The presidential campaign season is in full swing, with candidates traveling around the country meeting voters, debating each other on television, and competing in caucuses and primaries. Meanwhile, the political pundits provide a steady stream of commentary and speculation on campaign discourse and activities. Among the commentators on the political battlefield are satirists, the critical voices that draw attention to statements that may not be entirely truthful and behaviors that may not be entirely scrupulous. Charlene Dellinger-Pate, associate professor of media studies, says that with political discourse “more bizarre than ever” these days, the goal of those who satirize this discourse is to show that there is no substance, that it is all performance. “We need satire to see what is behind the performance,” Dellinger-Pate says.
She teaches courses on television and media theory, and after teaching a special topics course on “The Simpsons” several years ago, she went on to design a course on TV and comedy that led her to develop an interest in political satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Now she is teaching a course called “Political Satire and New Media” and has turned her scholarly attention to this form of satire.
When it comes to satirizing political discourse, Stewart in particular broke new ground on his news parody show, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” A longtime “Daily Show” reporter and spin-off, Colbert, with his “Colbert Report,” was just one of several people who got their start as satirists on “The Daily Show,” Dellinger-Pate points out, naming Samantha Bee, Steve Carell, Mo Rocca, Ed Helms, and John Oliver among “Daily Show” alumni.
Dellinger-Pate sees two important moments on the landscape of contemporary American political satire. In 2002, when Stewart took over from Craig Kilborn on “The Daily Show,” he began to give the show more of a political focus than it had had. Then in 2004, Stewart appeared on CNN’s “Crossfire” with Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson and called them both hacks, telling them, “You’re hurting America” by sensationalizing debates and enabling political spin. He called their show “theater” and described it as dishonest. Two weeks later, “Crossfire” was cancelled, and, Dellinger-Pate says, “the network didn’t make a connection [to Stewart’s remarks], but satirists and the public did.” The “Crossfire” interview went viral, she says, and solidified Stewart as a political satirist and critic of punditry.
Since 2004, this was what Stewart did on “The Daily Show”: he looked to what the pundits were saying and pointed out what was wrong with it. He began to focus on “the hypocrisy or the lunacy of what is being said,” says Dellinger-Pate, by “disingenuous and lying pundits.” His show poked fun at cable news, his commentary always with an undercurrent of satire.
A turning point for Colbert’s brand of satire happened after he got his own show in 2005. In 2006 he was invited to speak at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C., and he parodied conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly. “It was a brave moment,” says Dellinger-Pate. “He aggressively satirized President Bush and members of the media at the dinner, and no one laughed.” The next morning, she says, “Good Morning America” didn’t even mention that he was there, although “the blogosphere lit up about him.” Dellinger-Pate says that on “The Colbert Report,” Colbert went after the divisive ideological politics of the post-9-11 era. “There are no venues for satirizing these politics,” she says, adding, “Colbert did it by pretending to be one of them.” Colbert’s style on his show was to play more interactively with the political process than Stewart did, Dellinger-Pate says. “Colbert is like the classic Elizabethan court jester,” while Stewart stayed more removed.
Regardless of their individual styles, satirists are more crucial now than ever, says Dellinger-Pate. “The world of punditry scares me,” she says. “We talk about the Limbaughs, Hannitys, and O’Reillys – they have a demographic, and these folks vote. But there is no informed political discourse – no informed debate – in punditry. So much information is presented as true, with so much money behind it. Without the satirists, there’s a perfect recipe for disaster.”