A Serious Look at the Politics of Funny

Say what you will about Jon Stewart – but at least he’s consistent. Matthew McConaughey could probably sum it up: “I get older, but his jokes stay the same age.” That age is sometime around George W. Bush’s 2nd term, when Evangelicals and neoconservatives were still the main force in presidential politics and Americans were becoming more disenchanted with their head of state. As a result of this, Stewart was thriving and Stephen Colbert had just launched a spinoff that further capitalized on changing attitudes. They stuck around long after Bush left office, and still managed to poke fun at the same targets as in 2005, despite having a Democratic President and (for a time) Congress. Now they are finally moving on, but their influence is still felt as the satirical news genre continues to expand. America has seen newer shows pop up such as John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show. Trevor Noah is slated to replace Stewart on The Daily Show. Bill Maher is still being as insufferable as ever on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. This genre is sometimes called “fake news,” but that is a misnomer. These shows aren’t inventing stories like The Onion – they take real news and pick it apart with jokes.

This is part of their unique appeal. The Onion may have hilarious headlines that are  loosely based on true events, but its fakeness keeps many people from taking it seriously. Not so with the satirical news shows, which attracts a deeply loyal following comprised of comedy fans as well as ideological compatriots. When reduced to its elements, satirical news seems like the liberal answer to right wing talk radio: a leading personality comments on stories and events without fear of on-air contradiction, crafts or responds to a narrative, and appeals to various emotions to make the show entertaining – whether it be humor, anger, or something in between (talk radio makes use of all of these).

Yes, it may shock you to learn that most of these satirical news shows were started and are hosted by liberals. That worldview – some would say bias – is evident in the majority of their material. But like most entertainers (or political personalities), they are able to present a mostly uniform viewpoint while finding unique ways to appeal to certain niches. Oliver focuses on a single topic and does in-depth commentary using independent research, interlaced with jokes.  Colbert would take a faux Bill O’Reilly-esque stance on news stories to ridicule extreme manifestations of conservatism (or at least, a liberal’s interpretation of Bush-era conservatism). Stewart would joke about a variety of stories and topics in a single show, occasionally going on a small rant if he was so inclined, complete with exuberant applause from his audience.

Many have speculated as to why the most prominent political satirists and comedians tend to be left wing. Liberals will triumphantly proclaim that comedians happen to mock conservatives more often because conservatives are just easier to make fun of. Reality has a liberal bias, after all. High fives all around. With the number of flat-out ridiculous figures in the Democratic Party, this is quite hard to believe. However, assuming for a moment that Republicans truly do present more opportunities for mockery, surely a talented comedian would not rely on the same easy, obvious target as everyone else? Why wouldn’t a comedian, political or otherwise, want to distinguish himself with unique material and appeal to an untapped market of listeners? The easiest explanation is that comedians speak to their own experiences and viewpoints, and the liberal ones, unsurprisingly, find it easier to tell jokes based on what they genuinely believe.

The trouble with politics-as-comedy is that a dimension of seriousness is added inevitably. If that added element does not make comedy too preachy, it at least associates those jokes with a particular agenda. This does not mean comedians should be criticized for making political jokes from a particular point of view, or every one-off standup routine should be analyzed like a treatise on political philosophy. God knows America has already seen too many witch-hunts to stifle controversial comedy coming from a loud minority that is probably not even the target audience of the performer. But when a comedian bases his entire career on the consistent advocacy of a particular worldview and his commentary has a tangible impact on public discourse, he earns the right to be scrutinized politically and can no longer hide behind “I’m just acomedian!”

That real world impact can be measured both among regular viewers, and among the establishment (i.e. major media outlets and politicians). For example, look at the influence of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, whose primary viewer bases are made up of liberal millennials. A 2014 Brookings Institution study found that 17% of liberals considered The Daily Show to be their most trusted news source – that’s more than all the cable news channels and on par with public television (interestingly enough, MSNBC fared poorly with pretty much every ideological group). This year, PRRI found that 11% of 18-29 year olds considered The Daily Show and Colbert Report to be their primary source of news, compared to 6% of all Americans.

True, these numbers are nowhere near majorities, but they represent sizable chunks of people that are primarily informing themselves based on comedians. Even more may consume actual news, but still have their personal views influenced by one-sided commentary from satirical shows. Now, this may point to a failure of major cable news networks to provide high quality, trustworthy news that is relevant to younger audiences – and I personally believe there is a strong case to be made for that. But as much as millennial liberals may snicker “Jon Stewart is a better source than Faux News!” there is something troubling about this many people considering comedians to be on the same level as journalists, pundits, and analysts. In 2015 there are a multitude of other legitimate sources for information besides TV news and Comedy Central. And even if a network like Fox is ideologically biased, it at least generates original reporting by professionally trained journalists. Stephen Colbert never dispatched his own reporters to research a story, and John Oliver doesn’t have a seat in the White House Press Corps.

Under normal circumstances, this dismissal of conventional journalism might be considered embarrassing to other liberals that are actually deeply engaged with political news from legitimate sources. After all, pundits have scorned the GOP in the past as a party “led” by Rush Limbaugh. But alas, that same media establishment has itself embraced the persuasive cultural power of liberal politics-as-comedy. Despite having their profession’s legitimacy undermined by Stewart and others, they have consistently hailed him as a force for good in politics. This is not surprising, given that we live in the age of the Culture Wars, where every aspect of our popular culture, including comedy is analyzed for its political effect. Liberal writers often critique comedians by measuring their “progressiveness” as vigorously as they review their humor. They also insist comedy must follow certain rules in order to be funny, such as a requirement to always “punch up” and never “punch down” (i.e., making fun of “privileged” groups like white males is allowed, but not so for “oppressed” groups). To them, comedy is at its best when it abides by these rules or perpetuates the right worldview (when a favored comedian eventually does run afoul of these byzantine standards, they are forgiven more readily if they are mostly pushing the right ideas). Comedians that do check off the necessary ideological boxes are elevated – they are not just mere entertainers but, bafflingly, public intellectuals too – with all the authority that title may imply.

Funny enough, many liberal politicians are also public supporters of comedians like Stewart. Why would these public figures praise a show that primarily lampoons those in government? Could it be that these public figures find Stewart to be more useful than harmful overall, even if one of their own will occasionally find himself the butt of the joke? The most astonishing example of public support comes from no less than President Obama himself. It is now known that Obama invited Stewart to meet privately at the White House on at least three occasions. Obama clearly saw some value in cultivating a dialogue:

“Jon Stewart was a key influencer for millennials,” said Dag Vega, who worked for several years at the White House developing relationships with media figures. “They relied on him for an honest take on the news, and the president and senior staff know that.”

“An honest take on the news” in this context almost certainly means “a favorable perspective on the President’s agenda.” After all, Obama certainly is not looking for more opportunities to be criticized when he is in the wrong. Vega’s comments suggest that the primary goals of these meetings was to influence Stewart and, ultimately, maintain support among millennial voters that tune into The Daily Show regularly. Obama himself has appeared on the show seven times. During his most recent and final appearance on the show, Obama lamented Stewart’s retirement and joked that he should issue an executive order preventing him from leaving the show. Although this was a sentimental moment not intended to be taken seriously, one cannot help but wonder whether a satirist is doing his job properly if the most powerful politician in the country wants him to stick around.

It is clear that left wing political and media elites help to reinforce and magnify the influence of satirical newsmen on popular culture and public dialogue. This same establishmentarian consensus also applies to many other facets of our society (that is fodder for future writing). But besides a relentless political agenda, these shows also, perhaps inadvertently, peddle an unfortunate untruth about political discourse in general: that if an idea or a person can be mocked, they cannot be credible.

You may groan, “how can we be expected to take something seriously if it is literally laughable?” True, ridicule is one of the simplest and most appealing forms of argument. After all, even elected officials know there are few better ways to attack their ideological opponents than by cracking a few jokes. Yet politics-as-comedy is based primarily on emotion and is fundamentally subjective. Comedic arguments may contain some elements of fact, logic, or wit, but they are not compelling if they do not appeal to one’s sense of humor. Audiences will consistently laugh at the expense of others, but suddenly disapprove when their own personal beliefs become the target. So it is no surprise that politics-as-comedy finds the most approval when its jokes reinforce the audiences’ beliefs. Is an echo chamber the ideal place to find the truth?

It is easy to mock somebody, even if they are right and the comedian is wrong. In instances where political comedy falls short of reality, what happens then? Even Jon Stewart makes mistakes, and sometimes he will admit it and apologize. Sometimes a third party will call him out on it. But satirical news shows constantly put out new material, and they are not fact-checked as thoroughly as legitimate news sources. Being only human, there will certainly be times when comedic newsmen miss their mistakes or will not admit when they are wrong. A fawning media and political establishment may agree with everything Stewart says, ignore when he is flat-out wrong, or dismiss criticism of him since he is not a real journalist. Yet if political satirists still influence the public, should we not hold them accountable for being wrong? Who mocks the mockers?

At the end of the day, Jon Stewart’s cultural influence comes at the expense of conservatives’, and this poses a tricky strategic dilemma. Launching a crusade against liberal comedy would be fruitless and even counterproductive, if for no other reason than the fact that nobody likes oversensitive people who cannot take a joke. The best things for conservatives to do is to seek out comedy and entertainment that appeals to them and let the market support it. However, while satirical comedians should not be silenced, their politics should be challenged, since their stature among the media and political establishment warrants a higher standard of truth. Unfortunately, conservatives must reckon with the fact that every joke uttered on TV has an incremental effect on America’s political consciousness and identity. We live in a time when political jokes are taken by many as a statement of fact, and conservatives who are content to concede late night television to liberal satirists will eventually find themselves shut out of a crucial forum for national dialogue. TV comedy has become yet another forum for engaging in ideological debate. Welcome to the Culture Wars boys and girls – where everything is politicized and the jokes do matter.