KANE: Satire is the best medicine



Jonas Kane

Are some issues just too serious to be considered seriously? More specifically, in an age defined by terrorism, the credit crisis, the war in Iraq, climate change, Sarah Palin, etc., is it maybe better sometimes just to laugh? Is there even an alternative when so much of the traditional news coverage is itself ludicrous?

The importance of satire has reemerged with the rise of commentator-comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the modern day Mark Twains who cleverly dish out nightly harangues of politicians and the press with wit, poignancy and, depending on whether it’s Stewart or Colbert, disbelief or pomp. Larry Wilmore, known to fans of “The Daily Show” as the Senior Black Correspondent, spoke at Villanova on Oct. 7. In his speech, he touched upon the role of politics and race in his comedy.

I asked Wilmore how he viewed the role of satire on “The Daily Show” – whether it’s just something to let people laugh and unwind at the end of the day, or if there’s more of a conscious effort to force a dialogue on important issues. The comedian seemed unable to come up with a direct answer, saying he thought it was “great” that viewers got something deeper out of the show and that he wished there were more political comedy like that available. On a show last week, after describing how John McCain fits a number of black stereotypes, Wilmore deadpanned on the presidential election, saying, “One is a black white guy, and the other is a white black guy. I guess I have to read up on the issues now.”

As a counterpoint, however, a Rolling Stone piece from October 2006 quoted former “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” producer Ben Karlin as saying, “The biggest mistake people make is thinking that Jon and Stephen sit down before every show and say, ‘OK, how are we going to change the world?’ … They both really just want to get a laugh.” Still, Wilmore added in answer to my question that he loved seeing Stewart go on one of his “rants.” He said he admires how the “wild satire” of “The Daily Show” hurls an issue directly at the audience to make them think about it. Of his own comedy, Wilmore said that he would “rather have someone hate what [he does] than feel indifferent.” Audiences have clearly been receptive to his thinking: A number of people who attended the speech admitted to getting news from “The Daily Show,” and a Pew Research Poll published on Aug. 17 ranked the political knowledge of its viewers as higher than those who get their news from cable and network news programming.

There are still plenty of reputable newspapers and magazines – and versions of these on the Internet – that provide thorough analysis of local and global news. But following weeks of economic turmoil that inexplicably and farcically led to the final presidential debate centering on McCain’s new BFF Joe the Plumber, satire’s role shines clearly.

The Internet jesters at The Onion had earlier posted a mock news brief claiming, “Much Criticized Media Vows To Return To Softball Tactics.” Sure enough, much of the actual media spent the day after the debate looking up the qualifications of plumber Joe, rather than, say, asking McCain to explain his erroneous assertion that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac caused the credit crisis or asking Barack Obama to actually answer the question on what programs he might have to cut as a result of the crisis. “The Daily Show” provided a beautiful montage on the media’s newfound love affair with Joe, and even David Letterman asked tougher questions of McCain than any of the debate moderators.

Satire’s primary goal is indeed laughter. Yet there’s a reason that the absurd and outrageous comedy of satire is funny: It’s grounded in truth. Though the humor goes beyond the realm of possibility, it paradoxically brings us back to what is real. It allows us to laugh all the way to the bank and insures that we aren’t so complacent as to have our money stolen, too.


Jonas Kane is a junior English major from Harrisburg, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].