The Debasement of Political Satire

Monty Python was a popular—and brilliant—mid-1900s British sketch comedy troupe. Recently, I’ve been watching clips of their eponymous TV series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which satirizes British culture. Their political sketches, such as Party Political Broadcast and The Ministry of Silly Walks, critique politicians and excessive bureaucracy, respectively, and are pretty funny. More importantly, they demonstrate Monty Python’s special ability to dramatize political ironies in ways that most people would never perceive or imagine.

Great satire like Monty Python’s is an art. It is comprised of an expert usage of language, theater, delivery, timing, and setting to nudge us toward an unexpected truth. Just as poetry opens the door to certain possibilities of meaning that prose cannot, humor conveys subtle truths in a way that serious discourse cannot.

But it is a craft that has been utterly debased by today’s main promulgators of political satire, late-night comics, who use—or rather, misuse—satire with the narrow intent of fulfilling a left-wing political agenda rather than striving to the level of art. Whereas before, satirists poked light-hearted fun at politicians and were ideologically hands-off, today’s satirists often have a specific agenda. They are obsessed with covering the news to make a political point about it. To be sure, I don’t hate late-night TV—there’s actually a lot I like about it: Bill Maher’s sarcasm, Conan O’Brien’s unpredictability, Graham Norton’s flamboyance, etc. Yet, I believe late-night shows, generally, are cheapening humor by telling the same style of partisan jokes, every night—co-opting what could be thought-provoking political satire for condescending jokes that demean conservatives and conservatism.

Take, for example, this clip from ‘The Late Show.’ Colbert praises the “incredibly inspiring” March For Our Lives protest—deliberately pausing for applause—and then asserts that conservatives were “not… inspired” by these young people “fighting for all of our safety”—which is followed by a laugh track. His message to audience members and viewers is this: if you’re not reacting the exact way we expect you to, you are laughably ignorant. And since it is delivered within the context of a joke, people feel compelled to laugh because they’ll feel left out of the political tribe if they don’t. This virtue-signaling is shameful. It abuses humor and pushes the false narrative that the ignorant and insensitive conservatives are kept in check only by refined liberal society.

It’s clear that late-night political satire is rooted in a resentment towards the political right. What is characteristic of these shows—Stephen Colbert’s ‘Late Show’, Samantha Bee’s ‘Full Frontal’,  Trevor Noah’s ‘The Daily Show’—is self-righteousness, a thinly veiled assertion that they, the enlightened hosts, are fighting for truth. And those with disagreements, small or large, are obviously misinformed, obviously wrong, obviously hicks. Their political diatribes are peppered with smug comments and nasty jabs. They reek of condescension and moral superiority and a weird narcissism for supposedly knowing all the right answers. This style is neither funny or does it approach political issues with nuance. It is intended only to appease a majority liberal audience. And while it might be the formula for good ratings, it’s also harmful to comedy and political discourse.

Perhaps you object to this line of reasoning: But they’re comedians! They shouldn’t be held to serious political standards! (Let’s assume “serious political standards” means what it meant before Trump was elected). On the contrary, I am not suggesting late-night hosts should offer solutions to policy disputes through satire, nor am I arguing that comedians should censor themselves or refrain from satirizing politicians (of any political leaning). They can absolutely express themselves however they wish, because they are, after all, comedians. But their partisan language is alienating, even if it is not as corrosive as, for example, Trump’s tweets and racial rhetoric.

Taking a step back, it is apparent that this country is run by politicians who are immeasurably calculated, scripted, and deserving of mockery. The work of political satirists is a necessary counterweight to these charlatans; it strips away their illusion of infallibility and exposes them as vain and dishonest and foolish—as human. But today’s late-night satirists use their platforms to validate the elitist opinions of half the country, which is an unhealthy mix of comedy and political discourse. Moreover, it’s a shocking turn from genuinely funny satirists of old, like Monty Python, for whom humor was about finding similarities between unrelated things; noticing absurdities in mundane constructs; spotting amusing truths and ironies in everyday life; being candid, illuminating, and, above all else, funny.

As a fan of all things funny, it’s a shame to witness late-night comedians wasting their talent to propagate partisan sophistry. It has amounted to a reduction of the art of comedy.  

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About Neil Shah

Neil Shah was a contributor to the Michigan Review.