by Sara Altermann
Poking fun at politicians is one of America’s favorite pastimes, never
more so than during a presidential campaign.
From cartoons to sketch comedy, websites to television, political
satirists use humor and symbolism to deliver criticism, sometimes
muted, sometimes stinging. Now, for six weeks, the television
writers’ strike has shut down a rich and popular source of American
satire—namely, Comedy Central “news” shows such as “The Daily Show” and “The
Colbert Report
.”
It is undoubtedly a relief to some of the 2008 presidential
candidates, but also a disappointment to those who have appeared on
late night comedy shows to propel themselves onto the radar of young
voters, even at their own expense.
Back in January 2007, for example, the latest Republican sensation,
Gov. Mike Huckabee, appeared on “The Daily Show” to promote his
book—and, presumably, attempt to get some face time. Sen. John McCain
has been a frequent guest on late
night talk shows such as “The Daily Show,” and Sen. Barack Obama
guest-starred on “Saturday Night Live” Nov. 5, two days before
writer’s strike began, playing himself in a Halloween party sketch
that lampooned the 2008 Democratic presidential hopefuls.
Now those shows are relying on re-runs.
“This is the single biggest story of the writer’s strike,” says Robert
Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse
University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, “So we’re
only going to see eight episodes of ‘Lost.’ It’s not the end of the
world. But when it comes to political satire, this is a civic issue.
We are suffering as citizens by having those voices silenced.”
Still, political satire existed long before and endures beyond the
boundaries of Comedy Central, so oft-lampooned candidates can still
“enjoy” stints as the butt of a national joke.
The political cartoon is one of the earliest forms of political
satire, dating back to the 1700s when Benjamin Franklin’s ubiquitous
“Join or Die” used a butchered snake to represent the United States.
Currently, there’s plenty of contemporary fodder. Cartoonist Daryl
Cagle, for example, recently depicted Barack Obama in
the shadow of his biggest fan, Oprah Winfrey. And Hillary Clinton’s
ubiquitous question-planting scheme resulted in full
color
satire.
For Comedy Central-deprived web fiends, the network has its own
satirical website
that picks up where “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have
left off.
Whatever its form, political satire might best be described as comedy
that points out the truth. “All humor is truthful,” said political
satirist and activist Barry Crimmins, whose 2004 book Never Shake
Hands with a War Criminal, was widely acclaimed. “Basically, your job
is to smuggle under the context of humor to get points across. You
weaken people’s defenses by getting them to laugh.”
With the writers’ strike, satire enthusiasts can find alternative
voice among bloggers, political cartoonists and websites such as
TheOnion.com – which touts itself above fake headlines and stories as
“America’s Finest News Source.” If the stories are fake, the people
and events they are based on are real, such as the U.S. hunt for
overseas nuclear weapons and the
presses’ and public’s unrelenting fascination with political polls.
“If you’ve been one of those people who have gotten into politics via
Comedy Central, since those shows are in reruns, this might actually
be an opportunity to get into other forms of satire,” Thompson said.
But none of these options approaches the popularity and perhaps
influence of TV programs like the Daily Show. In fact, a recent
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media study of the 2004
presidential election campaign suggested that young voters have turned
more and more to comedic sources for political information. That
finding resonates with a 2007 study by the Pew Center for Politics and
the Press, which reported regular “Daily Show” viewers have a slightly
higher knowledge of public affairs than regular listeners of National
Public Radio, and a substantially higher knowledge than regular
viewers of local TV
news
.
As comedian and writer The Onion’s web editor, Baratunde Thurston,
suggests, the public has lost more from the writers’ strike than the
chance to kick back.
“I firmly believe that political satire is a necessary function within
a society, and when the satirists are silent, society suffers,” said
Thurston, the author of the recent book, Thank You, Congressional
Pages!! (For being so damn sexy!) “Political satire is the honey that
helps America swallow the bitter pill that our democracy has become.”
He is concerned that the strike has stripped society of one of its
prime defenses against the spin and hype that are so much a part of a
political season.
“I think there’s a backlog of demand for relief from the campaign and
its coverage,” Thurston said, “I’ve met people who directly say to me,
‘The Onion HAS to do more. We NEED you to, with the strike.’ I just
hope we can deliver.”
Help may be on the way for the television-deprived. NBC announced in
mid-December that Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien would return to late
night television on Jan. 2, even if the writers’ strike is not
resolved. Can Jon Stewart be far behind?