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I read a recent article about the great tradition of satire, as specifically perpetrated by both Steven Colbert, on his Colbert Report and Jon Stewart, his Comedy Channel mate, on his The Daily Show. And while I did agree with the author’s point that satire is very much an instrument of the time/tropes it is wielded at/for/to, that Mr. Stewart and Colbert’s references don’t play well these many years after whatever they were skewering has come and gone, I dare say I disagree with the author’s assumption that Mr. Stewart, Steven Colbert or even supposed political satirists like Bill Maher claim themselves to be, are indeed, satirists. Argue with me though you might (especially if you are fans of these gentleman and their shows) but I’d reason that Maher, Stewart, Colbert (back in the day, as he’s simply a genial late night host these days) are not satirists; they are the great muggers of our time.
Ask yourself this question: How is Bill Maher and Bill O’Reilly, Jon Stewart and old Steven Colbert alike (and I’d argue that Maher, Stewart, Colbert are alike in many ways beyond the fact that they all had/have late night T.V. shows)? Beyond the talent these men display in their given time slots-like them or not- these T.V. talking-heads play to-mug at-their audiences to a sickening degree, in fact to the detriment of their supposed attempts at satire (though to his credit, O’Reilly, a great mugger, does not claim to be a satirist). One can’t damn these dudes, they have worked hard to build an audience, rally a network round them, gain and keep long-term momentum in a field where anyone might suddenly get thousands of hits on Youtube in a day’s time. No, I do not object to the fact that Steven Colbert, O’Reilly, Maher and their ilk have found a pulpit and have exploited their positions from it (this is show biz after all), but I think we need to at least acknowledge that mugging is taking the easy way out, and mugging is not satire.
The cornball asides, the shit-eating grins, the wide-eyed staring into the camera, the chuckling to one’s self, the repeating of one word or phrase; I know you’ve seen these ticks and tricks for getting their crowd, who are already pretty much along for the ride anyway, to bray, clap and laugh at everything said and done by these guys. It’s akin to buying a ticket to see a comedian and he simply stands on stage reciting worn jokes you’ve heard hundreds of times before, but when he gets to his catch-phrase the audience applauds loudly in recognition to what they know (in the case of the examples above, what they believe) and hope will hear again and again. Maybe this is how success trips us up, that we begin to play only the hits, act as everyone expects, mug. But true satirical comment, this does not make.
How does this affect me directly? Well, attempting to make a living in the writing I do, I try to never mug. Not that I have had any real success where I could easily coast on some story, play or song I have written that the masses love, nor do I think I ever will (not because I do not want to, or am playing at self-modesty; I just don’t play in the commercial field) it’s just that I feel it is the easy way out to give the audience what they are too ready to stroke you for. I remember the first year or so after Barrack Obama was elected all Bill Maher had to do was punctuate a joke by saying the name George Bush and his H.B.O. crowd would come unglued. Or how many times have we seen Bill O’Reilly make that face like he’s smelled bad tunafish after one of his “Watter’s World” man-on-the-street segments? Watch Steven Colbert’s Late Show these days and listen to his monologue and aside and tell me if he isn’t playing to the claps and “woo woo’s” he just knows he’ll get when he mocks one political candidate over another (not that they all don’t surely need mocking.)
Surely whatever you current political bent, religious need or sexual provocation you will be able to find someone on television, radio or across the Interweb to make you feel better simply because they are mugging to you, just for you, with you until you feel all warm and fuzzy. But how much talent does it take to play to your audience and how much real satire is one revealing here when they do this?
In the article I mentioned above, the author mentioned Jonathan Swift in some sort of wrap-up example to what satire started as. But to mention a Stewart or a Colbert in the same essay as a Swift (or even a Twain) certainly shows that the author, like the muggers, doesn’t know much of what he speaks. And he certainly doesn’t speak of satire.