They say you shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, but what about pop culture and politics?
According to recent studies, pop culture’s engagement of politics is pervasive, influential and part of a very American tradition. We all remember the weekly SNL sketches where Tina Fey played Sarah Palin. We also know that Stephen Colbert and John Stewart influenced the way young voters thought about the issues in the 2008 election. And though satire can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece, it really came of age in America in the 19th century, according to Ben Voth, professor of communication studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“Political cartoons became so dominant in 19th century America,” Voth says. “People like Thomas Nast and others created visual arguments that were humorous and became common ways to attack political opponents.”
Newspapers of the time, Voth explains, were partisan vehicles named for the political ideology or interest they represented. “In fact, they were often called the Democrat or the Republican,” Voth says. “Political cartoons used comedy, irony and sarcasm to argue against political opponents, and that’s continued to today.”
Voth studies the effect humor has on politics and encourages media consumers to examine a satirist’s political bent carefully before making a decision on an issue. There are several types of humor that do more to diminish a person than illuminate an idea, he says. For example, “propaganda campaigns rely on humor as a way of diminishing a human opponent, even to the point of someone being willing to do violence to that person,” Voth explains. “There’s a responsibility and care that has to be taken, and one of the most central parts of it is an idea of balance, which in the American political process is the idea that both sides have an equal opportunity to parody, caricature and consider. That’s pretty important.”
Ultimately, it falls in the hands of the individual citizen to consider the underlying ideas propagated by satire. Looking at comedy aimed at both sides of an issue is important to our critical thinking on an issue or, during this time of year, a political candidate. Voth argues that we become too cynical when be begin to favor just one side. We also run the risk of displacing reality with the satire.
“Many of my students, by the end of the election in 2008, really thought Sarah Palin said that she saw from Russia from her house,” Voth says. “She never said that, but the satire just became so redundant that it displaced reality.”
In Voth’s opinion, digesting and considering the satire should be the ultimate goal of comedy. “It lets people reconsider entrenched opinions,” he says. “There’s a theorist by the name of Kenneth Burke, who talks about that, and there’s something called ‘perspective by incongruity,’ whereby giving different perspectives allows the audience to open their mind rather than close it. Comedy can also close the mind, and that’s a bad ethical condition, and we should be looking out for that.”
But the idea that comedians might want to take into account how their message might be received and interpreted by their audiences is something that satirists and the like might disagree with, according to former Daily Show headline producer Brendan Hay.
“Nothing kills comedy faster than putting civic duty ahead of laughs,” Hay says. “While, yes, satire is influential in politics, they always prefer to think of it as they're entertainers who are sharing their own [point of view] or finding their own catharsis.”
So how do we approach our daily dose of satire in relation to the decisions we’ll face on Election Day? According to a Pew Center for the People and the Press study published in September, regular audiences for traditional news outlets, such as television and newspapers, tend to skew older. But there’s always an exception. The study found that Comedy Central’s Colbert Report and Daily Show attract the youngest audiences among news sources the non-partisan public opinion research organization tested: 43 percent of Colbert’s regular audience is younger than 30, as is 39 percent of The Daily Show’s regular viewers.
Voth points to a number of studies showing the 18-to-29 year old demographic as being the biggest consumers of satire, but consistently scoring lowest for consumption of news and factual information. The results, he says, can turn dangerous.
“I would not rely exclusively on irony or a comedic argument to make a decision, because one of the premises of comedy is irony,” he says. “But irony first needs a stable assumption, and really, that means information. You need to first have some reliable information that is in a non-ironic form about what Romney thinks, for example. What does President Obama think? What have they said, first of all, and then one can move reliably into irony.”
Voth would like to see citizens learning more from what he calls “primary data material,” such as political candidates’ speeches and comments, so they are better equipped to fully engage the information.
Looking at the specific comedians and understanding their political perspectives is also part of the ongoing process of becoming an informed, responsible citizen. Each comedian, Voth says, has his or her own ax to grind. Voth points to Sen. Al Franken to illustrate his point.
“Al Franken is serving in the United States Senate, but he was also a writer for SNL,” Voth points out. “His political views were expressed in the writing of Saturday Night Live. I think people need to realize that comedians also have their political point and try to be aware of that as they’re consuming it, and try to balance it off. People sort of get addicted to the comedic element, and they’re closing off their need for debate and open dialog between the differences.”
Rita Flórez is a nationally published writer. Her work has appeared in GOOD and VenusZine.com, as well as a variety of regional newspapers and magazines.