MATT RUSSELL discovers irony is far from obsolete, and is that it has “debased the most powerful instrument we had for highlighting irony in the first place: political satire.” He looks at whether The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and other purveyors of entertaining satire have been compromised.


ALONG WITH other popular banalities like “globalisation”, “political correctness” and “the clash of civilisations”, the “age of irony” shtick has become one of the defining clichés of the decade. You might remember the “age of irony” was briefly pronounced dead following the day previously known as September 11, 2001. A week after the catastrophe, Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair published a now famous (or infamous) editorial in which he announced irony would now be obsolete. He prognosticated the demise of a popular culture that was “drenched in irony and cynicism”, and that had become “a playground for postmodern hipsters,” in which the "appropriate response to anything is either detached mockery or a jaded, all-purpose ‘whatever’.”

“One good thing that could come from this horror”, he wrote, “is that it could spell the end of the age of irony.”

It wasn’t exactly prophetic, but for a short time, at least for Americans, irony did become obsolete. For so many people, the event was so world-shaking that there did appear to be a clear binary between good and evil. Once you can see in black and white, irony – used as a synonym for cool, for detachment, for knowingness – suddenly becomes redundant. Of course, the new seriousness lasted about five minutes, not least because of the innumerable, real ironies of the attack itself, (America having trained al-Qaida: ironic; Osama’s inherited wealth coming from U.S. petro-dollars: ironic; crackdowns on civil liberties in the name of freedom: ironic; the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq creating a lot more terrorism: uber-ironic).

Whether more ironic things actually happen in our particular time or not is irrelevant: the point is as a cultural mindset, or zeitgeist if you like, the ironic disposition – shorthand for the cynical shrug of a disillusioned and incredulous culture – is stronger than ever. Rather than signaling its end, 9/11 and the global conflagration that followed was irony’s big boom, and not least in the U.S. And here’s something really ironic. It’s debased the most powerful instrument we had for highlighting irony in the first place: political satire.

Satire, of course, always flourishes best when folly reigns, and there’s certainly no shortage of professional comics out there hilariously lampooning the foibles and hypocrisies of the real world for our collective amusement. Our so-called age of irony and the rise of the satirist are two sides of the same coin. It’s a comedic tone – so smart, so sardonic, so over it all – that’s been resonating through every stratum of American culture, and then reverberating throughout the rest of the world just as American political ironies come to reverberate on global, and, increasingly (depressingly) cosmic levels.

News parody website The Onion gets over one million hits per day – about a third of which come from inside the U.S. John Stewart’s The Daily Show is screened in 26 countries, proving so popular in New Zealand that C4 decided to can the Global Edition and just screen the U.S. version four nights a week. Daily Show spin-off The Colbert Report, (a brilliant faux-conservative parody of Fox News pundit Bill O’Rielly) is hugely popular – popular enough that the gurus who run American entertainment concluded it would be good business to let John Stewart host that most sugar-coated of ceremonies, the Academy Awards. (Just two years after they practically threw Michael Moore off the stage for using his acceptance speech to rant against Bush).

And it is good business. That ironic tone that Colbert so personifies – a razor sharp blend of knowingness, hyperbole and mockery – is totally addictive. Along with coffee and nicotine, scouring the internet for the latest gags has become a morning workplace ritual for many of us. My browser bookmarks send me to at least half a dozen sites where I mine for the most perversive articles and videos, which I then forward along to others, who will dependably send back links found during their own post-caffination jaunts. They’re like little electronic gift economies of mirth.

Add all the Bill Mahers, Dave Chapelles, Al Frankins, Rob Corddry and Amy Poehlers. Add to this the enduring popularity of shows like The Simpsons, South Park, The Office, The Thick of It and American Dad. Add to this films like Thank you for Smoking, Barton Fink, Fahrenheit 9/11, Fight Club and American Dreamz. It’s a bona fide satire industry – a mass-producing, globally exporting industry by any sense of the word.

One way of looking at the rise of the satirist would be to say it highlights the health of civic society. The appeal of such a manner of discourse to any troubled era is understandable: satire has a long and proven history as a means to shape social consciousness, and, in a secondary sense at least, contribute to concrete political change. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Voltaire’s Candide, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – didn’t all of these works stand up (often against censorship and a hostile public) and use irony, wit and mockery to expose the asshats and absurdities of their time? In an intelligent piece recently run by The New York Times called “My Satirical Self”, Wyatt Mason gets to the guts of modern American satire as “providing shelter in the ridiculous.” He then goes on to ask a very relevant question: “Can you still take shelter in the ridiculous if everywhere becomes ridiculous?” In other words, what happens to satire when it goes from something that launches its guerrilla assaults on mainstream values from the fringes of society, to, through sheer force of public agreement, something completely legitimate and mainstream?

The first thing you see when satire becomes so pervasive is the very people who are being satirised scramble to be “in on the joke”. For example, beginning with Sen. John Edwards announcing his Presidential candidacy on The Daily Show in 2005, Stewart’s guests are now comprised primarily of political bigwigs. In the last two years, Stewart has interviewed Sen. John Kerry, former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, CIA Directors George Tenant and James Woolsey, Republican Chair and former Reaganite John Perle, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Obviously, featuring such high-profile political superstars is a double-edged sword. On one hand, prominent political guests bring more viewers, higher ratings, and more advertising revenue. On the other hand, precisely because you want these guys to keep appearing, you can’t exactly trounce them when they’re sitting on the couch next to you. Anyone who watches The Daily Show knows that no matter how wry, incisive and genuinely brilliant the fake news segments are, as soon as the guest sits down in that couch, Stewart immediately transmogrifies into a slightly more engaged (and much more likable) version of Letterman. So indiscriminately nice is Stewart that politicians of all sides of the spectrum now use the show as a relatively safe platform to reach younger demographics, to prove that they too, “get it”. In an interview with Slate.com, show co-creator and ex-producer Lizz Winstead summed up the double bind:

“Jon’s tremendous. I feel, though, when you are interviewing a Richard Perle or a Kissinger, if you give them a pass, then you become what you are satirizing. You have a war criminal sitting on your couch – to just let him be a war criminal sitting on your couch means you are having to respect some kind of boundary.”

Another example can perhaps be seen in Stephen Colbert’s famous bit at the annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner last year (available on YouTube: Part 1/Part 2). Traditionally, the Correspondent’s Dinner (a shmoozy event attended by top U.S political journalists, White House staff and the President himself) features a “Presidential Roast”, in which comedic luminaries like Cedric the Entertainer, Jay Leno and Drew Carey are invited to do a Bob Hope-style routine by making a few innocuous cracks about Bush while maintaining a sense of muted restraint. Following in his irony-heavy, pseudoconservative TV persona, Colbert’s lampoonery was from a whole other planet. Over about 20 minutes, with truly Swiftian flair, Colbert delivered a deadpan and cuttingly parodic oratory of support for the President, who was sitting just a few meters to his right.


On his admiration for the President:

“I can’t believe I’m actually on the same stage as my hero George W. Bush. I feel like I’m dreaming. Somebody pinch me. No wait; I’m a pretty sound sleeper. Somebody shoot me in the face.”

“I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound — with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”


On the President’s low approval ratings:

“Please Mr President, pay no attention to those people who say the glass is half empty. Because 32% means the glass is two thirds empty. There’s still some liquid in that glass is my point. But I wouldn’t drink it – the last third is usually backwash.”

“Everybody asks for personnel changes. So, the White House has personnel changes. And then you write, “Oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!”


On “the liberal press that’s destroying America” (this was about when the muffled chuckles in the audience turned into awkward silence):

“Let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works: the President makes decisions. He’s the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell-check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know — fiction!”

A media whirlwind followed. Many journalists viewed Colbert’s shenanigans as “abusive”, “ill-mannered” and “distasteful”. A great many more American’s loved it, and the ratings for his show have nearly doubled since the appearance. And it was something totally unique, to see the most powerful man in the world vaporised by the acerbic barbs of an ironic smartass standing just a few feet away, (incidentally, watching it back the journalists were evidently much more uncomfortable than Bush, who appeared to quite enjoy the routine, seemingly as invulnerable to parody as he is to criticism). One commentator described the event thus: “Colbert’s speech represents in our culture a culmination of what satire does well or, rather, cannot but do: when it bends to kiss a hand, it bites.”

Yeah, maybe. It was scathing, bordering on contemptuous, and extremely funny – but the very fact Colbert was booked in the first place would seem to undermine any kind of really subversive potential. The badge of legitimacy is the kiss of death for political satire, and there aren’t that many badges more legitimate than the Presidential seal. Throughout most of the West, but especially in America, there’s this near obsession with the ideal of free speech where people seem to believe that speech itself has the ability to effect change, without ever thinking that perhaps these freedoms are built into the same power structures that maintain the status-quo. When the very person you’re lampooning is chuckling along with everybody else, at what point does satire cease being satire and become something different? It seems like less of a case of the emperor having no clothes, and more a case of the emperor prancing around happily naked and then farting in your fish-tank for laughs.

There’s also something intrinsic to the modern comedic tone itself that seems to undercut its subversiveness. Randolph Bourne, a WWI era cultural critic, once said the ironist is ironical not because they don’t care, but because they care too much. But most contemporary satirists, and especially Colbert, evince a kind of sardonic knowingness and conscious detachment that seems to saying, “Look how ridiculous these humans are. It’s too bad things are so screwed up, but hey, at least you and me can laugh at them.” Call me a retro-twat, but at least you knew Lenny Bruce FUCKING DESPISED republicanism (the only satirist I know who ever got an FBI warrant). You were never in any doubt that Hunter S. Thompson FUCKING HATED Reagan. It’s hard to imagine Bill Hicks roasting George Bush Senior with anything other than a blowtorch. In a way, the ironic stance is the perfect satirical form for hyper-consumerist society: it flatters us as free-thinking individuals, at the same time speaking to almost everyone, all the while never really asking anything in return (like political engagement). Do Colbert and Stewart really despise Bush, or do they just dislike him while being just a wee bit thankful for the wealth of inspiration and material his administration generates? It’s difficult to tell.

But it’s not smart to blame the satirists; their work reflects these trends, it doesn’t create them. Last year a highly dubious but still interesting study came out of East Carolina University that claimed to have research suggesting The Daily Show “breeds cynicism and lowers young voters’ trust in national leaders.” After apparently interviewing a large number of Daily Show viewers, the two academics involved said that instead of leading to political engagement, people who got the bulk of their political information through Stewart’s show tended to see themselves as “above the political process”, and “expressed cynical views of the electoral system and were highly distrustful of the news media”. Rather than concluding as you might expect from the data – that satire was performing it’s function in highlighting the big problems of its society – they argued that The Daily Show itself disenfranchised the young voter, with the overall implication that liberal satire was poisoning American democracy.

They turned the whole issue on its head of course; there’s one thing that turns people of modern politics, and that’s modern politics. The National Annenberg Election Survey at the University of Pennsylvania ran a much more reputable study of American television viewers way back in 2004 which found that in-fact fans of The Daily Show had a more accurate idea of the facts behind the 2004 presidential election than those who got their information from ostensibly “hard” news sources. Today you’ll find high rates of political disenfranchisement in pretty much every Western nation with a government. Just because comedians like Stewart and Colbert put a humorous and often astringently perceptive spin on a faulty system, it doesn’t follow to blame them when people get fed up with the latest political clusterfuck and conclude the system is essentially pants.

Even so, modern satire is still has a central place in the circle of apathy. The appeal of fake news is obvious: laughter is inherently cathartic; and in time where the human race is faced by seemingly insurmountable global problems with dimensions that almost defy comprehension, we all need some sweet relief. You begin to understand what Nietzsche meant when he described humour as “an epitaph on the death of a feeling”. Most forms of humour begin from the precept that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with, and ironic humour is part of the chain mail we use to shield ourselves from what is already absurd: we look for “shelter in the ridiculous”. Misery breeds humour in the same way it breeds cynicism: they’re both defensive armour against hopelessness. In a more idealistic era, anarchist rebels distributed copies of Animal Farm to Ukrainian peasants in the struggle against Stalinism. Today, satire functions as a kind of “therapeutic irony”: it flatters us as above the shlock, provides catharsis for our anxiety or anger, all the while making us comfortable in our alienation. That’s the big difference.

Of course, the end of irony would be terrible for the world. Right now we need it more than ever, since it’s the perfect way to deflate that kind of overblown political language and extreme conviction that’s usually designed to give the appearance of substance to what is mostly shit. And despite its inherent negativity, irony always comes with a certain utopian dimension, since it relies on the difference between the way things are and the way we feel things should be. The point is, whatever effect irony has depends on how it’s received: to the pathologically disillusioned and cynical mind, the most penetrating satirical barbs have about as much political significance as the latest Bush can’t speak English or Helen Cark is a lesbian line. In that way, I guess you could say the fate of satire is as much in the hands of the audience as it is the satirist. And that’s not ironic at all.