No Laughing Matter

Last weekend two news clips caught my eye. One reported that former “SNL” comedy writer Al Franken (D) pulled ahead of Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman (R) in that state’s senatorial contest (40-34, according to one poll). The front page of The Washington Post advised, “Comedian Becomes Serious Contender.” Franken’s campaign has been stimulated by appearances by Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, and $6 million of ads paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

In a second news item, CNN announced the premiere of a new comedy-news show, starring D.L. Hughley, a stand-up comic and former L.A. gang member. Hughley commented, “I’m, like, ‘Come on, man. I barely even know how to read. I’ve got a GED.’ ” CNN stated it was entering “into the well-established genre of news delivered with a satirical smile,” according to The New York Times, which highlighted the new program in its Arts section.

The influence of “SNL” in the current political campaign has been remarkable. A recent New Yorker cartoon captured the phenomenon. Two people are walking in a park, where one says to the other, ”I’m voting Republican just so Tina Fey will keep impersonating Sarah Palin.” The ascendance of late-night show hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, along with the increasing political aspects of the networks’ late-night comics — Leno and Letterman — were thoughtfully analyzed in a recent book, Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke, by Russell L. Peterson.

Professor Peterson argues that, while they are very entertaining, mainstream late-night comics have had a cynical and influential impact on American democracy. The phenomenon is no less than “the voice of anti-political, anti-democratic heresy,” which has created “a towering Fortress of Irony,” he argues, provocatively if a bit hyperbolically. Professor Peterson draws a distinction between rare and genuine satire, which “enhances our ability to fulfill our roles as citizens in a democracy,” and the ubiquitous late-night comics, who fill “our heads with trivia and anti-political disdain” and “pseudo-satire.”

Professor Peterson presents studies showing that most Americans (a quarter of young people) get much of their information from television, “not least from late-night comedy.” How “informed” the public is, then, depends on the source of their information. The late-night television entertainment programs provide infotainment — in Professor Peterson’s word, “pseudo-satire” — food for thought that he compares to fast food: “popular, readily available, cheap; tasty in its way, but ultimately unhealthy.”

Why unhealthy? Modern media has mass-marketed irreverence, Professor Peterson believes, and that phenomenon has led to a proliferation of late-night comedy predicated on the news and scandals and personalities of the day. As a result, “we are awash in comedy that has almost reached the peak of pointless offensiveness …”

Not only do these shows have wide audiences, their stars have become powerful and influential media commentators. They emcee prestigious press and political events. Reversing roles, serious journalists become comedians at ritual Washington events such as The Gridiron. Politicians announce their candidacies and programs on comedy shows. The New York Times’s News of the Week in Review excerpts the late-night comics’ lines of the week on page 2. “Saturday Night Live” —imitating the real thing — has a regular make-believe news broadcast that satirizes (and vulgarizes) the news of the week.

The problem, Professor Peterson believes, is especially relevant to young viewers, the millennial generation that gets its news from the Internet and the late-night comics who use secondhand news. For them, “Jon Stewart may as well be Walter Cronkite,” he warns, and the information imparted is not curated as journalism is, whatever its faults and imperfections may be (forgive me if I’m showing my age). My conclusion here is that the distinction is what viewers have learned, learned being the key operative word. Informed and entertained may not be the same thing; usually it is not. As Professor Peterson remarks, Cronkite pontifically concluded his news shows, “That’s the way it is,” while Johnny Carson wryly concluded, “Here’s why it’s funny.”

To be made fun of can be devastating — it surely brought Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) down to earth. But it also may trivialize a serious matter — Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) age, for example, a touchy subject not pressed by “serious” journalists, but quite relevant to undecided voters.

One reason for the popularity of the comics is that they talk more directly than the cable pundits and network stars, who are inhibited by notions of “fairness.” Peterson recycles Jay Leno’s clever take on mainline journalism’s careful correctness: “In watching our local news, they said America continues to search for ‘alleged’ terrorist Osama bin Laden. ‘Alleged’? We already said we want him dead or alive. Do we have to keep saying ‘alleged’? Apparently it’s OK if we kill him; God forbid he sues us for libel.”

A Pew survey showed that many people learn from late-night shows. The danger is that what we learn from a joke derives from the context of the joke; if there is none, it doesn’t work. Or, as Professor Peterson concludes, “If a premise works, it is because a sizable portion of the audience believes it.” Jokes about President Bush’s intellect or President Clinton’s “social” life are funny because they come with a familiar context. Professor Peterson criticizes the echo-chamber effect whereby “facts in the news” are recycled by the comedians and absorbed by the public in a new form, as news.

The fear is that comics make caricatures of serious issues and cartoon characters of public officials through oversimplification. Such “reductiveness and distortion” is not art and thus brings us no closer to truth. Peterson’s thesis is often provocative. Did you realize that the University of Maryland has a Center for Humor Studies? He raises interesting speculations. What are the reasons women and black comic hosts have not been as successful in their role as the white male progeny of Johnny Carson have been, Tina Fey and Arsenio Hall notwithstanding? All these questions were brought into sharp focus over the past two years of presidential primaries and campaigns that monopolized public attentions.

During the recent Democratic presidential campaign, while I supported Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), I thought one of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) remarks captured the essence of Professor Peterson’s thesis. When she fell behind in the primaries and wanted to display her humor and humanity, she appeared on Jon Stewart’s late-night “Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Stewart asked her why she took the time, in the middle of her intense and consuming campaign, to appear on his frivolous, if popular, comedy show. To her credit, candidate Clinton responded candidly: “Pathetic, isn’t it?”

It is — not because a sense of humor isn’t an important quality in our political governors, but because, with such weighty concerns at issue, comics have assumed such an influential role in the communications of politics.


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