While The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are quintessential examples of television satire, they are two shows on a medium that tends to shy away from the genre. TV doesn’t like to alienate viewers. A higher Nielsen rating = more money and advertising revenue. This keeps the executives happy, which keeps programming on the air. “TV is the least confident of media, most afraid of rejection in the form of the audience reaching for the remote,” write Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson in their 2009 book Satire TV. Satire is an openly critical genre, and “critical” is almost a synonym for “alienating” in the world of television because satire publically displays anger, frustration, indignation, righteousness, and malevolence. These are not the most pleasant of human emotions, and viewers who watch TV to be relieved of their frustration tend to avoid programming that capitalizes on the world’s terribleness.
Therefore, an aggressive, resentful attack on the follies and vices of others doesn’t always bode well on network television. It usually doesn’t even get the chance to bode at all. But Comedy Central, a basic cable channel, doesn’t seem to mind taking the risk of alienating viewers (case in point: Tosh.O). So Colbert and Stewart are free to be as angry and frustrated as they please. They are part of the few, the proud, the lucky enough to belong to a channel that allows animated fourth graders to say the word “shit” — uncensored — 162 times in 22 minutes.
I have a particular affinity for satire. The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are two of my favorite shows (along with The Price is Right) and I read The Onion regularly. It’s most likely because three of my favorite pastimes are laughing, thinking, and criticizing society. Satire often leads me to successfully engage in all three at once.
In most cases, it’s a very approachable form of social criticism because it doesn’t come across as blatant and vehement hatred for all the shortcomings of this world. It portrays, in the digestible form of humor, more of a subtle dislike. It makes people feel good while bringing to light everything that should make them feel bad.
The best satire doesn’t come across as preachy or condescending. Ironically, this is one reason I find Stephen Colbert more effective: his character’s preaching actually seems less preachy than Jon Stewart’s… Jon Stewart. Because Colbert acts as a condescending conservative, it’s hard to tell if he would be as condescending if he were playing himself. Being exposed to everything he doesn’t believe doesn’t exactly allow one to know what he does believe (although I’m pretty sure he isn’t really a Republican).
Sometimes, and only sometimes, Stewart can become a bit condescending and resort to what I would consider full-blown teasing. Some would say that Stewart, who rarely leaves his true feelings ambiguous is more courageous because he isn’t hiding behind a character. But I think Colbert is more strategic and generally more accessible to potential converts to the world of satire. Even Colbert at his least light-hearted (which I believe occurs during his “The Word” segments) avoids nastiness and, ironically once again, arrogance.
Stewart on NBC’s editing of George Zimmerman’s 911 call (pay attention to his impression of Senator Mitch McConnell)
Colbert’s “The Word” segment (very powerful)
And now for a blast from the past. One of the first TV programs to use satire was Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the 1960s. A man by the name of Pat Paulsen did a satirical editorial segment on the show.
In 1968, he pulled a Colbert and “ran for President.” (I guess I should say Colbert pulled a Paulsen.)
Speaking of montages, a very entertaining and informative one appeared on The Daily Show Thursday night about the General Services Administration (GSA). This government agency, which performs management tasks like supplying office space to federal employees, is under fire because it blew almost a million dollars of taxpayer money at a Las Vegas conference. You would hope that the money would at least be put to good use, but that just wasn’t the case. The money was spent on clowns. And mind readers. The worst part (even worse than clowns)? The GSA is responsible for developing government-wide cost-minimizing policies. Sigh.
This is worth your time. Bill O’Reilly makes a special appearance:
Stewart was very passionate about this issue, and I appreciated his anger. If I can’t personally call the GSA to express my fury, I must live vicariously through comedians with their own late-night satirical TV shows. I might not have much of a voice, but people listen to Stewart. Yet, he wasn’t the only one to express outrage. Every media outlet seemed to agree that this reckless spending was unacceptable. Stewart even congratulated Fox News for their condemning coverage of the GSA.
The only person absent from this media firestorm was Stephen Colbert. On Thursday’s Colbert Report, he failed to mention this scandal. Instead, he spent time that he could have devoted to this or to any other story of importance to recount a personal story of how he saw a motorcyclist popping a wheelie in the Lincoln Tunnel. Seriously. And the “point” was that America is still awesome because a guy on a bike can make a bumper-to-bumper morning commute really cool. Ugh. That’s comparable to the fact that CNN wastes time every day to broadcast the latest viral video (which Colbert and Stewart have made fun of in the past).
Needless to say, I’m disappointed in Colbert. Stewart would never pass on an infuriating political piece about reckless spending that affects every taxpayer to discuss one macho man’s reckless driving that affected only the people blessed to have seen such a totally hardcore stunt. This is an area in which Stewart has an advantage over Colbert: he knows what’s important and he avoids fluff. If Colbert doesn’t at least mention this GSA controversy tonight, I will be doubly disappointed.
In my quest to obtain knowledge about Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart from a source other than Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, I found a book at the library aptly titled Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era. Colbert is even on the cover looking very handsome. It’s safe to say that my reporting is going well!
I dove right because there is no better way to spend my allotted homework time than to read about television programming that I don’t actually feel guilty watching. (I can only justify my Toddlers and Tiaras intake for so long.)
I thought it would be fitting to begin my first blog post where Satire TV begins its first page: Colbert’s speech at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner in 2006. This was my introduction to Colbert. I had never seen his show, which debuted the year before. Yet, when more than one friend told me to watch the video of him roasting Bush and the media at the Correspondents Dinner, I did. And what I received was the most entertaining 20 minutes to ever grace C-SPAN (the British Parliament is a close second… Alistair, your people are awesome).
Colbert’s speech was daring to say the least. It gets pretty uncomfortable pretty fast. But his confidence never falters, and he speaks more truth with comedy than the press does with sincerity. As the authors of Satire TV write, “Colbert’s boldness crystallized the sad irony that contemporary satire TV often says what the press is too timid to say, proving itself a more critical interrogator of politicians at times and a more effective mouthpiece of the people’s displeasure with those in power, including the press itself” (4).
When comparing the effectiveness and impact of Colbert and Stewart, this speech will amount to one of the many reasons why I prefer Colbert: Stewart may be more “real” because he’s not playing a character, but Colbert is more often seen in the real world. He makes more of an attempt to impact society, and he isn’t afraid to get up in front of a bunch of people at a Senate hearing or a White House function and say ridiculous things to prove a much-needed point. He’s simply more bad ass.