Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era. Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson, eds. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2009. 283 pp.
Humor is delicate to dissect. If you explain a joke, it may cease to be funny and the humor falls apart. But taking apart satire leads to understanding humor’s critical capacity to attack and disarm its subjects. This is especially true when it comes to the politically and socially oriented humor addressed in Satire TV. Dissecting satire—and similar humor tropes such as parody and irony —requires careful work. And the editors as well as authors of this collection do just that, working to understand satire as a form of critique, as challenger to the status quo of news and politics, and as contributor to political and civic discourses.
The collection brings together scholars who know their objects of study well, from The Daily Show and the complicated Stephen Colbert persona, to a slew of American comedy variety shows (Saturday Night Live, The Smothers Brothers), Canadian and British humor, political participation via YouTube, and a sampling of Comedy Central programming specializing in subversive satire (to a point, as Haggins notes in regards to Chappelle’s Show and its relationship to corporate priorities and audience responses). These authors draw on tools of analysis such as Bakhtin’s carnivalesque framework to dissect humor (Thompson and South Park), rhetoric and discourse to situate humor within the political (Morrealle and Jon Stewart), and the construction of identity through humor (Tinic and the Canadian comic Rick Mercer). Overall, the collection is a significant contribution to the study of satire in the televisual form—an area of scholarship that is in need of more perspectives, frameworks, and analyses given the proliferation of satire, subversive humor, and parody across television and the Internet. Indeed, the editors argue that satire TV is a genre just like any other, with its own style, aesthetic, purposes, as well as being a genre that can facilitate a space on television for “political culture” to play out.
The editors bring much to the conversation. Gray teaches media and cultural studies at Wisconsin-Madison and is author of two other books on TV. Jones is at Old Dominion, and produced two books on “new political television” and HBO. Thompson is as assistant communication professor at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Their book is organized into four sections, grouping a set of articles considering the different satirical opportunities that exist in network, post-network, and postmodern contexts, a selection exclusively focusing on the favorite sons of television satire—Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—a grouping that addresses the deconstruction and reconstruction of political figures and political discourse within the realm of humor, and lastly a refreshing segment tackling the limits of satire. The authors write in an accessible manner, outlining the arguments and offering plenty of support. On a number of occasions, however, knowledge of a show as well as context are nearly prerequisites for fully comprehending their arguments. For an American audience unfamiliar with Canadian satirist Rick Mercer or the list of British shows, for example, the argument loses its punch. The authors do make an effort to introduce readers to the basic premise and contexts of television programs, such the numerous articles on The Daily Show (though at some point, repetition about the show’s format and Stewart’s now-mythic clash with CNN’s Crossfire becomes redundant). Haggins does a good job of explaining the genesis of Dave Chappelle’s comedic presence on television, and Gray offers a primer in Sacha Baren Cohen’s mode of satire on the Da Ali G Show.
Among the strengths, the editors write an introductory chapter that includes a distinction between satire and parody—two humor tropes that often (and rightfully so) are lumped together—and discussion of complementary concepts such as intertextuality and pastiche. Other authors also work to define terminology and draw distinctions, such as Day’s definition of real and fake in terms of The Daily Show, and Jones’ discussion of Saturday Night Live presidential impersonations as an “accomplice to power, not as adversary of it.”
Some chapters have less emphasis on satire and analyze the other comedic trope regularly grouped with satire: parody. For example, Jenkin’s article does make a case of how parody can be used as a critical tool to take part in the political process while upsetting the dominance of “traditional” media, but never explicitly mentions satire. The book’s subtitle also makes reference to “post-network television” and explains it somewhat in the introduction, but rarely does this reference reappear in the collection. So to some extent, the reader is left to decide what “post-network television” means.
Satire TV’s value stems primarily from its diverse yet mutually reinforcing perspectives on the genre of satire and associated humor tropes. Satire on television (and the Internet) offers a space to react to, play with, and challenge political and civic discourses. However, satire on such a popular medium (even in the post-network era) can be problematic in how the critical humor is perceived and understood by diverse audiences, as discussed in the final three chapters. Satire can also be limited by the commercial nature of television as an industry, where critical humor can be shut down just as easily as it can be sanctioned by its popularity with audiences.
University of Oregon