Monday, February 2, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


The other day, doodling around with Youtube, I caught three American television satirists of opposing political tendencies - Jon Stewart, Jon Oliver and Andrew Klavan.
Jon Stewart and John Oliver you probably already know. Stewart is the New Yorker who, for the last 15 years, has run The Daily Show, a night-time television phenomenon in America. It is a show of political and social satire, from a strictly liberal-left viewpoint. It tends to ridicule the Republican Party and anything deemed conservative. It is hard on religious fundamentalists, especially Christian ones (its satire on Muslim fundamentalists tends to be more circumspect). Its politics more-or-less favour the Democrat Party, though to maintain credibility it occasionally takes potshots at particularly silly things done by individual Democrat politicians. Sometimes its humour is apolitical – just the observation of sillinesses that we all perpetrate. But you can tell where its biases lie when you hear its hand-picked New York studio audience roar with approval when Stewart launches into the inanities of the conservative Fox News or takes on the critics of Barack Obama. Stewart is the most highly-paid host of night-time American television, and is now a millionaire many times over for his efforts (he earns between $25 million and $30 million per annum). Pundits have said that his show shapes the political views of young Americans more than any sober television news shows or political commentary do.
John Oliver is an English comedian who has often functioned as Stewart’s sidekick, taking over hosting The Daily Show when Stewart has been unavailable. More recently, Oliver has been running his own weekly satire show, Last Week Tonight. His politics, and the targets of his satire, are basically the same as Stewart’s, though his English identity often makes him a bit more cosmopolitan and a bit less American-centred.
Both Stewart and Oliver get very wide coverage on American television networks, and I’ve seen extracts from their shows sometimes being repeated on New Zealand’s nightly news. They are also ubiquitous on Youtube and the ‘net. I hope I don’t have to add that both Stewart and Oliver are very accomplished comedians, good in the use of the dramatic pause, the double-take and the ironical stare.
Andrew Klavan is, politically, their diametric opposite. The bespectacled Klavan, a writer of thrillers who describes himself as a conservative and libertarian, is not somebody you will readily find on American network television, but his routines are easily accessible on Youtube. He appears in short, pithy, video series known variously as Klavan on Culture and The Revolting Truth. He seems to be funded by the right-wing think-tank, the David Horowitz Freedom Centre, and I speculate that he was hired specifically to be a hip counter-attraction to Stewart, Oliver et al. If Stewart and Oliver attack conservatives and the opponents of Barack Obama, Klavan attacks taxes, social welfare, Political Correctness and all those things that conservative Americans identify with socialism.
But here’s the kicker. Klavan is at least as clever, witty and quick-tongued a comedian as Stewart and Oliver are, and I have found myself laughing at his routines as often as I have laughed at Stewart’s and Oliver’s. Jon Stewart’s commentary on Guantanamo Bay had me almost weeping with sick laughter, as did John Oliver’s special on dysfunctional American prisons. But then Andrew Klavan’s editorial on “fake outrage” and “hypocritical apologies” was equally funny, and so was his expose of American street protesters who attack the system that gives them the freedom to protest in the first place.
I should add that Klavan’s political and social commentary is often glib, superficial, abusive and very selective – just like Stewart’s and Oliver’s.
And this is one of the points I’ve really been building up to. If you find yourself capable of laughing along ONLY with Stewart and Oliver, and grimly resenting Klavan (or vice versa), then I would suggest that you are not responding to humour at all. You are responding only to somebody who reinforces your pre-existing political preferences and prejudices. This is a point I have made before on this blog (look up the posting “Political Loyalty Means Forced Laughter” via the index at right). The appeal of political humour is often just the politics and not the humour.
But I do have a further point. The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, Klavan on Culture and The Revolting Truth are all sometimes genuinely funny and sometimes genuinely insightful. But as often as they all rely on humour and genuine observation of the world, so often do they all rely on jeers, sneers, partisan propaganda, smart one-liners and glib caricatures of their opponents’ positions. They tend to be cases of shouting down perceived opponents rather than really engaging with them and fairly debating their viewpoint.
And this is where, after short bouts of being amused by them, I always part company with them. In the end, Stewart, Oliver, Klavan and their ilk are part of the culture of shouting – the same culture which leads people to write abusive comments after Youtube postings or trade one-liners on Facebook as a substitute for real discussion. It is essentially the short-attention-span culture of adolescents.
If The Daily Show really does shape the political consciousness of young Americans, then it says little for the future of American political debate.


  1. Totally agree about Daily Show having an obvious bias. But there have now been a number of different studies which show that watching the Daily Show as your main news source is actually likely to keep you better informed that watching most other TV news sources in the US. For example: http://dcinno.streetwise.co/2014/02/07/study-people-who-dont-watch-the-news-are-more-informed-than-fox-viewers/
    Which I guess goes to show what a long tradition of bias in media does to a country.

    1. I'm sure there's plenty of truth in what you say. It is sad, however, that the only counter to blatant media bias in the USA is such a facetious outlet.

  2. You should also have a look at The Young Turks. Not sure if you'd consider them satire or actual news.

  3. You should also take a look at The Young Turks.