Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey Jones, Ethan Thompson
Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era
(New York University Press)
US: Apr 2009
Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era is a collection of academic essays that attempt a sophisticated look at how TV comedy politicized itself in the 2000s. Specifically, editors Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson propose that the 2000s witnessed an ascendancy of political satire on television that has no analogue in TV history. The essays in Satire TV make use of a variety of theoretical models, some derived from the likes of Bakhtin and Aristotle, to define satire and elucidate how shows like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, South Park, and others are able to operate as politically subversive entertainments in a medium like television, for which the blandest, the safest, and the most banal fare had always set the tone.
The problem with Satire TV is that it focuses on television without enough attention to the historical context of the 2000s. It explains how satire works formally on TV, but to the exclusion of analysis of the content of those satires, i.e., the topics under satirization. None of the essays ask what it is about the political environment of the 2000s that makes satire so popular, and not just on television—online and at the movies with filmmakers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, satire became the language of a massively broad-based anti-Bush movement. The essays frequently imply that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert helped contribute to the downfall of the GOP since 2006; but the question of how Bush and company contributed to the rise of Stewart, Colbert, and satire as a part of American political culture in general is also important.
Satire TV does not ask what it was about Bush that made him so eminently satirizable, and as a result the sum of the contributions tells only half the story of the popularity of satire in the 2000s. One of the best contributions is Jeffrey P. Jones’ “With All Due Respect: Satirizing Presidents from Saturday Night Live to Lil’ Bush”, which examines how Bush’s administration was “bookended” by the 2001 sitcom “That’s My Bush!” and the 2006 animated series “Lil’ Bush” (both on Comedy Central). Jones grounds his analysis in a detailed yet concise history of presidential impersonations on television, from Rich Little to Chevy Chase’s minimalist Gerald Ford, to Dana Carvey, Darrell Hammond, Amy Poehler, and others on SNL.
Jones argues that That’s My Bush! and Lil’ Bush both broke ground with their portrayals of a sitting president as a horny, irresponsible buffoon and a bloodthirsty, megalomaniacal, illiterate child (respectively). However, even Jones’ essay neglects to ask what it was about the Bush Administration itself that could have inspired this ruthlessness, and why satire was the appropriate genre to meet the Bush challenge at the time.
Nevertheless, Satire TV still contains much that is of interest to media scholars and non-academics alike. In the first chapter, editors Gray, Jones, and Thompson argue that the rise of cable in the ‘90s gave entertainers and audiences more freedom to create and watch shows with a niche sensibility that can afford to be “edgy” because they don’t need to attract a mass audience. “Television satire is flourishing in the post-network era,” write the editors, and appears likely to remain a fixture of the television landscape for the foreseeable future. More than just a category of TV comedy, satire is now “its own genre, and a thriving one at that.”
Geoffrey Baym’s article on “Stephen Colbert’s Parody of the Postmodern” is a highlight. Baym shows how Colbert attacks the “postmodern epistemology” underlying the conservatism of Colbert’s ostensible inspiration, Bill “Papa Bear” O’Reilly. When Colbert espouses “truthiness,” argues Baym, it is Colbert’s way of ridiculing the manner in which O’Reilly’s rhetoric collapses the distinction between truth and lying. More contributions like Baym’s in Satire TV could possibly have shed some light on the relationship between post-network satire TV and the conservative movement, which, like post-network satire TV, also makes extensive use of niche markets.
Another problem with Satire TV is that it neglects questions of race and gender. The editors wait until the very end to broach questions of race, with Bambi Haggins’ “In the Wake of ‘Nigger Pixie’: Dave Chappelle and the Politics of Crossover Comedy” and Avi Santo’s “Of Niggas and Citizens: The Boondocks Fans and Differentiated Black American Politics”. Haggins’s essay on Chappelle’s storied abandonment of his mega-lucrative Comedy Central contract largely recapitulates Chappelle’s own explanations for the flight to Durban, expressed on Oprah, Inside the Actors Studio, or any number of prominent venues. Santo’s essay, however, makes fascinating and extensive use of chat-room exchanges between fans of the TV version of Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks: to illustrate how the show gives its fans a site of contention and discussion about different notions of African-American citizenship.
Unfortunately and perhaps naturally, Satire TV gives no indication of whether the political engagement that satiric television helped inspire during the Bush years will continue under Obama. Since post-network satire TV developed to such a huge extent as to become an oppositional force to Bush, it will be interesting to see how it changes in the absence of such a clear enemy.