The Importance of Being Seriously Funny

Andres Kahar is a fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Here, he considers why satire of that kind is so vital to any political discourse.

By Andres Kahar

For some time, certainly since the Iraq war prelude, the US political-media conversation has been anything but a laughing matter -- so unfunny that some of the most serious critiques of US policy have come from Comedy Central. But this observation shouldn't shock. Humor is -- or at least ought to be -- an essential part of a political-media discourse.

Comedy Central is the cable TV network that broadcasts The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, an Emmy award-winning "fake news" satire that's gained impressive media influence. Of course, by discussing satire, I'm doing a not-so-witty thing -- writing about comedy. Oh, well.

About The Daily Show: Since 1999, Mondays through Thursdays, comedian Jon Stewart, together with a brilliant team of improv performers and comic writers, has been subjecting daily news headlines to satirical dissection. Over the past couple of years, their comedic scythe has been slicing through such topics as US anti-terrorism policies, the war against Iraq, election campaigns, and same sex marriage, to cite but a few.

While the mainstream media have shied away from head-on confrontations with the White House at many points since 9/11, especially on foreign policy themes, The Daily Show has been relentless in its satirical attacks. They are humorists with an agenda.

Sure, it can be said that poking The Beast from comedic margins affords Jon Stewart & Co. latitude the ostensibly legitimate media don't have. (In fact, during interviews, Stewart has joked with the likes of journalist Seymour Hersh that his fake news crew is spared the onus of fact-checking.)

Yet, The Daily Show's irreverence raises a different question: Why doesn't the US political-media conversation include more irreverent critiques like theirs during this time of war, terrorism, and imperial overstretch?

Send in the clowns

For a society that devours sitcoms and sketch comedy, our media discourse -- North America's -- is remarkably iro-ny-deficient. While writing this piece, I tried making a list of commentators who effectively use wit, irony, and real humor to make political points. It wasn't long. (My subjective list included Matt Taibbi, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Kinsley, Lewis Lapham, Garry Trudeau, Ted Rall, Rick Salutin, and Alan Fotheringham before I started running out of names, and wished Mordecai Richler were still with us.)

But why am I putting such store in humor? Well, poet Czeslaw Milosz called humor the "glory of the slaves" for good reason -- jokes are a secret weapon of the politically marginalized, and those in power are largely powerless to stop jokes, especially ironic ones.

In case you think I'm overdoing the case for joke-making, consider these names: Swift, Voltaire, and Twain. These were satirists who deployed humor to didactic effect during other politically unfunny eras. (For example, a century ago, Mark Twain waged a one-man writerly crusade against US military intervention in the Philippines.) These satirists exemplified a truism about their craft: Satirists are seldom pessimists bent on tearing down the system, but instead they're driven by an optimistic agenda of correcting politico-societal deformities.

That's why I don't need historical hindsight to include Jon Stewart and his Daily Show team in this long tradition of checking -- and trying to improve -- political power through humor.

Of course, after 9/11, doing political satire in the US was no mean feat: the fear of appearing unpatriotic pre-empted much critique. Just watch Saturday Night Live, once the purveyor of some clever political sketches. Over recent years, their send-ups have been increasingly reserved for hapless celebrities, and mainly those known to the MTV demographic; the political humor has become increasingly predictable and softball to the point of anodyne. As with late-night talk shows, SNL has become a forum where politicians can go to satirize themselves (Bush, Gore, McCain, Giuliani, Sharpton) -- basically, free advertising.

Showing defiance

If, like me, you count on humor and satire to be provocative -- and sometimes subversive -- this SNL trend represents a letting down of the side.

I sometimes feel our popular culture gives politicians too much reverence, or at least a free pass. Not The Daily Show.

In January of this year, as Alberto Gonzales -- the ex-White House counsel behind the notorious torture memos -- faced Senate confirmation hearings for the post of attorney general, Jon Stewart et al. couldn't resist mocking the genteel manner in which the nominee was handled, replete with courtly Senate introductions of his wife and family.

Jon Stewart: "Yes, now, Mrs. Gonzales -- turn around. No, no, no -- slowly. Mmm. Mr. Gonzales, your wife's beauty will be admitted without objection. [pause] Is anyone going to grill this motherfucker? Seriously? Anybody?"

While they used the classic satirical tool of exaggeration for Gonzales, Daily Show writers chose understatement to highlight the absurdity of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "They are human beings" comment (made during last May's Senate hearings on the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib).

Jon Stewart: "It may not seem like much, but for this administration it's a huge policy shift."

In considering the work of the Daily Show over recent years, it occurred to me that, in some respects, the unspoken slogan of the satirist is akin to that of Baader-Meinhof types: "The worse, the better." Meaning, somewhat paradoxically: unjust or oppressive regimes make for richer satire. Jon Stewart said so much in an interview on Charlie Rose last September: "We have to focus on the state of the world, and, in some respects, root for its, if not demise, erosion. Because that's really where the best fodder, I guess, is for us."

The Daily Show team has seemed keen to the notion that satirists are more effective as entertainers than moralizers. So Jon Stewart surprised many when he appeared on CNN's Crossfire last October to berate the show and, by extension, swathes of the mainstream media -- for "hurting America" by "helping the politicians and the corporations" and failing in the responsibility to produce real public discourse. He was dead serious.

No Monkey

Jon Stewart was criticized by many for not playing his regular role of comedic "monkey." But, in retrospect, his cutting critique of Crossfire looks prescient: the CNN debate show was cancelled a couple of months later. Moreover, Jon Stewart's media critique spoke to the satirist's corrective impulse.

For long-time Daily Show viewers, Stewart's attack on media complicity with political power was no surprise. After all, one running gag on the show last year was a persistent attack on CNN pundit Robert Novak, who's notorious for having revealed a CIA agent's actual identity. Stewart and team dubbed Novak a "douchebag for liberty" and awarded him the "Congressional Medal of Douchebaggery" (in absentia, of course).

The Daily Show method of political satire satisfies journalist Christopher Hitchens's rule for humor, which is about as good a guideline as I've heard: to take frivolous things seriously, and serious things frivolously. (Aces, Hitchens.)

And here's the point: We should show scepticism -- and sometimes defi- ance -- in the face of political power. What better way to do so than with an ironic or toxic laugh?

Andres Kahar is a Toronto-based writer. Once or twice he's shown defiance through humor.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2005

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2005, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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