09.25.10

The Comedian Political Takeover

Testifying before Congress, staging rallies, doing the job that journalists can't — comedians are driving America's political debate, and there's no shortage of material.

Stephen Colbert testifying in front of Congress. Bill Maher serving as a one-man opposition research division against Wingnut Queen Christine O’Donnell. Jon Stewart hosting a pre-election “ Rally to Restore Sanity” on the Washington Mall.

It’s no joke: Comedians are driving the political debate this year. Consider it a sign of the times – laughter and satire is the only sane response to the sickening spin cycle we’re subjected to on a daily basis.

After all, if a one-fifth of Americans believe that President Obama is secretly a Muslim, one-quarter believe that he wasn’t born in the United States, and over half think he’s a socialist, we’re acting crazy anyway. Might as well add some intentional humor to the funhouse-mirror distortions that pass for political debate. Because the best explanation for belief in the above statistics came from Colbert: “I love the truth; it's facts I’m not a fan of.”

Yes, we’ve come a long way since the days of Will Rogers and Mort Sahl—and not just because the jokes are running for office now. (They were then as well).

There’s a reason to take comedians seriously as commentators today. Sometimes it feels like they’re the only ones telling the truth.

It’s not like our politics were innocent a decade ago. But in the past, political leaders gave talking points to talk radio hosts. Now talk radio hosts give talking points to our political leaders. More and more pundits function as partisan apologists and ideological apparatchiks. In turn, more and more politicians follow the shock-jock model: there’s no such thing as too extreme. The more deranged or batty the congressman acts, the more beloved they are by the base and the more national activist cash they can raise.

In an environment where Americans are increasingly self-segregating themselves into separate political realities, getting allegedly straight news from sources that confirm their own biases, its no wonder that Jon Stewart was named the ‘most trusted man in news’ by a Time magazine online poll in 2009. Comedians are becoming the new Walter Cronkite, because they are free to be honest brokers and equal-opportunity offenders.

There’s a reason to take comedians seriously as commentators today. Sometimes it feels like they’re the only ones telling the truth.

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For example, combating conservative populism can seem elitist. So calling bullshit can better be done by embracing the ugliness so close that the absurdity shines through. Stephen Colbert’s “Keep Fear Alive” rally captures an entire election strategy better than a thousand earnest letters to the editor or a dozen doctoral dissertations.

And when Colbert testified in character at a congressional hearing on migrant farm-workers yesterday (with the bona fides of spending 10 hours alongside them in the fields), he not only embodied the absurdity of politicians using celebrity policy experts, he scored some solid points. There was the satiric reveal (“I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican, I want it picked by an American, and sliced by a Guatemalan, and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian”); and the sincere (“They say that you truly know a man after you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, and while I have nowhere near the hardships of these struggling immigrants, I have been granted a sliver of insight.”). My favorite line was directed at Congressman Steve King from Iowa, when Colbert mock apologized for saying “corn-packer.” (“I know it's an offensive term for gay Iowans.”)

I’ve finally gotten used to the fact that The Daily Show seems to have better access to video archives than most major cable news shows (or at least the inspiration to use them to expose politicians’ hypocrisy), but Bill Maher’s got his team working overtime at Real Time, digging up decade-old coverage of Christine O’Donnell getting her full crazy on.

It’s not just his proud atheism driving the determination to call out the one-time cheerleader for evangelical absolutism for defenses of gay conversion therapy or her now infamous “dabbling in witchcraft” comment. (It’s tough to keep up with O’Donnell—a new clip yesterday found her declaring that she could stop all of America from having sex. Now that’s a nanny-state impulse).

Maher has announced that he’ll keep plucking her greatest hits out of his archives until she comes on his show—which ain’t gonna happen. So the high stakes humorous pile-on will continue, pitting her efforts to play the anti-Hollywood victim card (in which case, what was she doing in Hollywood begging to get on TV throughout '90s?) versus the cold reality that this giddily irresponsible and apparently unstable person could become a U.S. senator.

But the biggest gamble is Jon Stewart’s attempt to simultaneously mock and mimic Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor Rally for a good cause: sanity. Instead of a religious revival, we’re going to get an election eve reality check courtesy of comedy, reminding us all to take ourselves and partisan politics a little less seriously. It’s an extension of the spirit of humility Benjamin Franklin once advised a contemporary—to “doubt a little bit in his own infallibility.”

Among the signs Stewart suggested taking to the October 30th rally include “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler” and “9/11 was an Outside Job” ( suitable for Rosie O’Donnell or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). The true targets of the rally are galloping ignorance and extremism—those advocates of Bush Derangement Syndrome or Obama Derangement Syndrome—offering the reminder that if you only object to the president of your own party being compared to Hitler then you’re part of the problem.

The challenge facing Stewart and The Daily Show crew is at least as old as the quote from "The Second Coming" where Yeats complained that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Can Stewart get functional people with busy lives—the non-screamers, the non-shouters, the non-Kool-Aid drinkers—to care enough to come to a rally in Washington on a fall weekend? The answer matters because it’s a measure of the way an unrepresentative group of extremes have been able to hijack our politics and dominate the debate. Decisions in a democracy are made by people who show up: voting with their ballot, their feet and their wallet. It’s up to the moderate majority of Americans to straighten their civic backbone and demand something better and different than demagoguery.

Humor, after all, is a social corrective against arrogance, ignorance and pretension. Those qualities are never in short supply when it comes to politics. But the rise of comedians as trusted voices of sanity in a hyper-partisan era should be a wake up call to journalists that we need to take our jobs a hell of a lot more seriously.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.