In my media criticism course this semester we’ve been looking at the rise of “infotainment” or the blurring of news and entertainment. As you might imagine, the work of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert figures prominently in our conversations. Drawing on work in communication, cultural studies and political science, we’ve been debating the merits and shortcomings of political humor.
On the whole, humor is good for democracy. But it all depends upon what kind of humor we’re talking about, and who or what is the target of such humor. For instance, the humor of the legendary Bob Hope certainly poked fun at political figures and institutions. But for the most part, Hope’s humor was “all in good fun” and rarely challenged political authority or legitimacy. On that score, Hope’s humor was a useful “release valve” for a polity buffeted by economic crisis, protracted war and a morally bankrupt political culture. Politicians appreciate humor in this vein -- It’s non-threatening.
On the other hand, people like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Chris Rock are far more incisive in their social commentary and cultural critique. That is, these comics challenge institutions and deeply held assumptions about the American legal system, institutionalized racism and such. In doing so, these humorists observe the contradictions of American democracy in ways that not only provoke laughter but thought and reflection as well.
The late George Carlin’s life-long interrogation of language and the relationship between words, power and authority is equally appealing and provocative. Carlin’s work reminds me of George Orwell’s critique of the abuses of language that tend to obscure, rather than illuminate, power relations in authoritarian states and so-called “democratic societies” alike.
"Humorists observe the contradictions of American democracy in ways that not only provoke laughter but thought and reflection as well."
In a mediated world, this type of critique is taken up by the likes of Colbert and Stewart. Their best work exposes the interdependent relationship between political power and media power. That is, their creative deconstruction of media routines and practices best demonstrates the power of humor to reveal fundamental truths -- in this case, the artful, but deliberate use of public relations and marketing techniques to “sell” a particular politician, political party, agenda or policy and the decisive role television plays in this process.
For some observers, Stewart and Colbert encourage cynicism toward political institutions and processes. To my mind, this perspective underestimates the value that these “fake news” programs have for using their “cover” as comedy programs to ask the sort of probing and substantive questions that an awful lot of the U.S. press corps are unwilling or unable to ask.
Consider the recent exchange between Stewart and David Gregory of NBC’s Meet the Press. Stewart challenged the U.S. media’s one-sided reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like few mainstream journalists would ever dare to do. In this way, Stewart’s covert journalism acts as a corrective for rather lackluster “professional journalism.”
But for my money, Harry Shearer is this country’s premiere political humorist. Best known as a voice actor on The Simpsons, Shearer’s radio program Le Show and his equally enthralling work on My Damn Channel demonstrate genuine media savvy and political moxie. Shearer’s work is indicative of the potential political humor has to tickle our collective funny bone and revive our critical capacity to challenge, and possibly change, the prevailing social and political order.
For instance, his “copyrighted feature” News from Outside the Bubble illustrates how insular America really is. Reading news items, verbatim, from sources outside of the U.S., Shearer reveals just how vacuous our news media has become -- and how much better off we’d be if journalists upheld their end of the constitutional bargain by serving as a watchdog to the powerful.
"By revealing the banality of contemporary American journalism, Shearer does us all a great service."
His parodies of National Public Radio (NPR) are equally amusing and instructive. Under the guise of news reports from Continental Public Radio (CPR), Shearer skewers the smug indifference of NPR’s news reporters, their acquiescence to authority and their absurd pretensions for “hard-nosed journalism.” For regular listeners of NPR, Shearer’s knowing references and “inside jokes” reward close listening.
Then there are his infamous Found Objects. For instance, on My Damn Channel, Shearer pinches news feeds from the likes of Dan Rather and Katie Couric as they obsess over how they look on camera. Significantly Shearer doesn’t provide any of his trademark commentary in these segments. Instead, he lays bare the awful truth of television news -- image is everything.
By revealing the banality of contemporary American journalism, Shearer does us all a great service. Not only does he give us a good laugh, he gives us something to think about. The fact that he does so on a weekly basis, and pretty much as a “one-man band,” demonstrates that we needn’t put up with a dysfunctional politics and an anemic news culture.
With wit and insight, Harry Shearer reveals that, in the final analysis, media legitimacy and political authority in these United States are nothing more than paper tigers.
Kevin Howley is Associate Professor of media studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. Here’s hoping that some enterprising broadcaster here in Bloomington will pick up Le Show.