devoting themselves to studying all things Colbertian. They’ve sliced and diced his comic stylings more ways than a Ginsu knife. Every academic discipline — well, among the liberal arts, at least — seems to want a piece of him.
And while the piece starts as a satire of the study of satire, it segues into a discussion of the reasons Colbert is a good person to study in our current political moment. In a way, I wish the article had continued its conceit of being written in Colbert’s voice–exploring the liberal arts and questioning the serious study of the funny. In other words, I would like to hear what Stephen Colbert thinks of the study of Stephen Colbert. [If you want to do an interview, Mr. Colbert, contact me.]
But the piece also got me thinking about which current comedians/humorists academics are interested in beyond their entertainment value for what they might say about our society and the role of humor in it. Based on the relatively small sample of our posts on this page, the most significant–academically speaking–living humorists are listed in the poll below. Please vote. Your vote won’t mean anything. Superpac money will allow you to vote multiple times.
If you chose “other” and wrote in a name, please consider writing a post for us on that person.
Any time I get the chance to teach American satire, I begin by asserting its power. I use Mark Twain (who else?) to frame the course, taking a line from the Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” I imagine many teachers do the same thing. It is a wonderfully useful statement that grants an aura of legitimacy for the course. It is also a rather conspicuous effort, as I fight off a perpetual fear that my students (and my peers) hold fast to an underlying belief that “serious” and “humorous” are opposing forces. I confess also that I add Twain’s line to soften my lurking guilt for being able to do something so thoroughly interesting and fun for a living. Still, I believe Twain’s assertion.
But I am having doubts.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone (29 Sep. 2011), Jon Stewart shares his own misgivings about his role as a court jester and, more specifically, as a satirist. In commenting on the work of The Daily Show, he acknowledges the intent of the writers to engage in social criticism with comedy as their tool. Stewart observes, however, that satire as a weapon for demanding cultural change has significant limitations. In reference to the unique position shared by satirists on the whole as they mock social mores, he claims, “It’s the privilege of satire, and it’s also the albatross around its neck. It can be sharp and it can be pointed and shaming, but at heart it’s impotent and sort of feckless” (47). In his role as writer and host of The Daily Show, Stewart is arguably the most powerful satirical voice in the United States, but he is nonetheless cynical about the prospects of applying whatever power that entails, if any. He continues, “everyone overestimates the power of satire. There’s a great thing Peter Cook once said. Somebody said to him that the most powerful satirists in history were the cabaret artists in Berlin during the 1930s. And Peter Cook said, ‘Yeah, they really showed Hitler, didn’t they?’ In a lot of ways that’s how I feel about it” (47).