Friday, September 24, 2010

Colbert, Stewart, and Political Influence

Today, Stephen Colbert went to Congress to give testimony on a bill for migrant farm workers. He gave his testimony in character, save the last couple sentences of his speech. From what I've read about the speech, it seems that he made his point, even if it was in a satirical manner. I was not surprised that Colbert testified; what surprised me was Congress' response. After being welcomed by the committee chair, John Conyers (D-Mich), he was asked to leave. The reason? Conyers suggested that Colbert should stick to his comedy show, and leave the testimony to real experts.

Colbert did give his testimony. Many Democrats laughed, while the Republicans (whom he frequently lampoons) sat "stony-faced". Tsk-tsk. Bringing in a comedian to talk about serious issues. How unprofessional is that?

Quite frankly, I'm surprised they don't testify more. And I'm surprised at Conyers' remark. Because if our elected officials are too dumb to figure this out, I'll say it here. In all capital letters, so it can be like a conservative blog post: SATIRICAL SHOWS LIKE THE COLBERT REPORT TEND TO REFLECT THE ATTITUDE OF THE THINKING PUBLIC. Anyone who believes otherwise has been living in a vacuum.

During ANY Presidential election year, you will find articles about the candidates paying special attention to Saturday Night Live, the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and other shows that satirize politics. The show skits and commentary are mocking shadows of the candidates, and like many shadow-figures, they tell the candidates a lot about how they're perceived by the public--particularly their weaknesses. No one likes to see that, but paying attention to those perceptions has helped candidates win elections.

Indiana University published a study showing that news items presented on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart are "just as substantive" as regular news programs. The numbers vary by poll, but some have shown that there are people who trust the Daily Show and the Colbert Report for their news over other networks. Polls also show that regular watchers of these programs tend to be more educated. So why would educated people get their news from a comedy show? Sounds absurd, right?

Not really. Most mainstream media these days isn't about real journalism, it's about spin. News sources are either "liberal" or "conservative", and the public trust the shows that best reflect and validate their view of things. They're not particularly interested in facts. Satire provides an interesting compromise. These shows can really say all those things people think--all the things that wouldn't normally be polite in society, or that might be shouted down--and it can all be written off as "comedy". Satire has served this function for years. It is the real trickster of the communication world.

So, on the surface, it's easy to write off comedy shows as being just that--entertainment, with no political impact or value. But the audiences that watch satirical shows are educated, as I've mentioned. So, they read between the lines and "get it". And you really don't have to be a genius; you just have to pay attention, and be interested in sorting out the bullshit spin from the facts. Comedy makes that easier to do, not harder. And if it didn't resonate with people, no one would be laughing.

Comedy shows are often accused of a liberal bias, but that's not necessarily the case. They are just as willing to pick on our Democratic President as they are Republicans. It depends on the issue, and on what's occurred. There are no sacred cows in the pasture of satire. (How do you like THAT metaphor?)

One should also notice Stewart's roster of guests: the King of Jordan, former President Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama (before he was President), Jimmy Carter, Madeline Albright, Colin Powell...the list goes on. But no, these guys are comedians. The show has nothing to say about issues that anyone takes seriously. Right?

Jon Stewart is having a Rally to Restore Sanity on October 30 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (assuming all permits are approved). Even though it is billed as entertainment--and Stephen Colbert will also be there with his "March to Keep Fear Alive"--the numbers of people who show up for this will be telling. If it says nothing else, it says something about how many fans Stewart and Colbert have. And those fans are not likely to be listening to Fox News. Pay attention, Congress.

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