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.
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 →
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