On Political Satire: ‘Ha-Ha’ Funny or Contemptuously So?
by Jeffrey P. Jones — Old Dominion University
July 24, 2007 – 04:18
Satire is not necessarily funny. Gulliver’s Travels is a familiar example of that truism. But television is not literature, and hence, the entertainment demands of the medium often require satire to be “ha-ha” funny. Or at least that is what television critics expected from the Half-Hour News Hour, a Daily Show rip-off which debuted on Fox News several months ago, when they lambasted the show. Similarly with Comedy Central’s Lil’ Bush, an animated series that centers on a juvenile George W. Bush and his Little Rascals friends, Lil’ Cheney, Lil’ Condi, and Lil’ Rummy. The critics generally got it right—neither show is funny, even though Half-Hour tried to make it so by inserting an inane laugh- track.
Perhaps Jon Stewart has raised the bar too high by being both scathingly critical and funny. Or perhaps we simply need to rethink the place, role or function of satire in contemporary political culture. Dictionary definitions of satire often include the notion of holding something or someone in “contempt.” Jonathan Gray has written on the need for audience researchers to recognize the viewing practices associated with anti-fandom, or the visceral enjoyment that comes from loathing certain programs or personalities. The observation can be extended to include the representation of politics and political figures. Some forms of political satire may be enjoyable to watch for no other reason than they offer a venue through which citizens can revel in their disgust, loathing, and outright anger at certain aspects of political life. British satirist Rory Bremner contends that satire includes a “comic resolution of anger.” And Tocqueville recognized long ago that Americans love to hate politics.
Lil’Bush and The Half-Hour News Hour are neither funny nor profound, but both are dripping with contempt for their respective right-wing and left-wing targets. Which leads us to one final set of questions: Are these shows funny only to people who share this particular ideological perspective? Or is it not about being funny at all, but rather, simply being able to participate in the public display and celebration of contempt, anger and outrage that is the hook?
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