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Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and John Stewart make us laugh. But are they making us care?
In his 1835 book On Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted how “scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.” Were de Tocqueville alive today and able to publish a revised version of his masterwork, he would likely amend that statement to read: “resolved into a judicial question after being satirized to death by dozens of late-night chat shows.”
We live, according to whichever cultural critic or public intellectual you choose to believe, in a post-historical age or an era of American decline, in a period of imperial decline or late empire. Take your pick of the extant terminology; what seems inarguable is that we are on the cusp of something. But what? The end of the beginning? The beginning of the end?
History shows us that such liminal periods are rife with comedy. In the classical world, Greek tragedy yielded to Greek comedy as that region’s influence waxed and then waned. The Silver Age of Roman Literature saw the flowering of its finest wits; so too did late Victorian England, which provided a backdrop for the great works of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.
These are exceedingly funny times. Our comedians are so good at skewering the age in which they live (and our age so rife with comical events) that they’ve become indistinguishable from all of the other infotainers who vie for our attention. How else can we explain Jon Stewart’s two Peabody Awards for broadcast journalistic excellence?
The fake news and its endless-yet-harmless satire came upon us gradually, long after the fires of outrage once fanned by 1960s controversialists such as Lenny Bruce and the Firesign Theatre had dimmed. The rebel yells of those performers, crying out for social justice or demanding that attention must be paid to structural inequality, gave way first to the insouciant witticisms of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment and then to The Onion, The Daily Show, and all of the latter’s imitators.
Most of this material is rather good, and some of it, like Stephen Colbert’s caricatured portrayal of a conservative pundit, is genuinely inspired. But none of it yields what Mikhail Bakhtin characterized in Rabelais and His World as wild and uncontrollable laughter capable of revolutionizing the world, but rather a negative laughter in which the satirist “places himself above the object of his mockery.” James Smoot’s critique of The Daily Show hits far closer to the mark regarding these shows and similar cultural products: At best they produce “a desperate laughter of escape” and at worst the insidious shoring-up of a status quo maintained by the corporations that fund their efforts.
Stewart and Colbert, in particular, have earned hundreds of millions of dollars for their paymasters at Viacom, the parent company of Comedy Central. The Onion, once a Madison-based DIY tabloid distributed in college towns, is no less indebted to corporate advertisers: Their site, which still occasionally posts amusing fake news pieces, is increasingly inundated with commercial content that is at times difficult to distinguish from their original material, and is mistaken for real news with surprising regularity.
In all cases—especially so for Jon Stewart and his HBO-based mentee John Oliver—this fake news model reaffirms and intensifies stories already being covered by ostensibly more legitimate media outlets. As Aaron McKain noted in an article for the Journal of American Culture, these programs operate in a parasitic manner, using clips and other materials culled from conventional news reports and then splicing them together to suit their comedic needs.In some cases they increase the impact of a marginal story, but they rarely break a new story or even reshape coverage of existing ones.*
“Laughter… indicates a slight revolt on the surface of social life,” wrote Henri Bergson in Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, “[but] it instantly adopts the changing forms of the disturbance.” Bergson’s dim view of the comic—he does not accord it the same power that Bakhtin or some of the comedians of the 1960s did, who believed it capable of completely reshaping society—has a certain cogency for those of us who relied on laughter as a defense mechanism for enduring traumas along life’s way.
As I coped with a devastatingly traumatic childhood, I retreated behind a wall of self-deprecating laughter. The absurd wounds inflicted by my deranged parents offered proof of my obvious mental superiority, at least. “Laughter cannot be absolutely just,” explained Bergson, “[for] its function is to intimidate by humiliating.” Having recognized the failings of others around him, “the laugher immediately retires within himself, more self-assertive and conceited than ever, and is evidently disposed to look upon another’s personality as a marionette of which he pulls the strings.”
I laughed about my predicament because I could do nothing else. Jon Stewart’s and John Oliver’s exasperated fulminations, however reasonable they seem to those discerning viewers who share their concerns about net neutrality and the persistence of structural inequality in America, are offered with similar cynical awareness of their futility. They remind me of my stepfather’s remarks about John Murtha, a Pennsylvania politician whom he utterly despised: “Of course I voted for the bastard,” he told me. “What the hell else could I do?”
In that regard, the greatest achievement of this golden age of topical comedy, the Jon Stewart-hosted 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity, also constituted a glaring example of its limitations. Proceeding from the assumption that American political discourse had become polarized to the point of insanity, the rally’s goals amounted to little more than the restoration of an idealized and more polite status quo ante, according to Stewart:
This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are, and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times.
The 200,000 or so attendees were given no grand call to action. Instead, they were exhorted, like undergraduates taught by a burnt-out professor, not to be such morons. Stephen Colbert, headlining the simultaneous March to Keep Fear Alive, added a patina of absurdity by appearing in his customary role as a caricature of pundits whose toxic discourse had occasioned this semi-historic event. The rally, though not intended to ridicule people of faith or people of activism, was quite assuredly intended to ridicule the likes of Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton, and Bill O’Reilly.
Stephen Colbert is a special case. He is a splendid comedic actor, perhaps the best of this generation, but his talents serve only to confirm Bergson’s bleak view of comedy. He amuses through bombast and humiliation, and few descriptions suit his fictive personality as well as “a marionette of which he pulls the strings.”
The Colbert Report constitutes a fascinating development in the history of the fake news show: Stephen Colbert is always in character, yet that character is always Stephen Colbert. In him, obvious rage at contemporary injustice is subsumed into a never-ending performance. Proper enjoyment of this performance, enjoyment at the level Colbert likely hopes viewers will reach, requires a cognitive leap: Not only must they laugh at Colbert-as-Colbert’s buffoonery, they must also recognize that it constitutes an endorsement of everything that character is not.
Such an approach has a long history—Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” for example, is a staple of high school literature curricula—but it is hardly the most effective means for arousing the passions of the multitude. And should it do so, there is a strong likelihood they may be angry for all the wrong reasons, given how frequently satire fails to hit its mark.
Though now long forgotten in the flood of pseudo-events that press upon us from all corners of social media, The Colbert Report experienced just such an embarrassing moment in early 2014 when its official Twitter account, hoping to mock Redskins owner Dan Snyder and his seemingly opportunistic creation of a foundation to support Native Americans, tweeted the following: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”
Given the profound racial implications of such a carelessly worded tweet—which wasn’t written by Colbert, but by someone on his writing staff—there was a fast and angry response from some members of the Asian community, who began tweeting with the hashtag #CancelColbert as part of a social media campaign to force the show off Comedy Central. Tweeting from his personal account, Stephen Colbert first sought to defuse the outrage with humor: “I agree! Just saw @ColbertReport tweet. I share your rage.”
Colbert received plenty of mainstream support, survived this contretemps with his reputation intact, and later landed a lucrative contract to host the Late Show on CBS after David Letterman retires next year. Colbert’s opponents, however, were hurriedly minimized by the comedian’s defenders: Couldn’t they take a joke? Why so serious? Clearly The Colbert Report was on the side of sanity and reasonable discourse. Colbert had helped host that rally, after all.
Admittedly, this was a minor moment in a long, unpleasant, and generally overlooked history of Asian-American discrimination, no better or worse than NBA star Shaquille O’Neal’s ham-handed attempt to insult fellow player Yao Ming by addressing him in fake Chinese. Nevertheless, the widespread critical response to activists such as Suey Park, who devised the #CancelColbert hashtag, underscores the difficulty faced by anyone who attempts to mount a sincere effort to challenge the vested interests that benefit greatly from the structural inequality mocked so obliquely and wittily by the likes of Stephen Colbert.
Comedy, in Bergson’s opinion “first and foremost a means of correction,” is the leveling force that reduces both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement to impotent sideshows, traveling troupes of hayseeds and hippies that might warrant a chuckle or two before one watches the next YouTube video.
Søren Kierkegaard opens his book Either/Or with the following parable:
It happened that a fire broke out backstage in a theater. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was just a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning, they shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid general applause from all the wits, who believe that it is a joke.
His point is an obvious but telling one, and is even more applicable to the present age than it was to 1843. Gen Xers and millenials reached maturity in a society in which the emptiness of the so-called American Dream had already been exposed, leaving in its place the sardonic slacker resignation of the American Joke. The truly great comedies of the 1990s—the sitcom Seinfeld, the sketch shows The Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show—skewered the grotesque banalities of everyday existence.
One by one, all of these important cultural icons were seen selling out, trading whatever artistic credibility they had left for short-term commercial gain. But even this was perceived as unavoidable. To paraphrase my stepfather, “Of course I sold out. What the hell else could I do?”
So when they turn on the television to watch Colbert, Stewart, and John Oliver using clips of real-life terrible things for entertainment value, many are moved to little beyond cheap laughter. If it’s only a game—faceless blue-suit Republicants and Spendocrats uttering inane remark after inane remark to the delight of all—why not just sit back and enjoy the show? And if some silly try-harder Occupier or Tea Partier wants to go out with his protest gear and act unreasonable or insane, why not laugh at him or her, too? There’s no sense suffering in silence when you can watch other people suffering in Hi-def on your iPhone 6. Selling out was one of many inevitabilities to be snickered at yet eventually accepted.
In time, everything and everyone sold out; just as advertising and entertainment had merged, news and fake news would fuse into a single profit-generating monolith. Behind Gen Xers and Millenials came generations for whom such terms hold no particular significance. Everything is the worst and always has been, many of them seem to believe, but since it’s all a big joke, let’s enjoy ourselves while we’re here.
Stewart, Colbert, and Oliver don’t want it this way, of course. They really do want their viewers to care, to get involved, to alter the status quo that they inadvertently but effectively buttress. They are the clowns informing the public over and over again about the coming conflagration, shouting as loud as they possibly can. Yet all they will get for their diligent efforts are Facebook likes, Twitter shares, and a vague consensus that most things suck.
I’m not arguing for the abolition of comedy, or even for its devaluation as a form of social discourse. After all, even as it numbed my emotions during an especially difficult childhood, laughter most assuredly saved my life. It exposed the absurdities of my condition, and gave me a keener understanding of injustice and inhumanity. One vitally important function of humor, Stewart’s and Colbert’s work included, is to eliminate all superficial optimism we may have (i.e., smug taken-for-granted acceptance of the system in which we live) by explaining the reasons for despair.
Yet what comedy can never do, but what we must somehow find a way to do for ourselves, is replace this superficial optimism with cautious hope. Hope calls for a willingness to act on one’s best conjectures, even if they can never be proven absolutely. Hope demands continuing to strive for genuine reforms to the problems that plague civil society.
The alternative is to wind up like those fools who laughed at Nietzsche’s madman, to turn out like his “last man,” to become as Max Weber described future generations: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart, this nullity [will imagine] that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”
In recognizing comedy’s limitations, we should be left with a sense that all of civil government, all of ethics, all of civilization is at stake. We stand with one foot over the edge of an abyss. And yet the answer is not to avert our gaze, laugh under our breath, and pretend things are all right. One hopes that the examples of past activists and revolutionaries can give those of us who still have faith additional strength and courage to resist skepticism and despair.
Even those of us who, like myself, have laughed ourselves into a state of despairing skepticism have reason to be brave and hopeful in our struggles for what is good and right. All is not lost. Even if we are partly skeptics, we are thus partly believers. We can choose whether or not to let ourselves be governed by our skepticism, whether or not to laugh at those foolishly idealistic people with their picket signs and dreams of a better tomorrow.
We cannot, of course, generate our beliefs simply because we want them or because they were handed down from the heavens; that would be mere pretense. But we can decide to act on beliefs justified by reasons, even if so acting exposes us to the ridicule of others. Otherwise we will remain cynical and indifferent, chuckling to ourselves about the impossibility of altering this untenable state of affairs.
This article was originally featured on Stir Journal via the Good Men Project and reposted with permission.