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"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

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June 21, 2006

Has Satire Lost Its Lust For Human Blood?

So, it turns out Chevy Chase has recorded a PSA (mp3) on impeachment for After Downing Street. I thought this was a little surprising, but Dennis Perrin says no:

Chevy Chase has long been absent from comedy's epicenter, mostly by choice, preferring to help raise his daughters far away from the Hollywood scene. But Chevy's always held political views, and he's had no problem stating them publicly, sometimes forcefully...Before a polite celeb audience, Chevy called Bush a "dumb fuck," adding "I'm no fucking clown either...This guy started a jihad...This guy in office is an uneducated, real lying schmuck...and we still couldn't beat him with a bore like Kerry."

...Chevy's mention of the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon is more than just political nostalgia; Chevy played a savage satirical role at that time, writing and performing impeachment-oriented material for the National Lampoon Radio Hour, the best routines of which were later collected on a Lampoon album, "The Missing White House Tapes." This was no Johnny Carson/Rich Little good-natured ribbing -- this was a full-frontal assault on Nixon's criminal enterprise by those who set the satirical standard for a generation, if not longer. Some of this energy burned into the early "Saturday Night Live," where Chevy, on Weekend Update, continued his political attacks.

...where are this generation's satirical assaults? Yes, we have "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report"; and while a lot of their material is quite sharp and very funny, both shows evince an "ironic" detachment, especially Colbert's. Call me a retro-fart, but I'll take the Lampoon's direct and merciless attacks on our masters. At least the Lampooners showed heart, passion, and above all outrage, qualities that today are dismissed as too emotional by those with an eye on demographics. Sometimes it takes an old timer like Chevy Chase to remind us what teeth are for.

The rest is here.

And after reading Dennis' thoughts, Mike was moved to add this:

The satirists of the 60s and 70s had an immediacy, and a sincerity which energized their material. They had a personal commitment to reality as a place changeable for the better (and worse) that the current ones seem to lack. Was there ever any doubt where "The Vietnamese Baby Book" stood on Vietnam? Was there any doubt that Hunter Thompson HATED Richard Nixon? Does Jon Stewart HATE Bush? Or does he merely dislike him intensely, while remaining just a tiny bit grateful for the steady stream of material? I simply can't tell. When Stewart and Colbert dropped their "foolish humans" distance and showed the anger beneath, people went crazy for it. People crave that kind of honesty--why don't our comedians and satirists give it to us?

I blame irony...The ironic stance is based on a false knowingness, a sense of having done and seen it all which is excusable in an 18-year-old but shows ignorance, if not outright corruption, in an adult. Irony's not a worldview, it's a defensive crouch against being exposed as a fool, based on the belief that everybody gets exposed sooner or later. It insists that nothing ever changes, then its passivity makes that so. Irony's perfect mass-satire for our fractious times, because it's a way to comment without taking a stand--but it makes our times more fractious in the process. It's a unclear, excuse-making, self-serving form of communication, and as a form of satire, it's crap.

The rest.

Posted at June 21, 2006 11:46 AM | TrackBack

Comedians should make people laugh. Political commentators should tell us the way things are.
Jon Stewart may be the newscast that informs viewers the most, but that doesn't mean we need a better Jon Stewart.

Posted by: Doug at June 21, 2006 01:16 PM

I think our society is corrupt through and through - not just the ironic comedians, but the businesspersons, the ruling class, the business elite, the cowardly Congress, the lying press, the masses who are asses - to tell you the truth, I don't feel too well myself.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at June 21, 2006 01:24 PM

Not another attack on irony! Poor irony -- for a respectable trope, it has really been getting into trouble in the last six years. Irony was secretly whispering to the hijackers who rammed into the WTC -- this piece of trope news came from unimpeachable literary sources, like the TNR books editor, Leon Wieseltier, who communes daily with the Zeitgeist.

At the time, the NY Observer, perhaps feeling guilty for having dealt with the traitorous trope before, was all for doing it to death:

"This has been a golden age of the second-rate and the trivial, in almost any sphere of human activity or ambition you care to specify-and now, in the wake of the W.T.C. calamity, the people who brought it to you are trying to disown it. Like rats scuttling down the hawser of a foundering ship whose bottom they have gnawed through, the chatterati (and those they suck up to) have pulled grave faces and proclaimed the end of "irony," which appears to be their euphemism of preference for triviality, fecklessness, utter lack of serious purpose, a tolerance of mediocrity, a worship of "buzz" and snobbishness of the most bourgeois kind.

I urge that you read Leon Wieseltier (The New Republic's Oct. 8, 2001, issue or online) on this and related subjects. Now is a time for these people to shut up, period. Now is a time for people with standards to cry: "Enough!" And if we really want to get serious about dealing with the enemy among us, the only answer is ethnic cleansing: immediate deportation of the Brits (and Commonwealth types) who in the past dozen years have invested our media with their hick Groucho Club narcissism.

Just think of it. An entire generation-people born between, say, 1960 and 1980-feels itself suddenly obliged to get serious, and hasn't the slightest idea how. An entire generation is obliged to confront fear with no practice at coping with it. There has been no existential preparation-in kind, let alone degree-for what happened on Sept. 11. There have been no psychological equivalents of air-raid or fire drills. Watching one's dot-com options tank and losing the Beamer to the repo man has been about as bad as it's gotten." - 8 october, 2001.

There it is. Irony was kept from our shores, luckily, by the greatest generations -- the fighters of the cold war, the fighters in Vietnam, and the fighters against the fighters in Vietnam. But on little cat feet, irony went from cradle to cradle, whispering decadent nothings to the post 68 generation, who as we know, grew up with no material problems whatsoever. The Lucky Ducky generation, as the WSJ might call them.

Well, as soon as you have mass prosperity, weakening of the moral fiber is soon observed. And this is where that devil irony flourishes. No longer do we have brave comedians like George Carlin, the Smothers brothers, and Bob Hope -- no, we have irony infected comedians, shaping the air with the quote mark sign, and generally diluting our moral purity.

Obviously, we don't need any of that! We need more touching novels, more flowers handed out to soldiers, and perhaps, who knows, a little Mammas and Pappas in the night. I mean, look how successful that anti-Vietnam war movement was: in twelve years short years, at a cost of merely a million and a half Vietnamese casualties and 56 thousand Amercian, they were able to bring the war to a rapid close. Wow. A record like that just... awes me. And their success obviously was due to keeping irony on the other side of the Atlantic, where the French cultivate it, hoping to infect Americans of the beamer class.

Posted by: roger at June 21, 2006 01:31 PM

Hear hear, roger!

To Mike, Dennis and the rest: stupid people don't care anyway. Let's not strip ourselves of the raw pleasure of being able to be superior at their expense.

Posted by: Alexis S at June 21, 2006 01:46 PM

Agreed, Doug, that Jon Stewart isn't the problem, but a more sincere Jon Stewart could only hasten the solution. Satirists (not comedians--nobody's arguing that Carrot Top is an opinion leader) that express their personal anger in a sincere yet entertaining manner help in two ways: first, they demonstrate an alternative to helpless nihilism, and second, they communicate that you, Mr. Audience Member, are not the only one who thinks things are screwed up. Both of these are potentially very powerful. Imagine if we had a Correspondents' Dinner-style brouhaha once a month, rather than once every five years. That brought anti-Bush anger, rightwing delusion, and the absurd complicity of the Press front and center in a way that straightforward, non-comedic comment simply doesn't in our entertainment-focused culture. We should run our society like grown-ups, but people prefer jokes. Until they don't, better satire isn't the solution, but it can help.

Mistah Charley, as far as I can figure, the only way a corrupt society becomes less corrupt is if individuals decide not to play that way. As a comedy person, that's the arena where my decision plays out. What constitutes corruption--and how to allay it--differs from profession to profession. Deciding to speak truthfully and from the heart, but get less rich, is how it shakes down in my life, so I like to celebrate people who model that behavior, to encourage myself to stay strong, keep my faith, and not give in, even in the midst of the alternative.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at June 21, 2006 01:52 PM

Actually every now and then Jon Stewart really does show his sincere, visible outrage. I was thinking the other day that he's become extrordinairly informed about things, and that anyone who can pick his brain in earnest (his wife? his kids?) would probably get some interesting, relevant opinions. But the show stays humble by being grounded in his general air of self-deprecation, and I think it would lose more than it would gain if he dropped it.

I'm all for heartful satire though.

Posted by: Saheli at June 21, 2006 04:16 PM

Mike of Angle has it right.

Deciding to speak truthfully and from the heart, but get less rich...

Comedy is a tenuous gig. Few make a living at it. It takes tremendous courage to risk livelyhood for sincerity and I applaud those who do.

Oh yeah. Bob Hope? Never detected any real sting in his act.

Posted by: spiiderweb at June 21, 2006 06:20 PM

I'm going to stick my neck on the block here and disagree with both Dennis and Mike on this one. I've been watching The Daily Show for years, and while it's true that Jon Stewart was detached and ironic five years ago, he no longer is. His disgust with Bush and his cronies is evident, and he does not hesitate to put idiots like Bill Bennett and Ken Mehlman down when they come on his show. I suspect he also reaches a hell of lot more people than Chevy Chase did on National Lampoon Radio. From the point of view of swaying as many people as possible, I'd rather have Jon Stewart making lots of people somewhat disgusted with Bush than Chevy Chase making a small number of already disgusted people even more disgusted.

There is plenty of room for satirists, comedians, and filmmakers out there. The most devastating thing someone like Jon Stewart can do is to show us the truth, whether via a polite but devastating interview, or via past clips of people to catch them in present lies. It's easy for Republicans to demonize someone like Michael Moore as a ranting lefty. It's a lot harder for them to demonize someone like Jon Stewart, and I don't think they've figured out how to do it yet (unless you count sending emails to Republican staffers instructing them not to speak to The Daily Show). His above-the-fray stance may not be as biting as we might like to see, but it gives him a certain amount of credibility. Perhaps what is saddest about the whole situation is that he has more credibility than most conventional news anchors.

Posted by: Ted at June 21, 2006 07:19 PM

Y'all are hoping for comedians to lead us out of the wilderness? Think about it.

Posted by: Lloyd at June 21, 2006 08:58 PM

The last time I watched television was probably several years ago so I may be right I may be wrong but I don't give a flying fuck if I am or not.

I agree with Dennis completely. I quit watching television which is basically because it is crap, pure crap. I first got fed up with the sitcoms who regurgitated the same stupid plots over and over and the theme was always the same, who could manipulate who the most. Then I got fed up with the news programs with their Ken and Barbie talking head hosts and their stupid sing-song manner of talking which eventually drove me up the wall. Then I got fed up with the News Hour because though it claims to be the best thing that ever happened after a while I could see it was just another republican rag. Newspapers though lousy as well are still a better source for news. Just my opinion.

Saturday Night Live or the early version was great and it did reach a great number of people, it launched quite a few careers in fact. Actually I did watch a clip of the Colbert show that was posted on the internet, a segment with David Sirota. I think it was a perfect example of what Dennis is talking about. Colbert was pretending he was a typical Limbaugh type asking questions of David Sirota who did an excellent job of answering them. But why the little pretense by Colbert? It was kind of pointless except for David Sirota's remarks but Colbert made it into an ironic farce.

Also I quit watching television because of the cultural difference, kind of a future shock for a middle aged twit like myself. I don't relate to the culture television is hawking and they do hawk it. Maybe younger folk can relate to today's television but I don't. Look there are just better things to do with your time than watching television any way, a person gets to the point where you figure you ain't gonna live forever so do you want to spend time watching a lot of fantasy or spend your time in reality? Reality is more interesting anyway. Hell I would rather read a good history book or book on astronomy or even good fiction even though that would be fantasy as well but it can be well written fantasy which is revealing of the human heart rather than the garbage I recall seeing mostly aimed at a ten year old mentality.

Yes I am sure there are exceptions but I don't care really. I don't miss television, not even a little. I now have more time to write music and practice my saxophones and flute and go outside and see the real world.

Posted by: rob payne at June 22, 2006 01:17 AM

But why the little pretense by Colbert?

Uh, dude, that's the whole concept behind the show and the character .. .I think the little pretense is useful. You can tell from his expression that he doesn't mean it, but his words are often exactly the same words a Limbaugh type would use. And so he gives people a real opportunity to debunk those words and questions without *actually* going O'Reilly on them and shutting them by sheer force of volume.

Posted by: Saheli at June 22, 2006 01:25 AM

Johnathan, Mike, Dennis,

I have to agree with Lloyd here. Yes, Chevy Chase helped with the Nixon vibe and I whole heartedly applaud that. But the reality is he was permitted to help. Lorne let him do his shtick. And the executives at NBC let Lorne let Chevy do his thing. And the board of NBC let the executives let Lorne let Chevy do his shtick.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9 NIV
8 If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. 9 The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.

The problem isn't with comedians, it's with the corporate nature of the media. Corporate culture has become more corrupt and ruthless since the 70s, and so the media that represents them has done the same. Attitude reflects leadership. Especially when a guy like Bill Moyers can have an appointed toady show him his ass as he his thrown out the door, and the rest of the newscasting profession pretends like nothing happend.

The fault lines have been showing for many years now, as the line for news has been pushed from entertainment, to direct marketing, to outright propaganda. All with full knowledge of the owners and managers of the media corporations. This is what Sam is competing against. This is ultimately what Noam has been warning us all about for the last 25+ years. Should Jon Stewart who knows very well he can be bought and sold by comedy central push the line further than they wish him to, so that his show can be run by another? I thnk it is vainity to expect him to.

To win the battle you must take it to where it matters- the purses of the boardroom members. And that means technologically innovating, investing in it, living by it making it work. It also means organizing, boycotting, fundraising and evangelizing.

The only time I have ever seen a comedian draw the line was when Jay Leno rained in the Alex Trebeck Jeopardy skit the week the Starr report came out. He realized enough was enough, you could see it in his face and he did it while they were recording; the plan was to run some further brutal character assassination which he cut off at the pass. The Monica movement was solely a propaganda movement and as such a comedian could make a small difference in limiting a small part of the wave of popular opinion.

What we deal with now is not just a propaganda movement but a naked power grab by the powerful. In this crisis there are serious players who are playing for keeps. I applaud Chevy for all he has done and continues to do, but I have no illusions about where the real work is to be done. If we cannot change the way the game is played everyone will lose.

Posted by: patience at June 22, 2006 02:09 AM


Yes I agree with you on what Colbert is doing but I just happen to agree with Dennis that a more direct approach is more effective. The very reason I agree with him is that it is time to respond to the republican approach which is to define what liberals are in very unflattering and dishonest terms. I am thinking about the last presidential election where I kept hearing Kerry say how much he honored Bush, Kerry was taking the high road and did not respond to the Swift Boat attack until it was too late for a response. I think it is why Kerry lost the election because he allowed Bush to define him. But if you think about it the republicans have been defining liberals for years and the liberals for the most part just roll over assuming the high road. It is a failed approach and one that has cost us dearly in election after election. In other words it is time to wake up from the past, get into the present and fight back and that means hitting the republican lie machine hard and fast and stop letting them define us.

Posted by: rob payne at June 22, 2006 02:40 AM

So many interesting comments for me to procrastinate with!
HEDGEHOG: The "detached indifference" that you lament is what I'm calling irony. That's a problematic label, but what the current comedic style has been called in the MSM since about 1985. We're lamenting the same thing, and I think it comes from what you suggest: despair and powerlessness. "What can you do?"
ROB: As has been pointed out here many times, most people's rhetorical sophistication is not high. A more direct satirical approach is necessary because, while ironic mirroring is very satisfying, the point you're trying to make can be blurred or lost entirely. When you have an audience as confused and manipulated as Americans currently are, I think it's best to say what you mean, no decoding necessary. Just my opinion, and why some people don't find my stuff very funny. :-)
PATIENCE: Jon Stewart could become just as rich, and probably more so, if he did an uncensored Daily Show teased on the web with a full version downloadable via iTunes. The need to play ball with these corporations dwindles day-by-day.
SAHELI: My point about irony exactly. You get one message, Rob Payne got another. Irony is about reading intent, and when you're being lied to constantly, fatigue and confusion set in.
LLOYD: I'm not hoping for anybody to lead me out of the wilderness except me. I have a lively sense of the ultimate uselessness of comedy, but today I happen to be hopeful.
Ted: Well said, and I see your point; but Jon Stewart entered the firmament only after he said what all of us had been thinking about Crossfire for years. That's not ranting, that's simply telling the truth, clearly and sharply, as yourself. People crave this. They crave it a LOT more than another persona.
Spiiderweb: thanks. I tried to sell out but nobody was buying.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at June 22, 2006 12:09 PM

I understand revulsion at the popular culture, and withdrawal from the media, but if you hold out hope for changing things, you must engage in the democratic process. That means you still accept the possibility that it is possible to change minds.

I submit that if a satirist appears to take a position that is widely held, then through the device of irony (so artfully employed by Colbert,) it is debunked, minds are more likely to change, -- and that is what this is all about, absent a left-wing demagogue that imposes his or her concept of morality, in effect enforcing liberal principles by violating them.

Those not susceptible to such satire are too benighted to have their minds changed in any case.

Do we ALSO want a haranguer to rally the troops with a straightforward lampoon? Sure, but do not expect that person, however skilled, to change a single mind.

Posted by: David at June 22, 2006 01:03 PM

there are a lot of good points of view here. i tend to agree with hedgehog.

i have trouble with this question: what's the point of educating people on how bad bush is if the best result of that is switching our government from unilateral imperialist back to multilateral imperialist? neither one has much of a future, IMO.

i do have a wish for everybody to keep fighting, but it seems like some have the goal of just getting it back to where we can pretend everything is okay again, and that will not work.

Posted by: joe_christmas at June 22, 2006 04:55 PM

With all respect guys, I think you're creating too much of a false dichotomy and also placing too big a burden on the shoulders of a single hour of comedy central. The implication seems to be that people who enjoy the Daily Show and Colbert are, by definition, some combination of unidealistic, pessimistic, cynical, or too focused on self-amusedment. I mean, come on, I was raised watching Monsterpiece Theater in the morning and Masterpiece Theater at night. I can handle a little mimicry and cognitive dissonance without losing my moral compass. There also seems to be some implication that these two guys and their teams have a mandate to appeal to the broadest possible audience. They don't. They have a very clearly laid out mandate to appeal to a youngish crowd, and I think that youngish crowd gets it.

If they made wider appeal their goal, they'd probalby lose out on viewers like me. There may be ambiguity, Mike of Angle, but that ambiguity goes down drastically as you examine the original target audience. With that in mind, I think y'all are also greatly overestimating the extent to wish the interaction and reaction between the Target audience and the show is about cynicism and apathy. First of all, I just dont' see the level of actual insincerity that you see. In fact, I would say that Stewart is so beloved precisely because he does let his opinions and feelings show in a self-deprecatory way, and he's capable of switching between "I mock you because I think you are absurd and I will profit from showing off that absurdity" to "I mock you the way I would mock my roommate, and actually, I think you're pretty awesome," in a way that's efficient and effective. The teasing affection he has doled on book authors like Chris Mooney is actually a powerful endorsement of their work, especially when contrasted with the biting or merely polite ribs he gives to people like Bill Bennet. Moreover he frequently points out what could have been done differently, and he also frequently asks guests, "so what do we do?"--and let's their answers roll, as long as they aren't too absurd. The answer is not to critique the Daily Show and hope it changes to better fit exactly what you want to do. The answer is to try and create yet another show or thing that does that, just as well. There's definitely room for it.It's not an "instead of" equation.

I also think you're sensing a false dichotomy between people who enjoy CC and people who are idealistic, hopeful, and active. The people my age in my life who who shame me frequently with their effort to make change are all big fans. It's as much about whistling in the dark as anything else, and it's no accident that it's a late night show.It's about winding down and having cathartic relief of your daily griefs. These same people wouldn't even dream of watching TV in the morning. They're too busy tumbling right into their wacky, helpful dayjobs.

what's the point of educating people on how bad bush is if the best result

First of all that's just the next step, not the best possible result or even final result. Second of all there is still a lot of point. It always frustrates me when people who don't have to deal with that marginal difference underestimate its value. But a lot of people--from certain categories of poor, to certain kinds of students and teachers, to scientists, to certain immigrant groups--have very strongly felt the impact of that marginal difference for the last 6-12 years. In my corner of the world repetitive, snooty, 'knowing' dismissal that marginal difference with a cavalier, "oh there's *no* difference" has fostered more apathy and cynicism than any theatrical style.

I'm not sure I believe that our youth culture is so dead and decrepit and hopeless. It's webbier, wonkier, and more likely to be clothed in 501 -3(c) form and have a bank account, but that doesn't make it patently useless.

Posted by: Saheli at June 22, 2006 06:17 PM

Stewart is getting a little more "shrill" than he has been in the past, but he still lapses into a little too much safe conventional wisdom from time to time. When he had that idiot Ramesh Ponnuru on pimping his "Party of Death" book, Jon said something idiotic about the debate over abortion being driven too much by the "extremists on both sides". WTF? Who the fuck can you find on the "keep abortion legal" side that comes anywhere near the fanatical anti-abortion lunatics?

Posted by: at June 22, 2006 06:23 PM

And historically, this other end is not exactly quiet.

Being passionate about their convictions doesn't make them "extremists". No matter how it gets spun, on the one hand, you have people who want to keep abortion legal - upholding the law, as far as I recall, is not exactly a radical position. The other side - well, we already know what they're all about.

Posted by: at June 23, 2006 02:49 PM