In a country where bigoted, racist, and radical opinions and views grabbing the spotlight can get easily overwhelming, we often turn to humor for relief. Through it, we seek to make sense of a society in which presidential hopefuls can speak unchallenged words of blatant extremism. Mockery of these incredibly backward situations helps us stay sane—creating a barrier between the sometimes ridiculously unfathomable reality and our penetrable minds. Popular TV shows like The Daily Show, The Late Night Show, and Last Week Tonight all fill the void for political humor.
A large majority of viewers turn on these channels for just that purpose—a break from taking reality too seriously. The aim of most of today’s satirical shows is beginning to focus mainly on pleasing an audience whose political views already align with their own. Many of these now lean left, for example, and as a result the critical questions the shows raise get clouded over by the shallow, left-wing jokes and scripts that are used to fill the gaps.
Is this a normal process of satire gaining its popularity or did its focus remain around a critical analysis of society?
The origin of satire, as far as we can tell, dates back as early as the 7th century, where as Joshua Wimmer explains, “poems and plays harshly but humorously [critiqued] society.” After disappearing from literary canon for several decades, the genre of satire returned to popularity after the Dark Ages during the late 14th century. It continued to progress with famous satirical pieces such as the Canterbury Tales, The Rape of the Lock, The Importance of Being Earnest, and many others.
The common, centralizing theme behind all of these works was to critique society through subtle irony and exaggeration during a time when open insults to the elite and political would not be tolerated. The poems and plays urged audiences to think critically about the world that surrounded them, to not get lost in or brainwashed by the dominating rhetoric of society. In its truest form, satire can influence a society to question its views and standards—but when satirical TV shows of today begin to litter their content with personal insults and shallow comedy, they subconsciously (and not so subconsciously) lose that influential power.
While we now have the first amendment allowing and protecting us to express our disdain towards anyone, including the rich and powerful, we are not guaranteed anyone will listen. This is especially true considering no one will willingly pay attention to an open mockery of their views, much less of themselves. Satire provides the perfect platform to express unpopular critiques in a way that will capture people’s attention through its witty humor. But what happens when our favorite satire channels begin to fill their air minutes with undisguised personal insults? Is it necessary to poke fun at the way politicians speak or gesture with their hands? Who will then continue to regard these channels with respect and attention?
A 2012 Pew Research study shows that around 42 percent of The Daily Show’s and other left-wing satirical shows’ viewers are liberal, meaning that just less than half of those that watch these programs are not likely to give necessary criticism on shallow content; often finding it entertaining to watch while the insults remain targeted towards those they have opposing views with. But this useless and derogatory dialogue is extremely detrimental; pushing against the other half—a significantly large portion of the audience—who will choose to ignore the subliminal, critical questions addressed towards their views because they feel the show loses its credibility when it stoops to get personal. The basis of satire, while it may always be bias, should be critical of all sides, creating irony and humor about views and not the people behind them.
Not only does this shallow sense of humor work to discourage and deter viewers, but it also gives way to another harmful rhetoric; the assumption that personally insulting those who have views different from your own is acceptable in our politics. One step further from degrading those with differing views is degrading those of different races and religions. If we continue to see an increase in these types of gags displayed in satirical shows, we’ll only dive deeper into the narrow-minded way of thinking that we are trying to break out of.
The genre of satire was meant to bring a noetic form of irony and humor, one that requires an audience to think critically about others’ views and their own, in an indirect, subconscious manner. Shallow humor, one that serves no other purpose but to gain laughs and an increase in viewership, takes away largely from this concept behind satire. It removes the focus from generating critical thinkers and analysts to simply producing entertainment comedy.
Satirical TV shows need to be more mindful about the content that they produce, ensuring that each aspect persuades the audience to think critically. Satire plays an important role in broadening society’s perspectives, as Harvard student, Anthony Thai states in his article, Political Satire; Beyond the Humor, “satire has made politics more accessible, leading to more informed viewers who have the potential to form more educated opinions.” By refusing to allow their shows to simply serve as mere entertainment for those with similar mindsets, satirical broadcasts can uphold a greater obligation and will not irresponsibly and unreasonably limit the power of influence that they hold.