The Impact of Political Satire


– By Bradley Whitaker.

The day after returning from his winter break, Jon Stewart spun around in his chair, battling a cold, ready to start another episode of his hit late night program The Daily Show. But rather than talking about something sarcastic, as The Daily Show often does, Stewart chose to tackle something serious, the issue of gun control. In his tapering voice, Stewart weighed in on how absurd the arguments for reducing gun violence had become. Max McCauley, a student at Trinity College in Hartford, CT remembers Stewart’s monologue clearly.

“As someone who grew up just minutes from Newtown, CT, I couldn’t help but notice how quickly the gun conversation changed from keeping people safe, to people looking out for their own political interests. Jon Stewart was able to put that conversation in perspective and talk about what was really important,” said McCauley, 20, wearing his Guilford Fencing jacket from his former high school in Guilford, CT.

Author Bradley Withaker

Author Bradley Whitaker

“It didn’t take the media long to forget about the tragedy in Newtown and turn it into something political. But the people of Connecticut definitely didn’t forget,” McCauley added. “It was refreshing to see Stewart actually talk common sense about the issue.”

While Stewart’s main role on Comedy Central is to be funny, his comedy doesn’t only inform viewers, it makes a real point. As the world of politics becomes increasingly polarized, news networks become more biased, and certain talking points become fact among politicians, pundits, and lobby groups, a path has been paved for comedians to cut straight to the bone on political issues that others are too frightened to touch. As a result, an increasing number of people, especially of younger demographics, are taking their trust away from mainstream media outlets such as network and cable news, newspapers, and magazines, and are turning to sources such as fake news programs, talk shows, satirical websites and tabloids. However, this phenomenon isn’t just due to what news outlets are doing wrong, it’s what comedians are doing right.

McCauley added, “I’ve been watching The Daily Show since I was in high school, and most of my friends who follow current events use it as their number one news source.”

Farleigh Dickinson University recently conducted a survey asking what news programs people watch on television, and then asked those people to answer a few basic questions about both international news and domestic affairs. 1,185 random New Jersey residents were contacted by landline and cell phone in February of last year in the survey. Viewers of The Daily Show were some of the best-informed viewers, with Sunday show viewers and National Public Radio listeners just beating them out. However, frequent viewers of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC were some of the worst informed.

Jasper Zweibel, who recently wrote an article about Stewart’s influence, and had plenty to say on the matter: “Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart really are legitimate news men. They are bringing you the information and not making things up. The stories are funny because that’s just what happens in politics,” said Zweibel, 26, a contributor who’s been at for a couple years now. “If you let the comedy come naturally to the news, it let’s jokes really tap into the heart of the issue,” said Zweibel.

Satire doesn’t always have to be funny in order to keep people entertained. When something comes off as cathartic and is able to pull at one’s heartstrings, adding a humorous element to that can be both humanizing and extremely powerful. In an age where people’s attention spans are becoming shorter, that emotional attachment is almost necessary.

“People aren’t going to watch the news if it’s dry,” adds Zewibel. “They simply don’t. The jokes may keep people coming, but the purpose is to inform and the entertainment is used as a hook. The substance is the story.” Zweibel typically uses political satire to stay informed and keep a level head on what’s really happening in the news.

Mock news programs such as The Daily Show and Colbert Report aren’t the only satirical media outlets people get their news from. Over the last decade there has been a growing number of hits on websites such as The Onion and The Washington Fancy, whose soul purpose is to write pretend news stories that are designed to poke fun at the real news. The Onion, which started as a small entertainment newspaper in 1988 by two University of Wisconsin students, has since grown to average 7.5 million visitors per month, and recently won a Peabody Award back in 2009.

Editor-in-Chief at The Washington Fancy Steven Tobiasz discussed the role his news organization plays: “In terms of what we post online, we are similar to The Onion, but are more heavy politically. However, unlike most political satire on television, we are the complete opposite of the truth. We have to have an outrageous headline that makes people want to click and read it, and at the same time we can’t write three to four page articles because the attention span on a website is like ten seconds for some people,” stated Tobiasz, 25, who has experience working in comedy writing including being a research assistant at Conan.

“What keeps people coming back to our site is the fact that politics is terrible right now. Most news stations have a political affiliation, and don’t really investigate the real issue if it doesn’t align with their own political interests. I don’t even think some news organizations even know they’re doing it,” said Tobiasz. “But if my number one goal is to be funny, I can’t afford to waste my time trying to appeal to the left or the right. It’s not in my best interest to do so.”

Tobiasz is touching on what separates comedians from most opinionated journalists. Rather than looking to inform the viewer or reader on what the author thinks is happening, a comedian is looking for an emotional reaction. Creating this type of reaction actually can inform people. When talking about controversial or sentimental issues, comedy can actually be much more appealing. This explains how Stewart was able to articulate his gun argument nicely on The Daily Show.

“Comedy is a way of directing around a tough subject,” said Tobiasz. “There is a filter, but there’s a fine line with that filter. You’ve got to be willing to push buttons, and you have to be willing to say something that nobody else is willing to say. You have to dare to offend people, but do it in the right way.”

With online proliferation and apps taking over the media landscape, the future of how consumers will get their news is uncertain. However, things are looking bright for the future of comedy. More and more people of younger demographics are getting their news from these comedy sources and are actually becoming smarter by doing so. The Onion says that 90 percent of its online viewers are between the ages of 18 and 44 years old. If it isn’t comedy’s ability to relay the information across to people, it’s their way of keeping people entertained and connected to the subject.

Hunched over in his chair, Max McCauley reflected the thoughts so many people in Connecticut were thinking, “After the tragedy at Sandy Hook, I couldn’t even watch the news. When the news wasn’t discussing the difficult losses people had faced, it was a hysterical response from the NRA, or Alex Jones getting in an uncivilized argument with Piers Morgan. It wasn’t until I saw Jon Stewart frame the gun argument in a way that allowed people to speak openly and honestly about the issue that I actually felt like something could be done.”