Since Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for President of the United States in early May , pundits and commentators have attempted to understand how this once unthinkable scenario came about. In fact, since his strong showing in the Iowa caucus this winter, people have tried finding the culprit for the rise of the reality television personality.
The old saying claims success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. In the case of Trump, however, it seems the failure of the political system has many fathers. During the past months President Obama has been blamed for the rise of Trump, so has the Republican Party, so has income inequality, and racism, and political science. The most usual suspect, however, remains the media. The case has been made that the media, and television especially, gave Trump unlimited airtime to peddle his particular brand of racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and conservatism. Leslie Moonves, executive chairman of CBS, articulated the relationship between media and Trump when he admitted that “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”.
The lavish media attention given Trump includes late-night comedy, the former Apprentice host has appeared on all three network’s late-night shows, and even hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live on NBC. Showbiz politics is nothing new in American politics; celebrity has been a part of presidential elections for decades as historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell has shown. I have previously written on this blog about late-night campaigning and how integral comedy has become to presidential communication. What makes the appearance of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live for example so controversial, however, is that his statements are far outside the political mainstream. Balancing the quest for ratings with the risk of normalizing the rhetoric of Trump, while keeping the comedic integrity, has made for very different late-night appearances.
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’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 email@example.com
Fresh off his win at the 2012 Comedy Awards for Best Club Comic, Hannibal Buress is a name not immediately recognizable to those who don’t follow comedy for a living. Yet he is far from a fresh new face. In addition to becoming one of the biggest stand-up draws in the country, he has also worked as a staff writer for both Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Not a bad resume for someone who is only 29.
One of the major challenges for stand-up comedians is to strike an appropriate balance between the timely and timeless. Material should be fresh and create highlight a new perspective, yet must still relate to the audience. There can be a risk in losing the audience if a comic tries to offer premises that only appeal to a few people. At the same time, it can be difficult to talk about the same topics that have occupied the world of stand-up for decades.
Buress’s strength as a comic relies on his ability to negotiate both. He provides a great example of how so much of comedy is in the delivery. This is not to say that his writing skills take a back seat. His recent one hour special Animal Furnace, premiering tonight on Comedy Central, and his debut album My Name is Hannibal demonstrates Buress’s skill in offering uniquely fresh takes on such familiar stand up topics as the airport, bars, and girlfriends. I’d invite readers to check out as much of his material as possible.
From Comedy Central:
Paul F. Tompkins is from Philadelphia, PA, where he started performing stand-up comedy in 1986. In 1994, he moved to Hollywood, CA, where he met comic actor Jay Johnston, with whom he crafted the live sketch show “The Skates.” This led Paul to a stint as a writer and performer on HBO’s “Mr. Show with Bob and David” where he was nominated for an Emmy award for writing. Paul also wrote and starred in his own one-man show, “Driven to Drink,” for HBO.
In 1999, Paul landed a small role in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically acclaimed film “Magnolia.” That same year, Paul F. Tompkins and Jay Johnston reunited to create and perform the science fiction anthology parody “Playground of the Id” at the HBO Workspace. His other acting credits include “Frasier,” “The Sketch Show” on Fox, DreamWorks’ “Anchorman” and New Line’s “Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny” movie….
His new special, “Laboring Under Delusions,” premiered on Comedy Central just recently. If you would like to write a review of the special, or of any comedy special, album, or performance, please let us know. And if you are Paul F. Tompkins, email me, we can do an interview: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Crazy Dog Memo”
See below for more clips…