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Watercooler Talk: Is toothlesss TV political satire "endangering democracy"?

by Jay Black, posted Apr 10th 2008 2:04PM
I would like to marry Amy Poehler and my wife would like to marry Seth Meyers. Does that mean we're compatible?Slate magazine is running an article regarding how weak most of what passes as political satire on television is. They quote heavily from Russell L. Peterson's new book Strange Bedfellows: How Late Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke and also take some time to body-slam CNN's new comedy show, Not Just Another Cable News Show (Wait. What? CNN has a new comedy show on it? I thought that was the thing Wolf Blitzer hosted every day. Are you telling me that's not a comedy?)

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?)

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Meh. Take this discussion to the Newseum...

April 15 2008 at 12:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't criticize just Lil Bush, its his whole damn admin I go after. There is ineptitude, incompetence, and fraud running rampant from top to bottom. But I have to give Dubya all the credit for that because they are all his hires and policies. I just wish Bubba wouldn't have let that special prosecutor law lapse that would have let every president the honor of having their very own Kenneth Starr living up their asses their entire terms like with Bubba. Imagine all the fraud, corruption, and deceit we would have found on Dubya's watch! Now we have to wait 20 years to find out when all of his papers will be released (unless they are destroying them all).

April 11 2008 at 9:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's a bit of a pity that no one mentions the ill-fated "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" in this discussion. Sorkin jumped on many sides of this political debate during the single season of the show.

In particular, he touched on the difficulty of doing comedy in the face of a government ready to slander anyone as "unpatriotic," as well as in the face of terrorist attack (whether that meant turning the comedy room into a den of bigotry or into something ineffectual for fearing of offending anyone). Much of it felt like a slap in the face to SNL, but also to a larger climate of writers being afraid (or their producers/networks being afraid) to do anything controversial.

April 11 2008 at 8:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The Daily Show and Colbert satirize the news media. Late night comedy is just that and to ask for or to take away anything other than attempts at humor from those sources reflects on the viewer. That being said I will be checking out this guys book. boy, writing my opinion on this really made me feel like an ass for some reason.

April 11 2008 at 2:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm not crazy about the idea of criticizing our entertainment for trying to be entertaining first and anything else second, but there is definitely some validity to this. I remember some years ago when the late night comedies made Bob Dole seem so lovable that I had to keep reminding Mrs. Pumpkinhead that he is most certainly, definitely, and inarguably, NOT.

April 10 2008 at 11:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Agree with the view that snl and most others don't really damage politicians. I think that most what passes as satire on SNL now is witless and juvenile. The snl debates of the 84 and 88 elections are legendary because they mocked the people involved and made a point. The stuff today has no point...it's just simple jabbing.

April 10 2008 at 10:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mj green

I've said it for years; if you want to know the truth, listen to comedians. While you are laughing, you are thinking. Watch the news, and you get frustrated, because who really believes the media? But comedians will make you say, "You know, that's right! (or wrong.)"

April 10 2008 at 9:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I remember when The Daily Show was a COMEDY show. Takes itself way too serious the last few years. Only Larry Wilmore makes me laugh and he hasn't been on much, even since the end of the strike.

Expecting biting political satire from a mass medium like TV is like expecting a meaningful contribution to music from American Idol.

April 10 2008 at 4:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The Daily Show represents satire while the Cobert Report represents some of the finest parody since National Lampoon appeared in print form.

Saturday Night Live did parody off and on from its inception through roughly the Reagan administration. A great satire bit was the Pepsi Syndrome where Jimmy Carter explains the cause of Three Mile Island as a spilt Pepsi on the control panel. Good stuff.

Another example of good satire showed Ronald Reagan as the lucid, sharp mastermind of Iran Contra in private but a doddering old fool when in public. Since the dawn of the Bush I administration, Saturday Night Live gave up on satire, preferring easy sketches that are easy to understand by the masses.

For satire to work, people must have knowledge of the process. Most people today lack a rudimentary understanding of how government and politics work.

April 10 2008 at 4:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think The Daily Show is an adequate replacement for news, ESPECIALLY local news.

On The Daily Show I get:
news item, joke, news item, joke, etc.

On the local news I get:
shooting, shooting, murder, weather, sports, depression

I will take the comedy thank you.


April 10 2008 at 3:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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