March 21, 2007

Rare Political Post (sort of)

Remember how in 2000 the running trope about Bush was that he would be a huge boon to comedy if elected? I was thinking about that prediction recently and realized that it turned out to be exactly true, but in a totally different way than we all expected.

The common belief at the time would be that he would spend at least 4 years amusing us with gaffes and basic lack of knowledge about the world, and we could all have some harmless fun at his expense.

But he has done nothing for traditional stand-up comedians and late-night talk show hosts. If anything he has made their jobs much harder. Aside from the steady stream of grim and depressing news resulting from his policies, the past 6 years have been a time of extreme polarization. Talk-show hosts who would be normally inclined to point out the obvious absurdities in the President's rhetoric became too timid at the prospect of offending their FoxNews-emboldened red-state viewers to call a spade a spade. Look what happened to the most spade-calling comedian of the pre-terror era: Bill Maher, thrown to the jackals at the first possible opportunity for doing just that. Then, once everyone started to "watch what they say, watch what they do," the whole comedy business ground to a halt for about 2 years while everyone was too freaked out to make jokes about anything.

Into that vacuum steps the Daily Show. [Insert generic paragraph about show's impact on the real news media/political scene here.] We've all heard the canonical story about the effect of Jon Stewart on the liberal media which is still struggling to groggily awake from its coma and recover from that ball injury. There are plenty of those essays already, we don't need another. Instead, I will observe that it and the Colbert Report have accomplished an entirely different mission, the fulfillment of that Bush=comedy-gold prophecy from 2000. He did give humorists plenty of fodder, it just happened to be different humorists (satirists rather than network hacks) and different fodder (jingoism rather than faux pas).

When you think about it, you realize that it was specific things that the past few presidents had done and said that made them funny. But with Bush the actual things he has done are pretty scary or controversial, and instead what makes him funny is what he, and the people who vehemently strive to prop him up in the eyes of the public, are: phonies. But if you are some Jay Leno type with a huge diverse audience, you can't be alienating half of your viewers by making jokes about the essence of their beloved leader every night, so you are forced to stick to these innocuous observations that skirt the substance of what actually makes the president hilarious (or terrifying). Conan, who used to be one of the most sharp and intelligent, is still doing Bush-can't-read jokes, seven years on. Get with it-- the joke isn't that he can't read, it's that he chooses not to.

Instead, the only way to appropriately mock (or even point out) this kind of vast trend of frightening dishonesty is by satirizing it. And to do that you have to be pointed, and partisan, and too cruel to please everyone. You also have to play to an audience who understands irony, and who will recognize the type of rhetorical patterns being ridiculed. So while ordinary comics have languished in the never-ending flood of scandals and terrible news, the only decent product of the administration, humor-wise, have been the ironists like Colbert who sprung up to the acknowledge the absurdity of it all.

So all of those smart-asses who thought they were being so clever back at the turn of the century predicting Bush as a boon to comedy ended up being right, but in a completely different way. It takes a special kind of absurdity to actually create satirists to mock you. If we're lucky, it could end up being one of his most enduring legacies.