Satire Rises When Sincerity Fails: Explaining the Popularity of Political Comedy

Right-wing critics of Jon Stewart often challenge the host of the Daily Show for allowing his ambitions to venture beyond comedy and into political activism. During a Fox News Sunday interview in 2011,  for example, Chris Wallace showed a segment in which Stewart compared Sarah Palin’s bus tour commercial to a commercial for a herpes medication. “You are not making a political comment?” Wallace asked. Stewart replied: “You really think that’s a political comment?” “Yes,” said Wallace. Stewart’s final declaration in this exchange — “You are insane!” — may sound intemperate, but it serves as a fair and balanced indictment not only of Fox News, but also of the entire gaggle of establishment media.

Before we take a closer look at the meaning and merits of this unsparing verdict, let’s define and describe the convict. “Establishment Media” refers to businesses that use journalism as a raw commodity for the production of propaganda that serves to strengthen established power structures. In this industry, journalism can still comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but it can also invert this value judgment or remain silent, even when the comfortable continue to add insults to the injuries of the afflicted. For participants in establishment journalism, the choice between remaining silent and speaking truth to power boils down to economic considerations, not ethical criteria. This mercenary mindset skillfully orchestrates strategic and tactical editorial choices to lure people into the charms of advertisers. The advertisers, of course, draw their funding from the exceedingly comfortable elites whom journalists are supposed to afflict. That’s just a brief summary of the ironies at the epicenter of the ultra-concentrated establishment media.

These perversions of journalism’s purpose represent the main reason for the popularity of the Daily Show, and critics agonizing about the deep political resonance of edgy satire show an apparent ignorance of the following:

  1. Satire is always “political”, because it always points to fixable falsehoods enmeshed in institutional or individual lives.
  2. When objects of satire react defensively to the ridicule, they always reveal more about themselves than about the integrity of the Jester.
  3. Satire represents the culmination of a process sparked by disenchantments with the status quo and propelled by successive failures of sincere social criticism. Literary critic Herman Northrop Frye accurately described the outcome of this process: “In satire, irony is militant.” It has to be.
  4. Satire sublimates the sparks of revolt. It expresses the revolutionary impulse in socially acceptable forms and temporarily reduces “the fierce urgency of now.”

But sublimation is an extremely delicate psychological mechanism. It can’t always transform an imminent volcanic eruption into a gentler effluvium. Freud and Jung defined sublimation very differently. Of the two, Jung seemed more candid in his writings on sublimation:  “It is not a voluntary and forcible channeling of instinct into a spurious field of application, but an alchemical transformation for which fire and prima materia are needed. Sublimation is a great mystery. Freud has appropriated this concept and usurped it for the sphere of the will and the bourgeois, rationalistic ethos…but what is real, what actually exists, cannot be alchemically sublimated, and if anything is apparently sublimated, it never was what a false interpretation took it to be.”

Compared to Chris Wallace’s vacuous challenge to Stewart, Carl Jung’s hypothesis serves as a much sharper critique of the Daily Show and the larger sphere of political comedy. Jung’s writings on sublimation are broadly evocative, but they support at least this one conclusion about most modern satirists: they are pussycats, not lions. Personally, I feel disappointed in Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher. They are tremendously talented, but they all fall short of my expectations of a great satirist. They disappoint me not because they dare to express the ideological undercurrent of their comedy, but because they don’t dare to express their ideology strongly enough. If they did, they would be more successful, both as comics and as agents of social change, in part because they would dispel the false distinction between these two aspects of their work.

In response to this argument, any of these satirists might reasonably ask in what specific ways their performance falls short of their potential. After all, they have undoubtedly exposed many falsehoods and ideological anachronisms that the establishment media would prefer to sweep under the rug. True, but they also continue to provide shelter to certain ideological “sacred cows” to which they apparently feel some level of sentimental attachment.

Bill Maher, for example, should atone for serving as an apologist for the Democrat-Republican duopoly and for actively supporting the Democratic wing of this good-cop-bad-cop ruse. Aside from providing significant financial support to Obama, Maher has also aided and abetted in the finely orchestrated campaign to discredit Ralph Nader and to trivialize the need to break out of the mold of the two-party system. Dispensations like this one represent an emasculation of the satiric intent.

Similarly, Jon Stewart at times seems to suffer from what I perceive as a glitch in the courage of his convictions. During a recent interview with Nancy Pelosi, Stewart politely challenged the esteemed guest’s characterization of our political system as imperfect but essentially sound. A similarly shameless euphemism aired on Fox News would have triggered a much more sustained and intense assault from Stewart. But, with Pelosi, Stewart held back, even as she regurgitated a major piece of propaganda.

Satire does not, by itself, effect change. It doesn’t need to embrace a revolutionary mission. Change happens when an informed and freedom-seeking citizenry allows itself to imagine radical departures from the status quo. Great satire simply stirs this imagination. This is an very important job, and satirists should not grant exemptions to any falsehood. Just keep stirring the pot, and stop holding back.