On 24th September 2010, in a publicised congressional hearing, Stephen Colbert, a comedian, gave his testimony to a judiciary subcommittee on the issue of farmworkers and immigrants. Playing true to his satirical conservative character from the show, The Colbert Report, he comically shared his experience of working at a farm as part of an initiative by the United Farm Workers (UFW) that invited U.S. citizens and legal residents to replace immigrant workers. He begins the testimony by stating “I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican,” but after working at the farm, he says, “please don’t make me do this again. It is really, really hard,”. He goes on to explain the inconsistency of the initiative by UFW as Americans will not do such jobs and an ‘invisible hand’ in the economy is responsible for shifting such farms to Mexico. He proposes that instead of looking at immigrants (who will do the job anyway) as the problem, the country should give them visas and improve their legal status to cease their exploitation. This will improve pay and working conditions on the farms and possibly also convince Americans to do such jobs. He ends the testimony by saying “I hope both sides [Democrats and Republicans] will work together on this issue in the best interest of the American people as you always do”, with this statement, laughter draws from the room.
The issue of immigrants working without rights on American farms would have seldom produced big media coverage or citizen interest. But due to Colbert’s comic rendition, it gained a wide resonance among people. He was able to evoke the important elements of the issue by challenging the current conditions and bringing out the reality of farm production in America. In recent times, there has been a rise in comedians and satirists using comedy to disseminate and discuss important issues, this has led to a new space in media — political humour. Even though this space has existed for a long time; what makes it interesting is how influential and mainstream it has become over the years. It has allowed more people to engage in the political discourse of their countries whilst making space for dissent and criticism. In addition to this, it has also had a wide ramification in our society with comedians becoming as trusted as journalists, a title they willingly deny, and with viewers watching them to stay informed, a privilege previously reserved only for the mainstream media outlets. When Colbert was asked about why he chose this issue, he replied “I like talking about people who don’t have any power. And this seems to be [about] people without any power”.
In around 400 BC, the Athenian playwright, Aristophanes, discussed a wide range of themes with political humour through his plays. His parody comprised ideas, the public sentiment, and issues of the day. He criticised the politicians through humour and satire and explored areas of status, power, and the polity. An example of this can be seen in his play, At Clouds, where the clouds imitate whoever they see. Aristophanes writes,
Suppose they catch sight of Simon, who’s been robbing the public treasury, what do they do? SOKR. To show his nature, they turn into wolves.
Aristophanes describes his characters in a comic manner with regard to their social perception. This tactic is replicated by many who aim to provide comic relief by highlighting the true nature of a person, especially those in power. Like Aristophanes, Socrates is also perceived as a “sage satyr” (Schutz, 1977, 79), he was known to critique the powerful men in Athenian society, through the voice of a playful clown. Unfortunately, Socrates’s comedy led to his death. However, despite this, he laid the foundation for recognising satire as a form of political criticism.
Over time, satirists and comedians have created a space for themselves in different societies and cultures. However, due to their impulse to questioning the status quo, they have faced persecutions and possibly even deaths. Some kingdoms, co-opted the satirist in the form of the court appointed jester, as entertainment. This eventually led to the conception of censorship, since the jesters were restricted from making certain jokes. Nevertheless, particularly in India, there are instances where jesters like Tenali Ramkrishna, Gopal Bhar, and Gonu Jha, used their wit and satire to discuss the injustices and issues of their time. They would criticize the important people in their cities and sometimes even the king.
Nevertheless, while there was a space for political humour in the different epochs, it was still restricted by various levels of control. This led to a gradual shift in the nature of comedy. Satirists and comedians focussed on the experience of ordinary human life and moved away from sensitive news topics. Therefore, there was a period of division between the satirists who focused on the trivialities of everyday life and ‘serious’ political commentators and journalists who focused on the politics of the time. However, this was about to alter with a change in politics, news, and technology.
The latest episode of The Last Week Tonight by John Olver on U.S. history.
On the surface, The Day Today appears to be a typical British current affairs programme, however within a few minutes, it transforms itself. While rendering comic and absurd stories like Prince William’s initiative to voluntarily admit himself to jail to help improve its conditions, or the bullying in the Church of England, or the alternative medicine of the medieval ages, it makes fun of the prominent and powerful. While this formula is popular among many shows nowadays, it was The Day Today that pioneered this pattern. The programme regularly made fun of the politicians, especially the Conservatives who were in power at the time.
The American satire show, The Daily Show and its host John Stewart played an important role in the widespread influence of this blueprint. Stewart’s ability to intertwine political humour with pressing issues, resonated widely with the American people and fans all across the world. The format of the satire show gave him the space to ask critical questions on air which were out of bounds for traditional journalists. He critiqued the media on its sensational reporting, a sentiment that many agreed with. And true to his ability, made fun of both parties — the Democrats and the Republicans. It is, therefore, not surprising that in a 2009 TIME magazine poll, Stewart was named the most trusted journalist in America. His persona, according to research by Jones, Baym, & Day (2012),
“ [the] unique place he now holds as a trusted fount of reason and sanity grants him additional license to occasionally step directly into the political fray, with serious intent and demeanor, and challenge public actors on moral and ethical grounds” (p. 45).
His style was adopted as the new wave of satire news across the world. One particular example is Stephen Colbert, who in his show, the Colbert Report, plays a conservative character and presents his arguments as shortsighted, ill-informed, or as a hypocrite. This is an intentional inversion of reality because Colbert in real life does not believe in a conservative ideology. A similar idea is seen in the videos of the Indian satirist, Deshbhakt, where Akash Banerjee plays a nationalist character who criticises the opposition and labels them as ‘anti-nationals’, highlighting the limitations and absurdity of his character’s arguments in a satirical manner. While this was a popular format, other forms of satire news chose to be comprehensive in their reporting. The Last Week Tonight by John Oliver takes a deep dive into complex topics like corporate mergers, pharmaceuticals, gene editing, and many others. His reports are investigative and are presented in a humorous way which makes him accessible to a wide variety of audience. This pattern is also followed by Hasan Minhaj, who once worked with John Stewart. Minaj discusses a wide range of topics from the Indian elections to the problem of public transportation in America. These shows have become popular over the years, especially with the younger generation. The shows facilitate investigation, critique current affairs, and discuss pressing issues which makes them an important part of journalism.
News being delivered as political humour became a source of entertainment in the early 90s. With its unique style of addressing a topic, juxtaposed against the backdrop of increasing mistrust in the news landscape, it has now become a source of influence for millions of people.
Humour as a mental state has been examined by various thinkers who have produced different theories about its form. One such example is The Superiority Theory, which explores how laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people. Prominently discussed by Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes, this theory is prominently visible in political humour, especially when making fun of an opposition. The Relief Theory, on the other hand, argues that humour releases a set of emotions which are repressed due to hostility or desire. But the most popular, The Incongruity Theory, discusses the dissolution of logic into absurdity — the transformation of a strained expectation to nothing. An example of this type of humour can be seen in this joke by Immanuel Kant,
The heir of a rich relative wished to arrange for an imposing funeral, but he lamented that he could not properly succeed; ‘for’ (said he) ‘the more money I give my mourners to look sad, the more cheerful they look!’
While the limitations of the different theories of humour are debatable, the act of humour is understood as a dialogue between comedians and their viewers, that explores elementary observations and assumptions — an act of philosophy itself. This is evident in satire news where the humour element allows viewers to engage and connect with the topic of discussion (Wells 2002). Studies have shown that with the addition of humour, audiences’ are able to connect with the issue and understand it in a better manner (Truett 2011). This explains why comedians like John Oliver and Akash Banerjee can talk about a complex topic and still attract a large number of viewers. This leads to the assertion of how devices of political humour have renewed critical inquiry in journalism and advanced deliberation in society.
But some people have downplayed the positive impact of political humour. One such issue is with the lack of the viewer’s ability to recall the detailed information presented to them. Due to its comic nature of reporting, with political humour, while the gravity of some elements is highlighted, an overall understanding of why a particular topic is important is usually missed. Furthermore, the increased consumption and reliance on satire news leads to a lack of an in-depth understanding of political information, knowledge, and interest as the format induces a level of entertainment and heuristics that is incapable of evolving into important analysis.
But a significant criticism of the genre is how satire news is responsible for priming individuals in their assessment of particular issues (Kelleher and Wolak, 2006). This is especially important when it comes to elections, where shows with political humour are capable of influencing and swaying the viewers. A study was done by Jonathan S. Morris in 2004 to understand the impact of The Daily Show on its audience during the 2004 Party Convention. The show coverage associated an increasingly negative attitude towards George W. Bush compared to his opponent John Kerry, due to more jokes being made on the former than the latter.
The criticism for such satire stems from its format. A show like The Daily Show subscribes to these criticisms, whereas, a show like Last Week Tonight, due to its format of presenting its viewers with a detailed enquiry, does not align with the criticisms. Nevertheless, the rise of satire news has had wide implications on our society and this needs to be examined further.
A political satirist, Volodymyr Zelensk became the president of Ukraine in 2019.
Satire news has become an alternative source of political information for citizens globally. It critiques those in power and engages in important topics in a manner which is widely accessible and entertaining. The rise in the influence of such shows are ever-growing as there are a diverse range of comic voices pushing for political advocacy. A political satirist, Volodymyr Zelensk became the president of Ukraine in 2019. He gained popularity due to his show Servant of the People, where he played the president himself. However, addressing the trend of satire news and its influence became a necessity due to the rise of polarisation in society, especially with the election of Donald Trump.
There has always been a level of partisanship in satire news; it is usually presented to an urban-liberal audience. With the election of Donald Trump, however, it played an increased part in the polarisation of America. More than 90% of the jokes were about Trump’s personal life. It has now become difficult to go through any satire show monologue without finding the mention of his name. While Trump’s actions and words are an easy target for comedy, Trump uses this criticism to solidify his claim of the media hating him and his values. There are shows, like The Daily Show by Trevor Noah, where Trump and his supporters are often reduced to caricatures. Different clips showing the irrationality of his supporter’s beliefs are used as comic relief for the audience. While this entertains Noah’s audience, it induces a separation in society where the viewer is entertained and feels intellectually and morally superior at the expense of other people’s beliefs.
While Noah’s caricaturisation has been a part of the political humour which has been happening for many years, it is distinct due to its frequency and its societal consequences. Casting judgement on Trump’s supporters polarises the people and Noah’s audience feels a sense of superiority whilst reaffirming Trump’s opinion on how the liberal media sees him and his supporters.
Political satire does not just offer jokes, it offers critiques of political institutions and structures. For example, George Carlin, an American comedian, reflected on the country’s politics through his dark comedy. However, the current format of satire news is unable to provide constructive political criticisms. Their audience is homogenised, often urban-liberals. There is a sense of political apathy and humour at the cost of other people’s beliefs, without an understanding of their background, inequalities, and social norms. This has fuelled questions about the show’s contribution to healthy deliberation in society.
Nonetheless, some satire shows chose to rise above placing blame and polarising the audience. They focussed on the important issues and provided their viewers with a deep dive analysis. This helped them engage with a broader audience and provide them with a different context and an alternative perspective to news events, as opposed to the partisanship of the mainstream media outlets.
With the increasing popularity of satire shows, it is important to consider their ability to engage with their audience politically. Only critiquing is not enough, they should be able to inform and provoke their audience to understand their social realities in a humorous manner.
Before leaving the Daily Show, John Stewart said “I’m angry all the time. I don’t find any of this funny. I do not know how to make it funny right now, and I don’t think the host of the show, I don’t think the show deserves a host who does not feel that it is funny.” This statement by Stewart highlights the limitations of satire and comedy and its engagement with the political issues of the time. It shows that just grabbing the attention of the viewer is not enough, but a better and sustained democratic engagement is needed. While the rise of political satire is a welcome addition in getting the public interested, the genre needs to adapt to the needs of society as it has now become the mainstream media.
Divanshu Sethi is an editor at Catharsis Magazine.
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