The Satire Recession

How political satire got so flabby.

Troy Patterson chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Fred Armisen and Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live

Gore Vidal once said that you should never pass up an opportunity to have sex or go on television, but that was before AIDS. And cable. No one seems to have pointed this out to the people doling out stale wisecracks on Not Just Another Cable News Show (Saturdays at 7 p.m., ET), CNN’s new misadventure in comedy. The inaugural episode constituted a half-hour of file footage annotated with cheap attitude, and I trust that coming installments will give journalists and comedians further opportunities to violate the ideals of their professions in exchange for a few snatches of airtime.

Not Just Another Cable News Show marks the ultimate VH1-ification of American politics, with a gallery of telegenic wiseasses brought on to snark about current events. At least VH1’s fluff-summarizing Best Week Ever had the advantage of being current; the CNN show contented itself, last weekend, with scrolling through “the most memorable political blunders” of recent decades. The episode began with a greatest-misses anthology of Bushisms. We again saw the president say, “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family,” and then waited for a pundit or stand-up (comedian Chris Regan, in this case) to match it with a one-liner. “It was part of the No Child Left Ungravyed program,” quipped Regan, not badly. Subsequent segments concerned Al and Tipper bussing lustily at the Democratic National Convention in 2000, Reagan’s outlawing Sovietism on a sound check in 1984, Fidel Castro tripping and falling in 2004, and John Kerry’s flubbing his line about Bush’s intellectual laziness and getting stuck in Iraq during the 2006 midterm campaign. “I think pretty much every joke John Kerry tells is a botched joke,” said Ana Marie Cox, of Time, earning a few points for pith and none for originality, and unwittingly highlighting something horrible about the shared narrative approach of journalism and mainstream comedy.

To gauge the heft of the horror, it’s helpful to turn to Russell L. Peterson, of the American Studies department at the University of Iowa, and his new book Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke, a cultural analysis so smart, supple, and frisky that it instantly stands as required reading for every aspiring critic in the country. Though his focus is on late night—the time slot to which market forces have usually relegated political jokes—Peterson would argue that Not Just Another Cable News Show is, in every way that matters, exactly like every other cable news show and like most other topical comedy programs, too. Its jokes “rarely transcend the level of pure ad hominem mockery.” They’re personality jokes and, as such, of a piece with character-based journalistic narratives that “treat newsmakers not as the subjects of newscasts but as the news’ cast.”

Writing about journalists’ immediate response in 2006 to Kerry’s botched joke, Peterson notes that “the story was a story not because it actually revealed anything about Kerry but because it seemed to confirm what the media already ‘knew’ about him.” On NBC, Brian Williams led with the story at 6:30 p.m.—even as U.S. military commanders caved in to Iraq’s demands that they abandon a search for missing soldiers. If you stayed tuned for six hours, you saw Conan O’Brien hammering out a template for Cox. “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.”

The word endangering might look a bit overheated there, but please consider it in the context of one of Peterson’s remarks about the way that Saturday Night Live’s political impressions tend more toward cuddly caricature-making than worthy satire: “The show’s political ‘characters’ are as one-dimensional and ‘lovable’ as any of the other catchphrase-spouting mannequins Lorne Michaels might hope to spin off onto the big screen (Jason Sudeikis as George W. Bush and Darrell Hammond as Dick Cheney in—Night at the Roxbury II).” Rumors of SNL’s rebirth have been greatly exaggerated. Since the end of writers’ strike, a lot of noise has been going around that SNL has achieved a new political relevance, and much of that talk is nonsense on its face. The show is still leaning on material about Bill Clinton’s libido and probably always will.

To review: SNL has twice devoted sketches to the idea that debate moderators, as members of an Obama-besotted media, have given the Illinois senator an easy go of it in his one-on-one debates with Hillary Clinton. But the only jokes were in the impersonations (Amy Poehler’s schoolmarm nodding as Hillary, Fred Armisen’s catching Obama’s professor-preacher cadence) and in the hyperbole (CNN’s Soledad O’Brien so hot and bothered that she fans herself). The joke never develops beyond its premise. We all already know that the media is in the tank for Obama because we read it in the papers. SNL might have tried to turn these sketches into jokes about why this is the case—Is it about race? Celebrity? The hunger for a new narrative?—or it could have wondered about the relationship between this adoration and Obama’s oft-reported aloofness from reporters. It did not.

Likewise, Tina Fey’s editorial in support of Hillary as a guest on “Weekend Update” was not a political statement. She might have cut at the press or at Obama. What she did, instead, was to identify herself and her candidates as “bitches.” I can’t dispute Fey’s point that “bitches get stuff done,” but I will argue that the entire joke falls apart without the frisson of that word—a shock tactic that Sarah Silverman must have outgrown before her first period. Of course, all of this was cozy enough that Sen. Clinton saw fit to show up and offer an “editorial response” to Poehler, and nothing happened there, either, except for Hillary’s seeming perfectly lovely and teasing the relentlessness of her ambitiousness very gently. As Peterson writes, “pseudo-satire is often embraced by its supposed victims, who are eager to get credit for their good sportsmanship and to show they are impervious to such ‘criticism.’ “

Obama’s loops around the talk-show circuit are a bit more fraught with danger. On the glowing and gynocentric chat fests of daytime—your Ellens, your Tyras, your one and only View—he is catnip, but on late night he’s a stranger. True, he visited Letterman’s Late Show last year and returned to read a toothless Top 10 List. Yes, in October, he made the pilgrimage to SNL. That appearance, like Clinton’s, was short, cute, and meaning-free, with the real Obama turning up at “Bill and Hillary’s” Halloween party in an Obama mask, abjuring falsity. It seems almost intentionally unfunny. Maybe Obama, whose sense of humor is dry and literary, was wary of being too funny, a problem that plagued Adlai Stevenson, the intellectuality of whose wit supposedly underlined his egghead quality. Obama’s blackness also complicates his ventures into comedy. If, as Peterson writes, someone like Al Gore could be funny in the wrong way on late-night TV—too self-deprecating, too eager, too pathetic—it’s easy to imagine the minefield of racial imagery Obama would have to tap dance through when spoofing himself. It’s no coincidence that one of SNL’s few genuinely satirical bits of Obama comedy is a “TV Funhouse” cartoon in which the candidate sends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton on fact-finding missions to nonexistent nations, distancing himself from old racial politics, trying not to look too black.

The impossible dream, of course, is that Barack Obama might someday appear opposite Stephen Colbert, who, via his know-it-all know-nothing character, engages in true, niche-market satire—an act so irresistible that the debut of Not Just Another Cable News Show ultimately threw its hands up and just played clips from The Colbert Report’s “Better Know a District.” Obama has already engaged Colbert on his own terms, publicly sending the host a letter on the eve of his delivering a commencement address at Illinois’ Knox College. “Don’t forget to bring the Truth,” Obama wrote. “I’d recommend putting it in your carry-on bag rather than in your checked luggage. O’Hare Airport is notoriously unreliable.” The letter is droll, the tone poker-faced. At one point, Obama refers to his constituents as germy (“a few words of advice … use hand sanitizer”) in a way that subtly acknowledges the disgust that all politicians must feel, at some level, for the public. It’s very funny, and you can’t do that on television.