The Satire Recession
How political satire got so flabby.
Troy Patterson chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
Gore Vidal once said that you should never pass up an opportunity to have sex or go on television, but that was before AIDS. And cable. No one seems to have pointed this out to the people doling out stale wisecracks on Not Just Another Cable News Show (Saturdays at 7 p.m., ET), CNN's new misadventure in comedy. The inaugural episode constituted a half-hour of file footage annotated with cheap attitude, and I trust that coming installments will give journalists and comedians further opportunities to violate the ideals of their professions in exchange for a few snatches of airtime.
Not Just Another Cable News Show marks the ultimate VH1-ification of American politics, with a gallery of telegenic wiseasses brought on to snark about current events. At least VH1's fluff-summarizing Best Week Ever had the advantage of being current; the CNN show contented itself, last weekend, with scrolling through "the most memorable political blunders" of recent decades. The episode began with a greatest-misses anthology of Bushisms. We again saw the president say, "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family," and then waited for a pundit or stand-up (comedian Chris Regan, in this case) to match it with a one-liner. "It was part of the No Child Left Ungravyed program," quipped Regan, not badly. Subsequent segments concerned Al and Tipper bussing lustily at the Democratic National Convention in 2000, Reagan's outlawing Sovietism on a sound check in 1984, Fidel Castro tripping and falling in 2004, and John Kerry's flubbing his line about Bush's intellectual laziness and getting stuck in Iraq during the 2006 midterm campaign. "I think pretty much every joke John Kerry tells is a botched joke," said Ana Marie Cox, of Time, earning a few points for pith and none for originality, and unwittingly highlighting something horrible about the shared narrative approach of journalism and mainstream comedy.
To gauge the heft of the horror, it's helpful to turn to Russell L. Peterson, of the American Studies department at the University of Iowa, and his new book Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke, a cultural analysis so smart, supple, and frisky that it instantly stands as required reading for every aspiring critic in the country. Though his focus is on late night—the time slot to which market forces have usually relegated political jokes—Peterson would argue that Not Just Another Cable News Show is, in every way that matters, exactly like every other cable news show and like most other topical comedy programs, too. Its jokes "rarely transcend the level of pure ad hominem mockery." They're personality jokes and, as such, of a piece with character-based journalistic narratives that "treat newsmakers not as the subjects of newscasts but as the news' cast."
Writing about journalists' immediate response in 2006 to Kerry's botched joke, Peterson notes that "the story was a story not because it actually revealed anything about Kerry but because it seemed to confirm what the media already 'knew' about him." On NBC, Brian Williams led with the story at 6:30 p.m.—even as U.S. military commanders caved in to Iraq's demands that they abandon a search for missing soldiers. If you stayed tuned for six hours, you saw Conan O'Brien hammering out a template for Cox. "Senator John Kerry is in trouble for making a joke about soldiers being uneducated," said Conan. "As a result, Kerry promised to stop making jokes and stick to boring people."
Peterson would class that harmless jape—John Kerry? Dull? No?!—as "pseudo-satire," which is cynical and shallow and treats politics "like an infection" and stands in contrast to the real satire that, for instance, Jon Stewart offered on the subject of the botched joke and the way it was spun: "After an election in which the GOP has been beaten up by, let's say, reality, the party has rediscovered a winning issue: the has-been's faux pas." Where O'Brien's pseudo-satrical joke trivializes the political process, Stewart's engages it by laughing at that very trivialization. The distinction isn't simply a matter of what's funny; well-constructed pseudo-satire often deserves more laughs than preachy satirical jokes. It's about the fact that comedy can perform a watchdog role and seems more ready to shirk it than Judith Miller. "By avoiding issues in favor of personalities," writes Peterson, "and by 'balancing' these shallow criticisms between conservatives and liberals, late-night comics are playing it safe but endangering democracy."
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph from Saturday Night Live © 2008 NBC Universal Inc. All rights reserved.