Slate television critic Troy Pattersonwas online atWashingtonpost.com on March 10 to chat about the state of satire and political comedy on television. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Troy Patterson: I'm Troy Patterson, the television critic at Slate, and I'm pleased as punch that the Post has invited me discuss "The Satire Recession," my recent piece about political comedy. The article concerns late-night TV in general and Saturday Night Live in particular, and it is heavily indebted to a new book titled Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke. The book, written by an American Studies professor named Russell L. Peterson and published by Rutgers University Press, is excellent—essential reading, I believe, for everyone who takes funny business seriously.
Chicago: I have to agree that the state of political satire in the county is anything but strong, with, as you say, the startling exceptions of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Listening to the Capitol Steps radio special last week, I found it mildly clever but kept thinking, why should I spend time on this when The Daily Show and Colbert Report and both funnier and much, much smarter on a daily basis? As you indicate, what makes those shows work is that they talk about issues and spend a lot of time talking about what political leaders say, instead of the manner in which they say it.
Troy Patterson: Hi, Chicago. You make an excellent point about Stewart and Colbert. I'd add that it's important to realize that those shows are able to indulge in genuine political satire—as opposed to topical jokes about political personalities—because they air on Comedy Central. Appealing to a niche market of about one million households a night, they're able to present sharp and substantive material. In contrast, Jay Leno, David Letterman, and SNL are trying to reach four or six or eight million people, and that necessitates making a lot of jokes that merely say, "John McCain is old," or "Bill Clinton likes the ladies."
Houghton, Mich.: Hello Mr. Patterson. As Tommy Smothers likely would ask: Does the TV industry avoid witty, biting, satire because such content could scare advertisers desperately courting the couch-dwelling middle-class (who readily laugh at the "she's such a shrew" or "he's so dumb" jokes that are older than Bob Hope's crib)? I mean, let's face it, ultimately Lorne Michaels is just another vendor in GE's supply chain, right?
Troy Patterson: Hello, Houghton! The answers, as I hint at above, are yes and yes. As the great playwright George S. Kaufman once said, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." If that's true, then it follows that SNL is, to use Peterson's term, pseudo-satire: "Satire nourishes our democracy, while the other stuff...is like fast food: popular, readily available, cheap; tasty in its way, but ultimately unhealthy."
Washington: Troy, One small quibble with your article, which was fantastic overall. You draw a distinction in the response to John Kerry's botched joke, with Conan O'Brien engaged in "pseudo-satire," while Jon Stewart is engaged in "real satire," but I personally find that Stewart is among the worst practitioners of "pseudo-satire" and "personality jokes"—witness his sniveling laughing Bush imitation, the repeated "Dick Cheney is evil" trope, the "Indecision" election coverage, etc.
I think Stewart should take a lot more blame than he does—both from you and other critics—in terms of shirking comedy's watchdog role. "The Daily Show" is at its best when it fulfills that role, such as when it finds year-old clips of politicians contradicting what they said yesterday, or points out the ridiculousness of Alberto Gonzalez's testimony with a "cannot recall" counter. All too often, though, it just devolves into Stewart pulling his shtick, and contributes little comedy of any depth. Your thoughts?
Troy Patterson: Good point. I might have taken care to mention that Stewart is less consistently satirical than Colbert. For instance, in addition to his more pointed line about Kerry's botched joke, he also did a pseudo-satirical bit imagining a Jeff Foxworthy-type CD titled The Botched Comedy Styling of John Kerry: "Under certain conditions, you might be a redneck. Unfortunately, I can't think of any at the moment." I happen to think that line is kinda funny, but I agree that it's pretty shallow.
Philadelphia: What do you think might have happened had Stephen Colbert seriously entered a presidential primary? Even if he meant it as a stunt, I remember thinking it actually could have had an impact, as any serious candidate who received fewer votes than him could have been politically hurt by his running.
Troy Patterson: Well, he was only seeking to appear on the ballot in South Carolina, so I don't think it would have had any real impact. On the other hand, it would have another dagger in the reputation of the 107th mayor of the City of New York had Colbert drawn more votes than Rudy Giuliani.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Are you familiar with Morris Udall, the joke-telling presidential candidate in 1976? If so, how do you think Udall would have been in today's environment?
Troy Patterson: I'm only slightly familiar with Rep. Udall, but I do think there's some truth to the title of his autobiography—Too Funny To be President. That said, I'm sure he could have enjoyed a wonderful Huckabee-like tour of the talk shows. Amazing how powerful humor is: I find a number of Huckabee's positions morally offensive, but, after seeing him play air hockey with Colbert, I love him dearly.
Virginia Beach, Va.: Do you have any thoughts on the possible misuse of the term "satire" in referring to modern comedic parodies? That is to say, it's my understanding that an important component of satire is that you are employing comedy to poke fun at something with the specific goal of "changing" the public's opinion, or pointing out some specific social ill, and by doing so you hope to evoke change. I guess I'm suggesting that to refer to Saturday Night Live's comedy as satire gives credit for a sophistication that does not exist.
Troy Patterson: You hit the nail on the head, Sweet Virginia, and you did so in a way that encourages me to keep shilling for Strange Bedfellows: "While he genuine satirist and the psuedo-satirist are both joking, only one of them is kidding. Real satire means it."
Anonymous: "Praise, undeserved, is satire in disguise."—Alexander Pope
Troy Patterson: What an original thought!
Phoenix: Could it be that Saturday Night Live makes flabby comedy in general? I haven't seen anything worthwhile on that show in years.
Troy Patterson: Oh, I don't know. The digital shorts—"D— in a Box" and so on—are pretty tight. I laughed at Tracy Morgan's pro-Obama response to Tina Fey's pro-Hillary editorial, especially the way Morgan inflected the phrase about preferring government cheese. It was funny; it's just not truly political.
New York: I think satire is great, and in the course of the past seven years, has been a very important release valve for all the ills that our government has hoisted upon us. I give them much credit for their biting political satire and for speaking truth to power. However, the shows I used to watch for satire aren't as funny any more. I used to love Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show, but they're just not funny any more. Not at all. And the reason is that they think they are allowed to criticize insert name of candidate here, when she/he only is trying to make this a better country. I think so-called satirical shows step over the line when they make fun of people I agree with.
Troy Patterson: And, here is an illustration of the chief commercial problem of satire. This question would seem to be a comment on the perceived audience mindset that leads to so many empty jokes. The strength is in the subtlety, and the subtlety is so subtle that it almost went over my head. Bravo!
Greencastle, Ind.: The most cringe-worthy "comedy" I've seen is Hillary Clinton with Jay Leno—between her being so unnaturally forced and Leno trying to steal every punchline possible ... a shiver just went through me while I was typing.
Troy Patterson: Yes, that was weird. Some would say there's something troubling in the way that Clinton joked about being "pinned down by sniper fire" on her way to Leno's set—an extreme version of something that most politicians do when appearing on late-night shows, attempting to defuse a volatile issue by making a ha-ha. Also, Clinton is reportedly very funny in private, but TV comedy is not her bag.
Annapolis, Md.: Your article is headlined "how satire got flabby," but it really only describes the flabbiness rather than explaining how it got flabby. There always has been a flabby side of political humor—Bob Hope is a shining example. Would you say that humor has grown more flabby? If so, why has this happened?
Troy Patterson: Fair enough. Explaining the "how," I would say that, yes, it has grown a bit more flabby, partly because there's more of it. (Carson stepped down and late-night shows began proliferating around the time that Dan Quayle arrived on the national scene.) Also, the Monica Lewinsky scandal gave comedians more license to delve into the personal side of politicians. On the other hand, the development of the cable business has enabled people like Stewart, Colbert, and Bill Maher to profitably sell satire to small audiences.
Washington: I'd agree that we're not in a golden age of political satire, but I think Letterman's "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" has been nothing short of brilliant—and there is no joke that ever needs to be added. Maybe we're at a point where you cannot invent a joke that is as funny or absurd as the real thing.
washingtonpost.com: Great Moments in Presidential Speeches(YouTube)
Troy Patterson: I agree. Though Letterman's political jokes are largely anti-political these days, something about George W. Bush seems to incite "Dave's worn-on-his-alienation" (Peterson's words) in a way that gets him cracking.
Troy Patterson: What fun! Thanks for reading my piece, and thanks for your thoughtful responses.
Questions? Comments? Complaints? You can reach me via the bio line at the moment of my articles on Slate. Rock on....