Diwate: Political satire is more than just jokes


Photo courtesy of Talk Radio News Service

Viewers who watch comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who use political satire to deliver current events, are shown to have a higher knowledge of political events than those who watch cable news shows.  

Varad Diwate

How do you like political satire on television? If you think these shows are just dumbed down “news” sprinkled with gross humor, think again. They can be entertaining and informing at the same time. The two most popular satirists on cable television are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” is a mix of commentary and a liberal view on the day’s events and the media, politics or anything interesting. The latter part of the show serves as a guest talk show. Colbert in “The Colbert Report” relies on sarcasm by acting as a conservative political pundit.

I stumbled upon an interesting study which said that viewers of The Daily Show are better informed about international current events than those who watch cable news. Interestingly, these “news” shows attract a lot of young viewers. Forty-three percent of Colbert’s audience is younger than 30 while the figure stands at 39 percent for Jon Stewart. So, what makes such fake news shows interesting? Talented “news anchors” and writers do most of the part. Of course, there are gross jokes and beeped words. Also, not every joke is not always a gem of knowledge. But, by and large, the show is funny, witty and very popular.

Could it be a coincidence that viewers of The Daily Show are “better informed” than viewers of cable news? I don’t think so. This is because Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do a lot of things — intentionally or unintentionally — expected from a serious journalist. The Daily Show covers everyday events in a humorous way and yet provides some food for thought. Jon Stewart asks some serious questions after getting over the funny stuff. Other forms of serious work by these programs include digging through old news clips to find an astounding contradiction from a politician or even a news anchor. In contrast, cable news is now home to partisan talking heads, lapdog journalism, gossip and less of real news.

The fact that this show makes fun of news channels does not mean that it stays aloof from taking a stance. A satirist is not just someone making mindless jokes, but someone adding a lot of serious thought and consideration to every show. Political satire has gone beyond taking pinches at the news media and politicians and can indeed bring real change. In 2010, Jon Stewart presented a segment on the 9/11 Responders Bill which was largely ignored by the news media. It did not pass in the Senate for the fear that it would be another entitlement spending. In another “news” segment, Stewart criticized the House as it was unable to pass the two-thirds majority required. The conventional news followed this issue until a bill was eventually passed (still excluding cancer care as part of the compromise).

The resonating popularity of these shows has brought the influence of satirists outside their studios. Stewart’s stature enables him to be frank and critical on other shows. In 2004, he was invited on the CNN program “Crossfire,” a talk show featuring a liberal and a conservative pundit. The interview took an interesting turn when Stewart started questioning and criticizing the hosts. Stewart said to the anchors, “It’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America … Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America.” Shortly after this, the show was discontinued. I would say the “news anchor” had enough influence to help shut down a real talk show. Stephen Colbert also seems to be making the most of his popularity as he sought a place on the Democratic ballot to run for president in 2008 and formed a Super PAC in 2012 presidential election which began as a joke against the Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited corporate funding for political purposes.

In 2010, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held a “Rally to restore sanity and/or fear” for “militant moderates” in Washington, D.C. The rally mostly focused on finding the middle path to solve highly divisive and partisan issues. This was meant to bring out the anger and frustration out of everyday people in a politically divided atmosphere. It was well-received, with an audience of around 200,000 people.

So, what should an average viewer take away from these shows? Laughter and a bit of serious thought, if these satirists are making serious discussions funny or if they are just making sense of a funny situation. A sign at the previously mentioned rally summed it up well: “It’s a sad day when our politicians are comical, and I have to take our comedians seriously.”


Varad Diwate is a freshman in journalism from Nashik, India.