What Can Comedy News Shows Actually Accomplish?
The Frisson of Political Participation Without the Risk of Genuine Solidarity
In October of 2010 I attended a mass demonstration on the National Mall, which also happened to be a live taping of The Daily Show. Hosted by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart—a comedian and the fourth-most trusted media figure in the United States—the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) drew upwards of 215,000 people.
A profile of Stewart in New York magazine (“America Is a Joke”) had suggested that the demonstration was an oblique parody of Fox News host Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, which had taken place that August on the anniversary of the March on Washington. On the day of the event, it had obviously taken on an agenda of its own—adjacent to politics, but not exactly political. The rally was not intended to promote a progressive or even left-leaning platform—Al Sharpton had hosted that protest a couple months before. Rather, the Rally to Restore Sanity targeted the overheated climate of politics itself. Backed by the cheers of his studio audience, Stewart had announced the rally with fervor:
It is happening, people! It is happening. A real gathering. We will gather! We will gather on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a Million Moderate March where we take to the streets to send a message to our leaders and our national media that says, “We are here! We’re—only here though until six, because we have a sitter.” A clarion call for rationality!
As I walked among the attendees on that crisp afternoon taking in the costumes, and giggling at the funnier signs, a sense of disorientation, and vague embarrassment, crept over me. What, exactly, had we shown up here to do?
I no longer make a habit of watching satirical news, but I returned to it last May in the days after James Comey was fired. Public radio and newspaper headlines featured the story on endless churn, as if agitating the obvious would convert it into buttermilk and solid grounds for impeachment. Because the story had long been developing, there was ample online access to relevant episodes of The Daily Show, Full Frontal, Last Week Tonight and the pertinent bits of Colbert’s Late Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers. I assembled the short episodes and clips into a web series that extended back to October 2016, when evidence of Russian hacking was bumped out of the news cycle by Comey’s public discussion of the Anthony Weiner emails.
The footage of our heretofore semifunctional democracy soiling its pants was painful to watch—but also oddly painless, because it was very, very funny. Since most episodes are catalogued online, comedy news offers the public an archive of the news cycle: searching by date and topic, I can make my own cheeky refresher on the recent history of a given crisis as new developments ensue, a digest of the historical present to be enjoyed with minimal effort, perhaps as I do the dishes.
These shows have always specialized in editing tape to expose contradiction and hypocrisy, the difference between what people in power do and what they said they’d do, as well as the outright lie. At a time when the president has declared in an interview, “I don’t stand by anything,” it might seem like a redundant exercise. On the other hand, it can feel as if the spliced-together tape and text offer something to cling to in the shit-storm of rhetoric, buoyant scraps of sanity salvaged from the wreckage of public discourse. you’re not crazy, you’re being gaslighted—look, I’ve got receipts.
It was sanity, after all, that Stewart and Colbert were putatively rallying their viewers to restore.
Comedy news existed before Stewart’s Daily Show. It has roots in the British satire boom of the early Sixties and the BBC’s That Was the Week That Was, as well as Smothers Brothers, print satire like the Onion, and even Andy Rooney’s recurring segment on 60 Minutes. Its clearest American antecedent is Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” which has run since the program’s first episode in 1975. The sketch routinely grazed the nerve of cultural and political conflict—when Dan Aykroyd begins his rebuttal to Jane Curtin with “Jane, you ignorant slut,” it condenses a decade’s worth of gender politics. But lorne Michaels has insisted the segment shoot down the political center and it remains, above all, a spoof, with all of that word’s onomatopoetic lightness. That spirit animated Norm MacDonald’s opener during his time behind the desk: “I’m Norm MacDonald, and now, the fake news.”
In its original iteration, with Craig Kilborn as its host, The Daily Show mined
similar territory, plucking the low-hanging fruit of awkward local-news oddities and celebrity misbehavior and distilling it into a dry, light-bodied half hour of yuks. When Stewart took over as host, the agenda shifted. In the words of segment producer Justin Melkmann, “During the Kilborn era, it was about ‘How can we seem like we’ve gone too far?’ With Jon, we went from creating the news—creating funny spoof headlines—to making fun of the news. That was a big change.”
The Daily Show was launched in 1996, the same year as Fox News and MSNBC. After Stewart arrived, it brought on writers from the Onion and sharpened its perspective, alongside and in response to the escalation of the cable-news wars and the more general trend of broadcast journalism as entertainment. After a tumultuous start the revamped show found its focus during coverage of the run-up to the 2000 election. In the mix with the straight press, the correspondents mocked horse-race political journalism by mimicking its conventions, adding a heaping helping of absurdism. At one pivotal moment, Steve Carrell lobbed a series of jokey softballs at John McCain, who gamely played along—until Carrell asked about the contrast between the candidate’s rhetoric and his record on porkbarrel spending. This was the kind of direct, fact-based confrontation that network and cable-news journalists increasingly avoided. After a long and painful silence Carrell let McCain off the hook: “I was just kidding! I don’t even know what that means!” He saved McCain’s bacon—and the joke.
Stewart’s Daily Show started to become something of its own, turning a lens on the spectacle of the mass-mediated body politic, and the body dysmorphia induced by the 24-hour news cycle. As post-millennial politics intensified in the aftermath of 9/11, Stewart gave voice to the pain and anger of being dragged needlessly into another unwinnable war, to the frustration with the press for its apparent lack of diligence in this regard, and later, to the tragedy of the financial crisis. For whatever reason, many broadcast journalists seemed unable to see the forest for the trees, whereas Stewart and his staff were skilled in using comedy to cut through obfuscation and deflate the pretensions of authority.
Night after night, Stewart announced with unusual candor that the emperor had no clothes, and cracked wise about all the talking heads willing to debate the quality of the embroidery. People loved him because he articulated their inchoate rage with crystalline clarity, and also gave vent to it as laughter. In doing so, he comforted liberal Americans with the feeling of a shared public: You may feel powerless, but there are other people out there who see what you see, who know what you know. We can laugh about it, together.
Over time, though, Stewart’s righteous indignation curdled into the smugness that so rankles the right wing, a tendency on full display in his visit to Colbert’s Late Show in January 2017. Wearing an absurdly long red tie and an animal-pelt toupee, mimicking the president’s word salad, he duly intoned the need for vigilance, but it was difficult to take him seriously in a get-up like that. At the height of The Daily Show’s influence, Stewart vocally and continually denied that he was a political figure, insisting that he was just a comedian. On Colbert’s Late Show, he finally seemed to prove his point.
Today, The Daily Show has spawned a television genre. At HBO there is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, whose earnest wonkishness and whip-smart writers make sitting through a 20-minute policy lecture seem like a charming proposition. Colbert has shed his faux-O’Reilly persona and now holds court at The Late Show where he channels his political frustration into one-liners like he’s shooting lasers out of his eyes. At Late Night, “Weekend Update” alum Seth Meyers smirks his way through “A Closer look,” a pithy news digest punctuated by dad jokes. At the other end of the affective spectrum is TBS’s Full Frontal, where Samantha Bee’s incandescent fury practically burns through the screen even (especially?) as she jokes about golden showers. Lest there be any doubt that things have come full circle, “Weekend Update” will get a prime-time spot on NBC during Saturday Night Live’s summer hiatus.
Trevor Noah now sits behind the desk of The Daily Show, sliding comfortably in and out of imitations of the president and other American caricatures, scolding Fox News for its sycophancy. Even after it had become predictable, Stewart’s disgust always came across as visceral; Noah’s guts never quite seem to be in it. He gesticulates in mock horror, but his hard, wide-eyed expression barely shifts. A child of apartheid, a cultural outsider, he maintains the cauterized expression of a tragic consciousness—if Jon Stewart were liberal America’s TV dad, Trevor Noah is perhaps its angel of history. That quality lends itself to surprisingly poignant interviews, but it doesn’t make for great comedy.
Along with Bee, Stewart’s clearest heir had been Larry Wilmore at Comedy Central’s now-canceled Nightly Show. Where Noah’s performance of outrage sits on top of his cool, Wilmore’s relatively calm demeanor did little to disguise his distress at the events he recounted. Early reviews noted The Nightly Show’s tonal and rhythmic superiority to The Daily Show’s reboot. But Wilmore was unceremoniously sacked shortly into his tenure, just before the 2016 election, and The Nightly Show has largely disappeared from the available digital archive. Like MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry (who shared a similar fate), Wilmore sometimes waded out past the clear liberal consensus, into the murkier and more turbulent waters of social and economic critique. Realness can be uncomfortable, and perhaps less favorable to ratings: to quote Wilmore’s catchphrase, we should have no reason to expect Comedy Central to “keep it one hundred.”
The president, of course, can’t take a joke. Desperate to maintain the phallic illusion of sovereignty, he is skilled in the mockery and derision of others but unable to laugh at himself. This fact is well illustrated by his reactions to Seth Meyers’s teasing at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner (which famously wounded his ego enough to inspire his run for office), by the painful awkwardness of his appearance on SNL, and by the rictus of his smile as Jimmy Fallon tousled his combover.
The Correspondents’ Dinner has traditionally functioned as a kind of carnival moment, when the president’s authority and respect for the press, and the press’s authority and respect for the president, are reaffirmed by an evening of ritual mockery.
While seemingly trivial, the refusal to attend is among the more troubling signs of the nature of this presidency. Men like this, who cruelly dish it out but can’t take it, often pose a danger to anyone in their proximity—let alone under their power.
In response to the president’s no-show, Bee hosted a comic roast, “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.” One of the bits was a video segment called “What Is Facts,” in which Steve Buscemi pondered the sad fate of commonly acknowledged statements about our shared reality. I got the joke, but it was mostly a bummer—from a wider angle, it’s being made at our expense. For obvious reasons, Comedy Central no longer bills The Daily Show as “America’s most trusted source of fake news”—that term has come to rest in the mouth of the president, who routinely uses the label to describe information reported by legitimate journalists.
Bee’s comedy special also featured an extended evisceration of Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, for his shameless commitment to presenting news about politics as if it were entertainment—specifically, as if it were a sport. It is a critique thoroughly in keeping with the tradition of The Daily Show. But the question lurked: If it is so damaging to edit and present the news in the style of a sports competition, why is presenting it as comedy any better? The implicit argument is that comedy is somehow inherently subversive. That may be so, but it only raises another question: Subversive of what?
The Daily Show’s cheeky early presentation of itself as “fake news” indicates something troubling about the recent popularity of the genre to which it has given rise. Without question, satirical news shows and late-night TV’s newly political commentary serve to educate their audience: they edit the barrage of events to help viewers filter the noise and the spin—the attempts by pundits and politicians to manage perception—and bring events into sharper focus. In this respect, they may offer something more real than the “real news.”
Rarely, though, is this goal pursued at the expense of an overarching imperative: to get the laugh. Believe him or not, Jon Stewart seems to have meant it when he told Chris Wallace that he was “a comedian first.” There is a potent logic in this claim: however partisan or impassioned, satirical news must remain outside of the first-order processes of political contestation, because being a part of politics would mean no longer being in on the joke, but rather the potential butt of it.
This makes the pleasure of satirical news difficult to separate from a certain political malaise. Humor, by its nature, has a distancing effect. Wisecracking offers the same false sense of power as it did for the smart, disaffected kid in the back of the classroom. As Stewart insisted in an interview with Rachel Maddow, “A satirist is—we can always criticize. We can’t actually do anything.”
What, then, are we to make of the fact that the American center-left has such an appetite for editorial leavened with satire? As reflected by the response to Stewart’s rally, there is a hunger for some kind of effective political public. But without a sense of political agency, satirical news makes it possible to remain attached to the American political system, just as it is, by positioning oneself in relation to it but also outside of it. Through The Daily Show and its heirs, people who feel burned by the political present can engage the intensity of the political moment, while simultaneously holding it at a distance.
I would venture that this distance now serves mainly to allay political discomfort—undoubtedly this includes the discomfort of loss. But it is perhaps also the discomfort of potentially painful political choices. In a 2013 essay in the London Review of Books, Jonathan Coe quotes satirist Michael Frayn, who attributed the popularity of British satire in the 60s to a latent middle-class guilt over social inequality: “Conceivably they felt the need to disclaim with laughter any responsibility for this situation, and so relieve their consciences without actually voting for anything which might have reduced their privileges.” Coe continues, “If anti-establishment comedy allows the public to ‘disclaim with laughter’ any responsibility for injustice, the sticking point is not really satire itself (for satire can take the gravest of forms) but laughter . . . in the face of political problems.”
Even if one doesn’t see laughter as a subtle way to lighten the burden of responsibility, its increasing entwinement with our politics may still be troublesome. I do not mean to suggest that politics should be humorless, a posture that is problematic in its own ways. But if comedy, as the theorists lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai wrote in their introduction to the comedy issue of Critical Inquiry, helps us “test or figure out what it means to say ‘us,’” then we must reckon with what it means that such a broad public has coalesced around ironic distance as a political posture. On a nightly basis, satirical news coverage subtly consoles “us” with the same shared premise, the implied suggestion that we are above what’s happening here. like this is all some kind of a joke.
I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/ or Fear) out of a desire to reconnect with certain feelings about the possibility of public discourse—and because I expected to be entertained. Wandering around in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the earnest protest signs and the smug “protest” signs seemed to be trying to shame each other, and often succeeding. Still, I was initially cheerful as I jostled in the crowd of people straining to hear the broadcast from the stage.
At odds with his perpetual denial that he occupied a role in U.S. politics, Jon Stewart’s closing words at the rally were a sure sign of his belief in his own importance as a defender of the liberal public sphere—or at least a clear statement of the significance of showing up for a cause:
If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you, I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me. your presence was what I wanted. Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine.
This warm fuzzy came wrapped in fraught, multilevel denials of political intent. like watching The Daily Show, going to the rally demonstrated political engagement, but its smart detachment and explicit rejection of politics offered protection from exposure, from the awkward nakedness of proposition and judgment—the actual stakes of political life. Wavering between cynicism and sincerity, the rally offered what has become a familiar pleasure: the frisson of political participation, but without the risk of genuine solidarity.
The closing moments of the rally offered a prescient allegory. Stewart was locked in a mock-epic battle with absurdity and fear, figured by Stephen Colbert and a giant puppet. Dressed as Peter Pan, John Oliver came onto the stage and announced that fear had killed our hero, the adorably cynical champion of liberal rationality. Stewart denied that he was dead, but—do you believe in fairies, boys and girls?—Oliver/ Pan urged the people to clap anyway. I felt sick. The crowd was urged to do an Arsenio Hall fist-pump, to dance the ham-bone to “revive” Stewart as he watched, nonplussed. Finally, Pan stirred the crowd into a chant, which instantly “melted” the caricature of fear á la Wicked Witch of the West. Where I stood, in the middle of the massive crowd, the chant registered only as a vaguely embarrassing wave, repeated two or three times and then abandoned. Two hundred thousand people lifting their voices together and then, sheepishly, dropping them: “Will this help? Will this help? Will this help?”
By now, we ought to know the answer.
This essay originally appears in Issue 14 of The Point.