On Political Satire: ‘Ha-Ha’ Funny or Contemptuously So?

Curator's Note

Satire is not necessarily funny. Gulliver’s Travels is a familiar example of that truism. But television is not literature, and hence, the entertainment demands of the medium often require satire to be “ha-ha” funny. Or at least that is what television critics expected from the Half-Hour News Hour, a Daily Show rip-off which debuted on Fox News several months ago, when they lambasted the show. Similarly with Comedy Central’s Lil’ Bush, an animated series that centers on a juvenile George W. Bush and his Little Rascals friends, Lil’ Cheney, Lil’ Condi, and Lil’ Rummy. The critics generally got it right—neither show is funny, even though Half-Hour tried to make it so by inserting an inane laugh- track. Perhaps Jon Stewart has raised the bar too high by being both scathingly critical and funny. Or perhaps we simply need to rethink the place, role or function of satire in contemporary political culture. Dictionary definitions of satire often include the notion of holding something or someone in “contempt.” Jonathan Gray has written on the need for audience researchers to recognize the viewing practices associated with anti-fandom, or the visceral enjoyment that comes from loathing certain programs or personalities. The observation can be extended to include the representation of politics and political figures. Some forms of political satire may be enjoyable to watch for no other reason than they offer a venue through which citizens can revel in their disgust, loathing, and outright anger at certain aspects of political life. British satirist Rory Bremner contends that satire includes a “comic resolution of anger.” And Tocqueville recognized long ago that Americans love to hate politics. Lil’Bush and The Half-Hour News Hour are neither funny nor profound, but both are dripping with contempt for their respective right-wing and left-wing targets. Which leads us to one final set of questions: Are these shows funny only to people who share this particular ideological perspective? Or is it not about being funny at all, but rather, simply being able to participate in the public display and celebration of contempt, anger and outrage that is the hook?


Are the folks who do laugh the one's that don't see these series as satirical, but simply as "truthful" (i.e., not asking us to question our assumed political reality, but simply reproducing that reality in base form)? Does satire point to deeper truths (We wouldn't let our children get away with the types of behavior we allow the President to get away with) or does it seek to expose the surface truths as just that (Bush IS a stupid child). Is shared contempt as important as how that contempt is resolved? It seems to me that for something to be deemed satirical, the contempt felt by audiences needs to move beyond the individual level of dislike for a particular person (Bush, Obama), which strikes me as at best a question of personal taste and at worst bigotry, toward contempt for a process/system embodied by the particular figures being lampooned. I agree that this does not have to laugh out loud funny. If anything, it might require tremendous conventionality. As I see it, the trouble is that satirical programs like Li'l Bush or The Half-Hour News Hour rely on personal jibes to make larger social commentaries, muddying the waters in terms of what we are expected to be laughing or not laughing at.

At the same time, though, Avi, often the individual and the system can't be so easily separated. Bush simply cannot be an individual as President, so no act of homage or criticism can be directed at the individual (an attack on his bad grammar, for instance, is an attack on a system that allows the unintelligent to rise to the top, or that appreciates shows of stupidity or mediocrity more than shows of intelligence or excellence). As for Jeff's question about whether people need to share an ideology to find something amusing, with satire, I'd say definitely. Satire's about attacking power. So L'il Bush's play in this clip with, say, Bush's buddies' seeming love of torture, will only "connect" with one if this is seen as a violation of power. Or the first clip seems to only be funny if you think Obama and other "BO-ridden, uppity drug-taking black men" like him or Marion Barry represent a power and a threat. Each speaks to a totally different ideology, the latter of which I'd certainly hope more people disagree with, and hence which is "more unfunny" than L'il Bush. In either way, satire deeply disturbs, since it either points to outrageous abuses of power (am I the only one who has a hard time watching TDS at night since it gets me riled up?), or it points to the horrific thinking whereby other people feel threatened by, for instance, powerful, successful black men.

I think it's important to think here about how narrowcasted TV programs like these provide not just access to content suited to a particular taste, but to a sense of community. For instance, while Jonathan mentions having a hard time watching TDS because he gets riled up, for me, at many times in the post-2000 years it has been one of the only things that makes me sane, because it reassures me that there are others out there (the audience) who feel the same outrages I do. And the fact that not everyone feels that way, or finds it funny, is reassuring. Because "we" get it, even if we "lose" elections. So I even think that for me, more important than a chance for an individual to "revel in disgust" as Jeff says, is that connection to others in my political/taste culture. Of course, I live in Texas.

I agree that the individual and the system are often indistinguishable in satire, but within that conflation there seems to be several possible relational positions that are produced: * The individual embodies the system and everything that is seemingly wrong with it * The individual affirms the system by standing out as an extreme example of how that system is being perverted by particular players * The individual replaces the system as the object of derision/critique when satire overstates his/her personality as the primary site of humor/contempt. These are by no means exhaustive and I'm certain these are all functioning simultaneously and overlap, but I believe that is what makes programs like L'il Bush so slippery.

I have been working to theorize some of the differences between what I would deem effective political satire, as distinct from satire more broadly writ. For example, in a unpopoular stance, I argued (Vancouver Sun and http://www.counterpunch.org/boler11102006.html) that Borat does not meet the criteria of political satire because in part he does not level his critique at those in power. This is perhaps contentious: this week's discussions show myriad complexities of theorizing satire in its political context. Indeed, TDS and CR hold the bar high for court jesters, and I think this speaks to the crucial need to understand the role of satire in this particular epoch of political repression. One of the members of my research team is currently studying online interactivity in relation to Colbert. I am presently fascinated with how and why fandom develops around a "handsome sexy" parodic personality...as opposed to just finding some other sexy cult personality. What significance is there in this apparently a-political fandom, when at the same time conatrdictorily they are establishing a strong counterpublic linked to major political satire? Do we have to make strong distinctions between the motives of the cult personality fans, and those who ciruclate Colbert's WHPress dinner vid? thanks for all the great entries this week! (for more on this research project http://www.counterpunch.org/boler02202007.html and in relation to this week of SATIRE check out my May 10 entry in media res on Colbert, NPR and Douglas Feith and the interesting long comment that strongly disagrees with this analysis)

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