What’s So Funny? Stewart/Colbert and the Short Shelf Life of Satire

The spot-on satire of series such as The Colbert Report and The Daily Show is their longevity's worst enemy.

In my university’s Intro to American Literature class, we studied Washington Irving, one of America’s first great original authors. Just as America struggled to establish itself on the political world stage, it also struggled to gain artistic respect from continental Europe. In the country’s earliest years, its music, visual art, and literature were all a bit too pedestrian for the high-minded tastes of the European establishment, as if the entirety of the United States was some kind of unregulated backwoods frontier. I’d speculate that even the lowliest London peasant thought an American aristocrat was still an unkempt and uneducated ruffian. Thus, it was a big deal when Washington Irving gained success and acclaim in both the former colonies and the motherland.

Alas, his works are all but incomprehensible to contemporary readers. Irving was a master of satire, and his first major work, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker was a funny and scathing critique (or lampooning) of local New York history and politics. The only problem is all of the references Irving makes are so obscure to the modern reader that it’s difficult to find the humor today. In essence, we would have to immerse ourselves in the minutiae of 18th-century colonial history to even understand his work, let alone be able to laugh at it.

Today, many of us still read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle in school, but what if Irving’s greatest works are lost on us simply because the frame of reference is long past? For that matter, assuming a privileged few could educate themselves on his references, with whom would they share this newly understood humor?

Contemporary references are necessary in satire, which is one of the most in-the-moment mediums of humor. Although there’s a more general kind of satire, which I will touch on later, satire’s most potent form comes when an audience and an artist (be they a writer or a performer) share a specific cultural moment of absurdity or injustice, which that artist blows up with humor, causing us to simultaneously laugh and reflect. Sometimes satire, when its actually working, even has the ability to bring the absurdities and injustices — and those who perpetrated them — to account.

In reflecting on the forgotten work of Washington Irving, I’ve begun to fear for the longevity of the greatest satirists of our times, including Jon Stewart, formerly of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert, formerly of The Colbert Report; two, among many, whose humor depended almost entirely on the moment. Their most scathing monologues were elaborate pastiches of news clips, political sound bytes, and puns, all of which were undergirded by half-ironic, half-sincere commentary that parodied the tone and style of news pundits (although some thought they lost their edge long before retiring).

In this respect, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are entirely disposable as forms of entertainment. I don’t say that to disparage them, but to simply describe the form of satire in which they work. As an example, I don’t subscribe to cable TV; I watched both shows as an Amazon Prime subscriber. The problem with this is the one-week lag in the episodes; by the time I watch them, they no longer represent “of-the-moment” satire. On one hand, this is entirely where the power of these shows lie (capturing the immediate), but on the other, this is exactly why these shows and their humorists will be forgotten in the future: it’s too hard to understand the then when absorbed in the now.

Should we be worried, then, as last year marked the end of a noteworthy decade and a half in which the two greatest satirists “retired”? (Actually, Colbert is more of the pure satirist, at least in artistic form, while Stewart is more of an ironic social/political commentator, but let’s not quibble.) Colbert left The Colbert Report in December 2014, and Stewart wrapped up his stint on The Daily Show in August 2015. Stewart managed to somehow unite a younger generation utterly skeptical of the news cycle by simultaneously caring about and mocking the day’s events. Colbert gloriously emerged from the shadows of Stewart and showed he knew how to play the zeitgeist better than anybody.

Just take a look at this Wikipedia article on Colbert’s “cultural impact” to survey all of the reality-bending pranks he has played over the years, each of them entirely contextual, perhaps none more than the one perpetrated in 2006 right in front of the Commander-in-Chief himself: The White House Correspondents Dinner

Even nine years later, my heart races and my hands get clammy just watching him mock George W. Bush so openly, watching him irreverently dismantle Bush’s policies and staged photo opportunities, and hearing the nervous crowd’s unsure smattering of laughter. Colbert performs a dangerous high wire act, but to even understand the speech is increasingly dependent on knowing his references. It requires, among other things, understanding the bitter irony of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech (more bitter as the years pass), the wiretapping and torture practices under his administration, the backgrounds of the different pundits, journalists, generals, supreme court justices, and other government officials in attendance, the CIA/spy backgrounds of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, the enduring presence of Helen Thomas in the White House press room, and most of all, the complexities of why we invaded Iraq.

In other words, his speech is highly layered, and his critiques are best understand simply by having lived through these events. The case is the same if you happen to look through his show’s best moments. That is to say, even 20 years from now, one would have to be well-versed in early 21st-century history to get all these jokes.

I suppose many of Colbert’s references are still applicable today, even in Obama’s presidency, but I’m not so worried about today’s audiences. What I’m beginning to see is Colbert’s act depends utterly on the urgency of the moment: the present-day fears, concerns, and outrages of the American people. People will always be disgruntled with their government, and thus a good deal of Colbert’s act may be found universally funny. Even so, it is much more likely Colbert’s technique will be absorbed by and live on in the next generation of satirists, rather than his actual recorded or written material (although I am sure brief sound bytes will always stick around). To put it in perspective, this is why it is so important that we have Mark Twain’s political speeches and essays in print, many of which pack a political punch today.

This same dependency on specific and ongoing cultural contexts plays out just as much on The Daily Show as well as shows as different in form as Mystery Science Theater 3000, for which much of its humor is either mocking the current cultural moment or is deeply regional (upper Midwest) in flavor.

One particular case in point was Jon Stewart’s long-form monologue/mocking of former Fox news pundit Glenn Beck. Its humor was dependent on knowing both who Glenn Beck is and being conversant with Beck’s particular on-air techniques. At the time this episode aired, the insanity of Beck’s rants were begging for a takedown, but in the years since the demise of Beck’s TV show, Stewart’s deconstruction of Beck seems less necessary (although it does still stand as an excellent example of revealing often-made logical fallacies).

When it comes to series such as MST3K, the viewer almost has to be a child of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s to find it even remotely funny. Soultaker, from the last season of the series, references the series Soul Train, country music singers Johnny Cash and Reba McEntyre, the Estevez’s as a prominent Hollywood family, Chicago Bear’s Jim McMahon and the “Superbowl Shuffle”, the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan fiasco, the band Mister Mister, Jon Stamos, the iconic Grey Poupon adverts, the film Werewolf, and Peter Frampton’s vocoder box; most of which would require serious Google time for younger viewers to understand. There are plenty of culturally savvy people out there, and some of their references are iconic enough and (may) transcend time, but even so I don’t imagine a lot of MST3K‘s material being funny in 20 to 30 years, especially not to younger generations. Instead, a whole new generation could watch the same campy movies and offer their own satirical wisecracks.

Certainly, there’s a more general, cultural kind of satire that captures the absurdities of society at large. This is why much of the comedy of Monty Python has endured, or why a satirical news show such as The Day Today, which does not lampoon day-to-day events, but rather broadcast news itself, remains as culturally powerful as it was in the ’90s.

There are satires that exist in middle ground, such as the work of Jonathan Swift (e.g., Gulliver’s Travels, “A Modest Proposal”), which contains many (now obscure) veiled and not-so-veiled references to British politics, but are also so undeniably brilliant and universally applicable as to remain relevant. The Onion also continually puts out both kinds of satire, offering examples on the spectrum from specific to general satire. Here’s to hoping Colbert’s work on The Report is of that quality, but I have my doubts about that: not because it lacks brilliance, but simply because it’s too specific. Maybe this is where the potential lay in his taking over Letterman’s Late Show post. If Colbert could transcend or subvert the wearied late night talk show form to his advantage, he would be able to create a more general kind of satire with greater cultural longevity than his time and context-specific work on The Colbert Report.

Despite these hopes, I’m still concerned that the brilliant work he did on The Colbert Report and Stewart’s work on The Daily Show will all too soon be forgotten, simply due to the limitations of satire as an enduring medium. I would love to be proved wrong, but to prove my point, perhaps I should put together a book club to read through Washington Irving’s A History of New York in its entirety. Imagine the laughs we would have!