Watercooler Talk: Is toothlesss TV political satire "endangering democracy"?
Peterson's book, at first blush, seems to be another overly-alarmist, semi-academic attack on pop-culture -- Darrell Hammond is destroying democracy? Really? -- that I usually just ignore. Well, maybe it's the Tylenol PM I took to ease the pain of being in Utica tonight, but after reading Slate's discussion of it, I started to come around to Peterson's way of thinking...
The argument, for those of you that don't want to read Slate's 2000 word analysis of Peterson's book (much less the actual book itself, which I'm guessing has to be, like, easily 4000 words or more), is this:
1. Late night television does not do actual satire; most of the shows do "pseudo-satire." Instead of attacking real issues, pseudo-satire tends to be personality based. For example, rather than satirizing the (staggering) number of missteps of the current administration, most late night talk show hosts sum George Bush up as "Stooopid!" If you're on the other side of the political fence, the same argument can be made about Clinton: it's been eight years since he left office and we're still characterizing him as a cankle-obsessed horndog.
2. These character-based attacks have a softening quality to them. The goal of good satire is to illuminate a problem with the hope to correct it. One assumes that Will Ferrell's "Dubya" and Darrell Hammond's "Slick Willy" were originally written with the idea of negatively portraying Bush's frat-boy sensibility and Clinton's easily distracted lower extremities.
But, think about how you feel about those characters. I know I love them. Same with Dana Carvey's H. W. Bush, Chevy Chase's Gerald Ford, Dan Akroyd's Nixon and Carter, and every-single-bad-stand-up-comic-ever's Ronald Reagan. The result -- people loving the character not despite the flaws but because of them -- is the exact opposite of what satire hopes to do.
3. Ultimately, this approach removes any kind of real dialog from our comedy. We're not mocking the choices of the president, we're basically just calling him dumb, then folding our arms in rhetorical triumph. Aren't we clever?!
Except we're not. We've just simplified the argument. Do that enough and the argument itself disappears.
That, Peterson says, is how Darrell Hammond is single handedly destroying democracy!
Okay, maybe "destroying democracy" is a bit much, but when you consider that the vast majority of the people in our country keep up-to-date not from the nightly news but from late night television hosts, you begin to see the logic in Peterson's reasoning.
I'd like to use you guys as a sounding board: does the generally toothless satire of SNL or Jay Leno hurt the political dialog? Or should it be appreciated solely as an entertainment? Or does it not matter at all; that the people stupid enough to let their opinions be formed by what David Letterman says about Barack Obama probably would be too stupid to understand any kind of real satire of the man? Let me know what you think in the comments!
(By the way, it should be noted that the two shows generally given a thumbs up in the article were The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I'd like to hear your opinion of that, too: is that pair of shows working on a deeper level?)