Friday, April 11, 2008

Satire Is Just As Good (Or Bad) As It's Always Been

In his Slate piece "The Satire Recession: How Political Satire Got So Flabby," Troy Patterson seems to suggest that at one point or another there existed a "golden age" of political satire. But I would wager that 90% of political humor over the course of the eons has largely been disposable, and only the cream of the crop lingers in the memory. So most political jokes "rarely transcend the level of pure ad hominem mockery"? Welcome to the story of the human race. That being said, I like the distinction he draws between the intellectually lazier late night humor of Leno, Letterman, and Conan and the sharper barbs of Stewart and Colbert:

"Senator John Kerry is in trouble for making a joke about soldiers being uneducated," said Conan. "As a result, Kerry promised to stop making jokes and stick to boring people." Peterson would class that harmless jape—John Kerry? Dull? No?!—as "pseudo-satire," which is cynical and shallow and treats politics "like an infection" and stands in contrast to the real satire that, for instance, Jon Stewart offered on the subject of the botched joke and the way it was spun: "After an election in which the GOP has been beaten up by, let's say, reality, the party has rediscovered a winning issue: the has-been's faux pas." Where O'Brien's pseudo-satrical joke trivializes the political process, Stewart's engages it by laughing at that very trivialization. The distinction isn't simply a matter of what's funny; well-constructed pseudo-satire often deserves more laughs than preachy satirical jokes. It's about the fact that comedy can perform a watchdog role and seems more ready to shirk it than Judith Miller. "By avoiding issues in favor of personalities," writes Peterson, "and by 'balancing' these shallow criticisms between conservatives and liberals, late-night comics are playing it safe but endangering democracy."

Also, Conan's joke is mostly just mean. It's like, "Wow, John Kerry is so boring. God, aren't you glad you're not as boring as John Kerry?" There's not really anything of value to take away from that. Stewart's joke is more valuable because when you hear it you laugh in mutual recognition along with Stewart on the timeless nature of political desperation. The joke is like a weapon against manipulation (and what's more valuable than that?).

Speaking of humor as a weapon used to alleviate emotional pain, Bruce Reed's rant on the nearly 15-year futility of the Pittsburgh Pirates fulfills that function admirably:

Seven years ago, in a desperate bid to revive the Pirates' fortunes, the city built PNC Park, a gorgeous field with the most spectacular view in baseball. From behind home plate, you can look out on the entire expanse of American economic history—from the Allegheny River to 1920s-era steel suspension bridges to gleaming glass skyscrapers. The result? As Pittsburgh writer Don Spagnolo noted last year in "79 Reasons Why It's Hard To Be a Pirates Fan," Pittsburgh now has "the best stadium in the country, soiled by the worst team." (The Onion once suggested, "PNC Park Threatens To Leave Pittsburgh Unless Better Team Is Built.") Spagnolo notes that the city already set some kind of record by hosting baseball's All-Star game in 1994 and 2006 without a single winning season in between.


yoggoth said...

Yeah, I like that distinction between Stewart and the late night network guys.

Little Earl said...

Now that I think about it, Conan's joke could actually be read in a slightly different and more insightful light, perhaps as a commentary on Kerry's seeming inability to please the public no matter what persona he tries to take on. If such was the intention, of course, the joke is ultimately so vague that it can easily be misread as simply "Thank God I'm not as lame as John Kerry is." John Stewart frames his jokes in such a way as that they can't really be misunderstood. I don't think Conan is any less moral of a person than John Stewart is. It's just that he's on NBC and he probably knows he can't ruffle too many feathers. Half the thrill of watching the Daily Show is hearing Stewart share opinions that I'm not used to hearing on television.