Since the days the Toast of the Town and the Texaco Star Theater late-night talk shows have, under the guidance of television legends like Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin, evolved into a humor institution in the United States. Late-night talk shows enjoy a very public and influential position in American life, which is why controversies within the subject have such a significant news value. When Carson, the King of Late Night, quit the choice of replacement caused a rift between Jay Leno and David Letterman that was covered by the press and actually resulted in a HBO film adaptation. Some two decades later, when Leno asked for his show back months after retiring and handing the show over to Conan O’Brien, the fight was again fought out in public. Given their roles as the nation’s public humor institutions, late-night talk shows are also attractive for presidential candidates hoping to form their image in a light setting.
Back in 2012 President Barack Obama joined Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show for an interview and a segment called Slow Jam the News, where he recited news while Fallon provided comedic commentary and his house band The Roots provided a smooth musical soundtrack. The appearance was hailed by the audience but criticized by conservative commentators. Gretchen Carlson on Fox News lamented how the appearance “lowers the status of the office” and called it “nutso”.
Similarly, when Obama recently visited Jimmy Kimmel Live! he participated in one of the show’s most popular comedy segments: Mean Tweets. The bit is very simple, a celebrity reads actual negative messages directed at them on Twitter while Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. plays in the background. While the appearance was incredibly popular, drawing millions of views on YouTube, some found it unworthy of the presidency.
When will we get a President who is more like a behind the scenes CEO and not a megalomaniacal elected dictator obsessed with fame and public image?”
Yet late-night television appearances have long been a part of the political sphere. Going back to 1960, both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon visited Jack Paar on the Tonight Show. Ronald Reagan appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the run-up to his campaign to unseat Gerald Ford as the Republican nominee in 1976. When Bill Clinton came on The Arsenio Hall Show and showed off his saxophone talent, political commentators accused him of demeaning the presidency, yet the appearance came to shape his image as a relatable leader. The same quality helped George W. Bush 8 years later, as he showed off his folksy side in late-night chats.
Like it or not late-night television is an appreciated domain for politicians seeking or holding the highest office. This has been especially clear this autumn as the race for the 2016 election is moving into high gear. Since the end of August a presidential contender has appeared on one of the main late-night talk shows a total of 14 times (as of October 28, 2015). The number can be viewed as both high (roughly every third night of late-night, there is a candidate campaigning) and low (when combining the Democratic and Republican fields the candidates, including the ones who have now dropped out, exceed twenty). There is clear patterns visible in these appearances; the bulk of them are on Stephen Colbert’s new Late Show (5) or Comedy Central’s two late-night shows (3). Neither James Corden nor Conan O’Brien have hosted any candidates this fall and Kimmel has only had Bernie Sanders on. It is clear that Colbert is staying with what he knows and is making his domain one far more political than his late-night competition (besides the presidential candidates he has hosted the First Lady, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senators John McCain and Elizabeth Warren, and even Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer). Despite the far broader Republican field they have only one more appearance on late-night thus far this autumn, with five candidates appearing twice; Secretary Hillary Clinton, Governor Martin O’Malley, Senator Bernie Sanders, Governor Chris Christie, and of course Donald Trump.
With the exception of the late-night veteran Trump, the only candidate from the conservative wing who has entered the lion’s den is Senator Ted Cruz. For late-night remains a space that can be uncomfortable for conservatives, and indeed Cruz was booed by the studio audience for his conservative views. Stephen Colbert pleaded with the audience to show Cruz respect as an invited guest and has taken decisive steps for partisan balance among his guests. But it is clear that the arena is far more risky for conservative candidates than moderate or liberal ones.
For more commentary on the 2016 elections, check out the interdisciplinary election podcast Campaign Context at www.campaigncontext.wordpress.com.
John Oliver got rid of Sepp Blatter. That would be a bold statement if I cared at all about Sepp Blatter or FIFA. I do not. I do care, however, about John Oliver, my favorite funny person from Great Britain (currently; it is a long list). More importantly, for this venue, is the contribution that John Oliver with his work on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) is making to American humor. As one who has been distraught over the loss of The Colbert Report and the impending departure of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, I have been worried that we were facing the end of a golden age in American television political and social satire. I think it will last a bit longer, and I am sure that John Oliver is key to its future.
The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore is solid, and Trevor Noah may prove to reinvigorate the Daily Show, so my worries may be overblown. It is Last Week Tonight, however, that holds the most promise. Quite simply, it transforms the basic formula codified by The Daily Show under Jon Stewart (and applied to a specific parodic context by Colbert) and makes it decidedly more argumentative. Last Week Tonight is thesis-driven humor, which marks a dramatic shift in ambition, or, perhaps, confidence. In either case, Oliver will not admit it.
Oliver is nonetheless catching fire. On a recent appearance on CBS This Morning , Charlie Rose asked one question that seemed clear and concise (if you can believe it): “What is the intent of this ‘dumb’ show?” (Oliver had already called it “dumb” based on the introductory clips).
“Just to make people laugh.” OK, John, you get a pass since this is the standard answer for any such discussion of humor. Why a duck? Because ducks are funny, that’s why. But you are lying.
Oliver’s self-deprecation notwithstanding, the fact is that no one in American television has ever put together satirically charged arguments in segments ranging from 12 to 20 minutes (easily 2 to 4 times as long as standard Daily Show bits) that are focused on one issue with such depth and humor. Never. There are easier ways to make people laugh.
In the interview, Oliver would not assert a more elaborate purpose and underplayed any major role for satire itself. As to whether satire served a deeper purpose in his work, he simply said, “I have no idea. Ideally, satire would do no better than anyone.” He went on to explain the show’s long form, weekly approach: “It’s some slow cooking, what we do.”
Yes, slow cooking. It took a year to get Sepp Blatter. That is the pace of satire. C’mon, John, admit it.
To begin a closer look at the Last Week Tonight formula, let’s stick with Blatter and the two episodes that most directly skewer FIFA, the first of which aired on 8 June 2014 and the second on 1 June 2015. A brief look at these two episodes should provide a good indication of the power of Oliver’s thesis-driven comedy and the potential of long-form television satire. Both episodes feature FIFA as the main topic, and each segment runs just over 13 minutes. Here are links to each:
The key to Oliver’s approach could be understood best, perhaps, by considering it as a model for clear, argumentative writing. In fact, I urge all freshman composition instructors in the nation to drop all textbooks and simply use Last Week Tonight to teach the modes of argumentative writing. Let’s consider the most basic element of building effective arguments: Write clear and concise topic sentences. Note the few examples below:
–“FIFA is a comically grotesque organization.” (8 June 2014).
–“There is a certain irony in FIFA setting up any kind of justice system given the scandals that have dogged it over the years.” (8 June 2014).
–“The problem is: all the arrests in the world are going to change nothing as long as Blatter is still there.” (1 June 2015)
–“When your rainy day fund is so big that you’ve got to check it for swimming cartoon ducks, you might not be a non-profit anymore.” (8 June 2014)
–“Peanut butter and jelly are supposed to go together; FIFA and bribery should go together like peanut butter and a child with a deadly nut allergy.” (8 June 2014)
–“That is perfect because hotel sheets are very much like FIFA officials; they really should be clean, but they are actually unspeakably filthy, and deep down everybody knows that.” (1 June 2015)
Note the clarity of the argumentative position in each statement above. They assert positions, all followed by multiple levels of support within the show (follow the links). That, dear readers, is how you build good essays! It is also how to build fresh, ambitious humor.
This just in: Brian Williams created the Internet. No, wait. That was Al Gore. It is all so confusing. One thing I am sure of, however, is that Brian Williams’s job as the anchor for NBC News is over. I hate for that to have happened, but I also must confess that I NEVER watched him on NBC News. Never. I do not watch any other nightly news program either. What for? I have the Internet, which Brian Williams created.
Brian Williams has been caught for being loose with the facts regarding his direct involvement with any number of stories. “Being loose with the facts” means that he has lied. He lied, though our culture prefers not to say such things when it comes to media figures and politicians. They misremember or somehow lose the details in the fog of war, fog of work, fog of aging, fog of hyper-saturated media consumption. Or, really, fog of ego.
Here is a fact: once a news correspondent, especially the anchor for a network news program, has opened him or herself up to ridicule for lying, it is over. Far more people than cared one way or another beforehand are ready to shout to the top of their lungs that television news must be preserved as a beacon of truth and dignity! The News must be preserved! Off with his head! We cannot tolerate such a challenge to the integrity of the television news media! One needs only to scan the memes created to mock his integrity to see how much damage has been done. Note this screenshot for a simple Google image search for “Brian Williams memes”:
Here is where I should elaborate and write about how the integrity of television news media has never been pristine, but I will avoid that for two reasons: I don’t want to spend the time, and neither do you. So, let’s just settle that point by nodding to the best satire of the so-called integrity of network news and consider it “enough said” on this question: Network, the wonderful film released in 1976, which, I think, was directed by Brian Williams, who was, ironically, shot in the leg during production. That’s how I remember it, anyway. Who can be sure?
Here is the real problem regarding Brian Williams: he likes talking about himself. That is his fatal flaw. But he is also a major figure in television news who now provides a valuable symbol for how journalists–post Gonzo, post Watergate, post Cable, post Internet, and, alas, post Cronkite–can only “report” the news if they see themselves as a crucial “part “of the news. “Here I am doing something active and immersive, as I tell you what’s happening…” Journalists are tourists forever showing us not the story behind the story but the story behind them, seemingly all forced by competition and bottom-line economics to perform and be seen rather than to provide NEWS. The narrative I instead of the reporting eye. Ah, but that ship sailed long ago. Again, Network tells us all we need to know about that.
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