The topic of Michael Crook’s A Funny Guy blog over at TheLedger.com – “Does Political Comedy Undermine Democracy” – was preposterous to me when it came up on my Google alert. It seemed like one of those inherently flawed questions that people like me in the media often ask to try to get provocative answers and stir up some kind of debate, which is usually about as nuanced and useful as a metal geek slap fight over VH1’s “Top 100 Guitar Solos of the 80s.”
But it turns out, the premise was neither Crook’s not Stevenson Swanson, who wrote the article for the Chicago Tribune that Crook reprinted for his blog. The idea actually belongs to University of Iowa professor Russell Peterson, who has written a book called Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke. Peterson, the story notes, tried his hand at stand-up comedy in the early 1990s and has also worked as a political cartoonist. And there are a couple of interesting side notes to his premise.
You can read the piece yourself on the Tribune site here, or, if that link stops functioning, at Crook’s blog here.
To be fair, I haven’t read Peterson’s book, so you’ll have to take any criticism of his premise with a grain of salt. But if his thesis has been presented correctly in the Tribune article, Peterson believes that late night comedians are a threat to the American system of democracy because they promote the belief that it makes no difference who you vote for, that every candidate is equally bad, and there’s no point in engaging in the process.
"I really do think that this sort of belief, that it doesn't matter, is one of the most damaging beliefs that a democracy can harbor,” Peterson is quoted in the Tribune as saying, adding later, "I don't think comedy invented that belief, but it's one of the most important avenues through which it is expressed."
I was about ready to tap out at that point. Certainly the rampant corruption at the presidential level on down for the past twenty-five years and the general disrespect that politicians show for each other and sometimes their own office has to be the more pressing problem here.
Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Lewinski affair, and the current administration’s bumbling of everything from the so-called “War On Terror” to the hiring and firing practices at the Attorney General’s office – the list is long, inglorious, and stretches back to around the time I was actually conceived. I love political comedy, especially the hardest hitting stuff by firebrands like Barry Crimmins and Bill Hicks and the above-the-fray perspective Mort Sahl is still offering, if you can catch him. But as much as I admire someone who can connect with a solid swing of satire, these people are generally only pointing out the damage politicians have done to themselves.
In that respect, if you are going to blame comedians for undermining democracy, you have to put them fairly far down on the list of the indicted, with the politicians themselves first on the list, and anyone who actually tells us what they’re doing second. It’s like arresting a guy for arson when he calls 9-1-1 about a burning building.
But that’s when the story got interesting. Apparently, part of Peterson’s thesis is the idea that late night comedians are helping to create an indifferent attitude toward the system because they are not dealing with substantive issues. In other words, their very inertness makes them dangerous.
Stevenson summarizes the idea thusly: “Political comedy, at least as it's practiced on the Leno, Letterman and O'Brien shows, tends to focus relentlessly on personality flaws, such as Bush's verbal gaffes or former President Bill Clinton's skirt-chasing, instead of on questions of political policy.”
This is the difference between topical comedy and satire, which is not often discussed, since it is admittedly a bit of comedy nerd hair-splitting. But there is a difference. Some comedians have gotten credit as satirists simply because they told a blow job joke about Bill Clinton or dared to call George W. Bush dumb. The jokes might be funny, depending on the skill of the particular comic, but they don’t tend to delve too deep into the details.
According to the story, Peterson finds Leno and Letterman are going for cheap laughs, and gives a bit more credit to Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert for bending more toward the satirical. There’s a decent argument there, especially considering that Leno and Letterman, both on network television, have a much larger audience to please than Stewart, Maher, and Colbert, whose shows air on cable. Leno has professed a sort of fast food philosophy to writing for the Tonight Show (you can find the exact quote if you can find his 2004 appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio), and when you’re in a ratings war, you’re going to have a hard time doing anything edgy or potentially alienating, a concept to which the Tribune article also alludes.
But even if you accept the premise that the glib nature of Leno and Letterman’s topical humor make for lower standards, it’s a tough leap to say that makes them dangerous. And it’s a bit of a logic puzzle, at least in terms of Peterson’s argument, to think that the more satirical comics are less dangerous than more inert comics because they might actual damage a politician’s reputation in the minds of their audience by dealing with more substantive issues. Start picking at details like that, and suddenly you’re trapped on M.C. Escher’s stairmaster.
Ultimately, it’s a classic straw man argument. If late night television disappeared right now, democracy wouldn’t suddenly regain its buoyancy with a flood of informed participation. I’m fairly sure that’s not Peterson’s argument, but if not, what could possibly be filling all those pages in a book called Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke?
I’ll report back if I get my hands on it. If anyone has read it, please comment on this post and let us know what you think.