Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era

Article excerpt

Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era. By Jonathan Gray,Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson, New York: NYU Press, 2009. pp. 288.

There can be little doubt that satire has become a popular and profitable form of television content in contemporary popular culture. From animated programs such as South Park that comment on politics and world events, to daily faux-news programming such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, U.S. television markets have become increasingly inclusive of biting and meaningful social criticism delivered through satire and parody. Satire TV attempts to illustrate satire's transition from an underutilized rhetorical style hampered by industry-imposed constraints necessary to reach massive broadcast audiences to a thriving, powerful, and playful niche media genre. The twelve essays of this volume explore the development, impact, and discursive potential of satire television in relationship to politics and illustrate "these programs' role in nurturing civic culture, as well as their potential place as sources of political information acquisition, deliberation, evaluation and popular engagement with politics" (p. 6).

Part I, "Post 9/11, Post Modem, or Just Post Network?," examines the state of political satire today in contrast to the earliest televised emanations of the genre. Gray, Jones, and Thompson engage in a robust theoretical discussion of the form and function of satire, the satirical functions of parody, and the fine line between meaningful critique of politics derived from humor and mere pastiche. Departing from early manifestations of televised political satire such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and Saturday Night Live, the authors trace satire's development from a scarcely used tactic to generate humor and audience identification, to a media genre containing rich and poignant social criticism and that spans virtually every mass media channel. Gray, Jones, and Thompson chart the development of this genre from the 1960s to the present day, noting that "the shift from network broadcasting to cable narrowcasting is the fundamentally enabling mechanism" for the vast array of satirical critiques of politics present in contemporary television programming (p. 19). Whereas broadcast marketing strategies necessitated that content producers and distributors reach as many potential audience members as possible, narrowcasting strategies create smaller, yet loyal and likeminded, niche markets where political criticism can be sustained. The essays of Part I provide an understanding of the historical growth of the satire genre and concretize the state of the genre today by contrasting early attempts at televised political satire with political satire emergent within the last decade. The included essays convey a sense that while early attempts at televised political satire played more upon politicians' public personae and "rarely proved to be political in the sense of critiquing the politician's policies or responses to world events" (p. 43), current satire television is often more oriented toward critiquing the political actions of government officials and, subsequently, toward the sustenance of meaningful and critical public discourses.

Part II, "Fake News, Real Funny," grapples with the functions and implications of faux-news style programming such as the nightly Comedy Central shows, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. The authors provide insight into the way that these programs may serve to help inform the public (in particular, young audiences) while providing meaningful opportunity for criticism and political commentary. Indeed, the authors suggest that hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not merely hosts of late night comedy talk shows, but political pundits whose programs provide them with significant presence in discourses of world affairs and policy making. Moreover, both programs' usage of styling and tropes typical of contemporary television news programs creates a playful doubling of not only politicians' policies and rhetoric, but also of the discursive norms of news reporting of politics and campaigns. …