Together we suck, end in sight… In defence of satirical news programmes

On the whole, Australia’s comedians are a talentless waste of space.  It’s been years since The Chaser was worth watching.  I’m barely old enough to remember Good News Week when it had Keith the Swearing Bear.  Was Chris Lilley ever funny?

Every so often — usually during the Christmas silly season — there are calls for more satirical news shows on television.  This kicks off a week or two of chin scratching and pontificating about the nature of news, the nature of entertainment, the nature of comedy, and the nature of the slimy things with legs that crawl with legs upon the slimy sea of light entertainment.

Most of these conversations are at cross-purposes.  The people who speak out in favour of more satirical news programmes note the need to reignite enthusiasm in the news.  For whatever Jon Stewart’s faults are, at least he makes a sizeable audience vaguely aware of what’s going on in their political class.  The people who bemoan satirical news programmes point to the ‘dumbing down’ of political engagement, and the problem that comedians aren’t terribly insightful.

Both of these positions, in of themselves, are entirely correct.

There is a need to reignite enthusiasm in the news.  People find staying engaged in political discussions to be nothing short of a chore.  I have family members who are thoroughly switched off simply because the mainstream media doesn’t bother to speak to them.  There’s no attempt to explain complicated policies, politics is presented as a blood sport where the regularly scheduled participants shout contrary views at the audience for half an hour, and most audiences are left with nothing but their bellyfeel intuitions about what’s going on.

At the same time, we’re all in trouble if people start to take comedy shows as their main source of news information.  In 2010, Mark Ames wrote an amazing piece about how American liberals were flocking to comedians (such as Jon Stewart) in an attempt not to look ‘lame’:

That’s what makes this rally so depressing and grotesque: It’s an anti-rally, a kind of mass concession speech without the speech–some kind of sick funeral party  for Liberalism, in which Liberals are led, at last, by a clown. Not a figurative clown, but by a clown–and Liberals are sure that this somehow makes them smarter and less lame–and indeed, they are less lame, because they are not taking themselves too seriously, which is something they’re very, very proud of. All great political struggles and ideological advances, all great human rights achievements were won by clown-led crowds of people who don’t take themselves too seriously, duh! That’s why they’re following a clown like Stewart, whose entire political program comes down to this: not being stupid, the way the other guys are stupid–or when being stupid, only stupid in a self-consciously stupid way, which is to say, not stupid. That’s it, that’s all this is about: Not to protest wars or oligarchical theft or declining health care or crushing debt or a corrupt political system or imperial decay—nope, the only thing that motivates Liberals to gather in the their thousands is the chance to celebrate their own lack of stupidity! Woo-hoo! [Source, via Adam Brereton]

It is a lengthy article but definitely worth the time to wade through, especially the final few paragraphs.  And it’s a piece that radically changed my view on the nature of political comedy.  I’d often wondered why there aren’t more comedians who share my political end of the spectrum.  The received wisdom was that comedy was fundamentally progressive, acting as a voice against the powerful.  In 2011, Pajiba‘s Dustin Rowles wrote:

There are no counterpoints to Colbert and Stewart on the right just as there are no serious counterpoints to Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck on the left. Conservative talk radio owns fear mongering xenophobia, and liberals own political comedy. Who does the Washington Times put forward as an example of a funny conservative? Greg Gutfeld (never heard of him), Dennis MIller (agreed! In the 1980s) and P.J. O’Rourke (maybe, but how relevant is he today?). [Source]

A year later, Rowles’ position had changed somewhat:

The assumption is that Stewart and Colbert are agents of a specific political entity — or at the very least, dedicated to spreading a certain message — and that a political comedy should be created to give voice to the “other side.”

The problem, for starters, is that this is totally the wrong way to think about comedy in general and Stewart/Colbert in specific. Comedy’s highest goal is to be funny, not to prove a point. It’s not that Stewart’s and Colbert’s jokes don’t fit in and play well with progressives; it’s that they’re trying to do other things first. Colbert’s target isn’t specific politicians or even parties, but the grandiose pomposity of on-air hosts like Bill O’Reilly and the way they manufacture rage and turn it into a reliable consumer product. He’s attacking our own self-indulgence, and our capability for anointing as prophets those who can bloviate the loudest. Stewart, too, isn’t just knocking idiots on the right, but incompetents on the left. Many’s the time when Stewart will lay into Democrats or left-leaning initiatives, only to be greeted by muted claps from the audience as they wrestle with their natural desire to laugh and the feeling that they shouldn’t have to laugh at somebody they support. “Not so funny when it’s your guy, is it?” is usually how Stewart’s refrain goes, as he deflates the light tension and moves right ahead with skewering the system. Because that’s what he does, and what Colbert does, and what all great comics and satirists do: they revel in the absurdity of the system we’ve created for ourselves, alternately laughing and crying at the way we keep ourselves in chains. [Source]

Rowles’ two positions are somewhat irreconcilable.  The latter position — the Stewart as an apolitical funny man — supports Ames’ thesis.  The former position is more interesting.

But let’s start with Rowles’ first position.  What is the nature of comedy?  Comedy is a tool by which we confirm our own status as the knowledgeable elite.  We laugh at other people and at our acknowledged, comfortable foibles.  From this perspective, we can see why conservative comedy becomes a difficult space.  A person in a position of power mocking those who are Outsiders is just mean.  It’s undignified to use powerful forms of rhetoric to beat down on people who can’t fight back on equal terms.

Thus why it’s accepted wisdom that comedy is the domain of the Left.  Subversion is impossible when you’re the power that is being subverted.

But as comedy is the tool by which we confirm our status as the knowledgeable elite, the comedy of the Left is less about challenging and subverting, and more about reinforcing and reassuring.  Thus we get Ames’ criticism and, in a roundabout way, Rowles’ second position.  The comedy of Stewart and Colbert is not about challenging and confronting people’s assumptions about what they think.  If they did that too frequently, they wouldn’t have a broad audience.  People switch off when you challenge them.

Rowles’ second position is more about the complete lack of engagement we have as a culture with ideology.  ‘Oh, they’re neutral and not really making a political point.  Their only duty is to comedy.  It just so happens that they’re broadly liberal because that’s the easiest position from which to make jokes.’

But that’s where Ames’ position is at its most effective: the Left becomes something that’s not confronting or radical because its most vocal advocates want to seem as broadly popular as possible.  The leaders of the Left aren’t really advocating radical views, because that would present a risk.  Actually believing in things that are beyond ridicule is lame.

This explains Australia’s comedians.  Check out the vapidity of Channel 10’s The Project.  You get twenty seconds of some story, then the half baked musings of comedians for a minute and a half, then we move on to the next story.  On tonight’s episode, we started a story about intergenerational policy, explored through the imbecilic quotes of celebrities, then Charlie Pickering made some dumb comment and we shifted to a story which seemed to be little more than ‘Anthony Lehmann doesn’t understand this story’.  Teehee, move on before we have to think about anything.

Check out also Corinne Grant who one week is apparently an expert in migration law, and then is an expert in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement the next.  While being a Professor of Everythingology is not an usual problem among Australia’s opinion writers, it is a near universal affliction among our comedians.

I’m reminded of an essay Douglas Adams wrote that was collected in The Salmon of Doubt:

There’s always a moment when you start to fall out of love, whether it’s with a person or an idea or a cause, even if it’s one you only narrate to yourself years after the event: a tiny thing, a wrong word, a false note, which means that things can never be quite the same again. For me it was hearing a stand-up comedian make the following observation. “These scientists eh? They’re so stupid! You know those black box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? And you know they’re meant to be indestructible? It’s always the thing that doesn’t get smashed? So why don’t they make the planes out of the same stuff?” The audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, how they couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag, but I sat feeling uncomfortable. Was I just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn’t really work because flight recorders are made out titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium they’d be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place?
(…) There was no way of deconstructing the joke (if you think this is obsessive behaviour you should try living with it) that didn’t rely on the teller and the audience complacently conspiring together to jeer at someone who knew more than they did. It sent a chill down my spine and still does. I felt betrayed by comedy in the same way that gangsta rap now makes me feel betrayed by rock music. [Source]

And yet I think that comedy helps to educate the broader public about political issues.  Check out David Mitchell’s work on 10 o’Clock Live.  Here’s a person who is genuinely intelligent and who isn’t so insecure that they need to present themselves as an expert.  Thus, we get funny witticisms that enlighten rather than slack-jawed guffawing that obscures issues.  The comedian acts as the audience’s guide through the exploration of issues, and comedy helps keep the audience engaged.

We need news that is packaged for the easy consumption by the general public.  Importantly, we need the news diet to be quick, nutritious meals rather than a fast food diet of junk.  That’s the key: how do we get good quality, informative satire instead of comedy which panders to its particular audience?  How do we avoid cynical satire which encourages disengagement and promote informed satire which makes issues easier to grasp?  How do we wash away the current generation of comedians and replace them with people who are capable of higher order thought?

To these final questions, I have no answer.  But that’s the key part of the defence.  Satirical news progammes can be both good and hideously awful, but isn’t that true of most news formats?  The challenge is to create and produce content which is excellent rather than succumb to the lazy, mediocre ways that we’re currently seeing.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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