Stephen Colbert and the Pitfalls of Modern Political Satire

The state of American political discourse is no laughing matter. Yet, the entire sub-genre of television constituting late-night comedy, a formidable industry of talk shows from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, to Jimmy Kimmel Live!, to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, survives and thrives by treating it as one. “You shouldn’t listen to us at all if you’re looking for information,” said Colbert—but viewers are drawn to comic relief as a palatable, even comforting, filter for the hurricane of happenings in the public sphere. In a bad feedback loop, this filter distorts and simplifies. Instead of building bridges, late-night comedy exacerbates differences in opinions and values with derision. So, we must ask ourselves: as late-night comedy encroaches on the news’ niche, is it doing more harm than good?

Even before the 2016 presidential election, late-night comedy was treated as a legitimate news source by some. Back in 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that 10% of “online adults” get news from The Colbert Report—the same percentage that relied on The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. The same study also found that more people were aware of Colbert’s show than of The Economist, NPR, or Buzzfeed.

Carlos Maza of Vox argued this year that “political satire makes us smarter news consumers.” Indeed, other analyses have suggested that late-night not only competes with the news, but sometimes surpasses it in quality and range of coverage. In November 2014 the University of Delaware conducted a study that seemed to back this up. Of the surveyed individuals who reported using mainstream media sources “sometimes” or “regularly,” only 7% to 12% had heard “a lot” about the subject of the study – net neutrality rules proposed at the time. On the other hand, 22% of Daily Show viewers, 23% of Colbert Report viewers and 29% who watched the John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight had “heard a lot.”

These statistics do not necessarily indicate thorough coverage by late-night hosts; perhaps the viewers of late-night political satire are a self-selected group of politically engaged consumers, which would imply they are already politically informed from reading more mainstream news. Then, if the late-night comedy medium can succeed in being both informative and entertaining, perhaps mainstream news outlets should take a page out of late-night playbooks—developing a more synthesized style of fact presentation, infused with humor to increase interest and understanding.

Such an aspiration is not only unrealistic, but would perpetuate the post-truth news culture; giving less attention to the accuracy of so-called dry or boring details means gradually losing understanding of the inner workings of complex systems, especially political and economic ones, and could mean a further erosion of accountability for those in power.  

The survey’s results could also be explained by the trend that comedy explains issues less thoroughly, and oversimplifies them to the extent that viewers are given a false impression of their own expertise, and distorted reassurance of the impregnability of their views.

Though it is likely that comedy does increase viewer awareness of some issues, this alternative explanation underscores the general risk of leaning too heavily on comedy as news.  It is crucial that comedy continues to be taken with a grain of salt, as a supplement, rather than a substitute, to traditional news. Otherwise, any heightened awareness comes at the cost of a deeply problematic loss of objectivity and increase in polarization.

In the Pew study, there was a significant correlation between political affiliation and affinity for satirical entertainment. Roughly 26% of “consistent liberals” had gotten news “about government and politics” from The Colbert Report the week before the study, compared with just 1% of “consistent conservatives.” The Colbert Report was the show in which Stephen Colbert took on the persona of a hyper-conservative pundit. This show was one of the primary subjects of discussion on “The Satire Paradox,” the final installment in the first season of Malcolm Gladwell’s popular podcast Revisionist History.

“Satire allows you to say almost anything. That’s where truth is spoken to power in our society,” Gladwell says. The episode itself then probes beyond and beneath this statement to explore the nature of satire. Professor Heather Lamarre of Temple University noted in the podcast, as the Pew study had, that satire could be a vehicle for polarization. Yet, she discussed polarization from a different perspective. She characterized The Colbert Report as having a bipartisan appeal; however, she found in a 2009 study that conservative viewers interpreted Colbert’s right-wing persona as genuine, and believed that he was legitimately making fun of liberals. Liberals, on the other hand, saw Colbert’s persona as satirically poking fun at conservatives, as was Colbert’s intention. The results of these opposite confirmation biases is a “deeper divide between the two groups”—and Lamarre does state that “this type of polarization effect has been found to have negative consequences for democracy.”

The Colbert Report stopped airing in 2014. Now, in his new role on The Late Show, Stephen Colbert has been perhaps the most consistent of his contemporaries in lambasting Trump, both before and after the 2016 election. Colbert also has the “largest audience in late-night” this year. Colbert’s consistency in criticizing Trump has led some news outlets to hail him as transcending his role as a comedy host to be an ideological and moral crusader. He himself holds no such illusions; he does not speak of converting people or stopping Trump, but rather strives “to make people feel better.” This means that he is always an entertainer first; at the most elemental level, his nightly concern is to make people laugh. However, because he defines himself as a comedian in his opposition to Trump, and because he has such a large audience–listed as 3.33 million viewers – his style of insults can conflate shallow criticisms with legitimate ones.

For example, in an episode skewering Trump’s remarks on North Korea to the United Nations, Colbert fixated his humor on Trump’s tendency to reject international norms for engaging in politics, most notably by threatening to “totally destroy North Korea.” However, the recurring focus of the skit was not on criticizing Trump’s words and actions, but rather by riffing on appearance-based insults. Colbert went from calling him an “uncooked pumpkin bread dough with a rusty Brillo pad balanced on top” to “a rotting haystack made of meat” to “Jabba the Hut’s out-of-shape stunt double.” Kim Jong Un got the same treatment, described as looking “like if the kid from “Up!” ate the old man from “Up!”—as did Mike Pence, “Man-Mayonnaise hybrid.”

When you have to entertain an audience every night and put your own spin on things, it is understandable to drift toward the superfluous insults, the easy targets. That being said, late-night comedians undermine their own credibility and weaken the judgement of their audiences by joking about the president’s racism and hair in the same breath.

The issue with a monologue in the vein of Colbert’s coverage of Trump’s response to the Charlottesville protests is more complex. His coverage emphasized and, well, condemned the president’s delayed “K-K-Kondemnation” of the “white nationalists and the Neo-Nazis” who held the rally in Charlottesville, and was structured largely by interspersing video clips of Trump’s press conference (in which he defended his ambiguous response to the rally) with Colbert’s own commentary.

Meticulous explanation is the death of humor—on the other hand, it is the lifeblood of productive dialogue between people with radically different worldviews

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For one thing, the potentially problematic blurring of comedy and news is exemplified by this format—mixing video footage and serious news coverage with Colbert’s exaggerated characterizations and editorializing. Moreover, this type of comedy actually reveals the danger of using comedy as a way to “comfort people.” Trump’s statements were sitting ducks for Colbert to ridicule, especially for an audience that firmly believes Trump lacks any sense of his obligation, as president, to condemn hate. While Trump misses the big point in his attempt to criticize “both sides,” Colbert makes a big mistake as well. In emphasizing Trump’s absurdity with imagery, rhetorical questions, and dramatic language, he separates Trump from his voter base. In other words, Colbert obscures the intentions of and rationale for the (admittedly muddled) points Trump is trying to make. By further ridiculing Trump for echoing the thought processes of much of his base, he scorns this base, dehumanizes them and encourages his audience to do the same. This comes at a time when the country direly needs clearer communication and a better understanding of different perspectives. No matter how repugnant or foreign, these views should not be misconstrued and trivialized.

Colbert also frames his “news coverage” in a misleading way, saying “Trump continued to attack…George Washington,” before showing a clip of Trump trying to make the point that slavery is embedded in the Founding Fathers’ history as well as the Confederacy. Trump is not attacking George Washington; Colbert is deliberately distorting Trump’s intentions in order to get laughs. Colbert goes on to ridicule Trump’s statement “You’re changing history” by noting that history does not draw especially on “statue-based study”—which amuses us at the expense of Trump, but more importantly, distracts from the bigger, messier questions about whether and when ceasing to recognize heritage actually does change history. Colbert closes by reconstructing words visible from a piece of paper in Trump’s coat pocket into an imagined speech in which the president argues for his own impeachment. As this fake statement and opinionated jibe shows, late night television indiscriminately blurs of the lines between joke and reality.

Meticulous explanation is the death of humor—on the other hand, it is the lifeblood of productive dialogue between people with radically different worldviews. But because late-night is mostly preaching to the choir (in terms of political views) why should its hosts bother being nuanced or objective? Its audiences’ opinions are already formed. The problem lies in the way mentalities are hardened by this self-indulgent comedy. By drawing out the absurd, comedy draws the audience in with a fair, pithy criticism. But soon after, it blinds them to how others see things with statements based on mutual assumptions. This is what we witness with Colbert’s blistering commentary on Trump’s Charlottesville response.

When Colbert brought out Sean Spicer while hosting the 2017 Emmy Awards this September, the question was raised again about the smudging of the pencil-thin lines separating politics from celebrity. Spicer’s self-parody, blending skit and real political figures, demonstrates how entertainment can be integrated with serious political conversations. It is this very reality that makes riffing on shallow criticisms problematic.

Right now, by succumbing to the vicious cycle of consumer culture—where the impetus to entertain and cater to short attention spans skews priorities and judgement—comedy like Colbert’s can be an anesthetic. It’s a distraction that both perpetuates political polarization and undercuts critical reflections. Perhaps more shows could adopt a John Oliver-esque format—prioritizing quality over quantity, and sacrificing profit (instead of laughing all the way to the bank) by doing a weekly show rather than a daily one. His comedy model at least in theory allows for more attention to detail, as well as more discretion with what and how to satirize.

Comedians do not have to change the world; they cannot replace mainstream news, and should not attempt to do so. But the power and influence of late-night mean that Colbert, and other comedians, may not be able to afford to simply “make people feel better” anymore. They may need to hold themselves to a higher standard and shoulder more responsibility. Malcolm Gladwell was right when he said, “Satire works best when the satirist has the courage not just to go for the joke.” When that courage fails, the laughs can continue, but hosts and audiences pay by letting principles become punchlines.

 

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