In 1992, Saturday Night Live ran a skit showing then-President-elect Bill Clinton stopping at McDonald’s to mooch french fries and mingle with the locals. Played by the late great Phil Hartman, Clinton quips after a Secret Service agent warns him not to tell Hillary of his fast food adventure: “There’s gonna be a whole bunch of things we don’t tell Mrs. Clinton.”
It was a low blow, of course, referring to Clinton’s scattered infidelities that came up during his ’92 campaign. And yet it was widely accepted across the aisle – as are most skits on SNL, whether the fun is at Clinton’s expense or nowadays Mitt Romney’s.
From SNL to The Onion, “The Daily Show” to “Family Guy,” satire has become a standard of comedy in American culture. SNL has kept rolling with the punches in past elections, with Dana Carvey as George W. Bush and, more recently, Tina Fey with her now-famous impersonation of Sarah Palin.
It’s almost as if we take these moments to lighten up a bit before making some big decisions. Could we really drag through the day hearing about healthcare reform and military spending without listening to a few jokes here and there?
Satire has always existed, but for many higher-ups, it was considered a low, cheap form of comedy. Some argue that Shakespeare’s Richard III is simply a 1590s mocking satire like, let’s say, the Colbert Report, though others interpret it as nationalistic governmental pandering.
In many ways today, satire makes up for the inadequacies of “real” news. It collectivizes us despite our views, and in most cases it is just downright funny. Satire is the best of both worlds, connecting us to real news while serving as a modern pinnacle of comedy.
This isn’t to say you should be getting your news solely from Stewart or Colbert – although it may be better than some alternatives.
Fairleigh Dickinson’s Public Mind conducted a survey back in May to see how the public’s current events knowledge fell in relation to its preferred news sources. For domestic issues, “Daily Show” devotees ranked third in their knowledge, only behind NPR fans and listeners of Sunday Morning news programs. International issues had “Daily Show” fans in second.
For both categories, Fox News fell in dead last, even behind those who watch no news at all. MSNBC watchers weren’t far ahead. What does this say about satire?
One thing is certain: politicians feed the meter every time they open their mouths, especially during straight broadcasts of the debates. And that’s what had me so revved up for the true debate this election season: “O’Reilly vs. Stewart: The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium,” which took place via a charity pay-per-view online event this past Saturday.
In many ways, the Rumble was more informative than the presidential debate because of its humility. After a stretch about bringing the lower class up, Mr. Stewart danced a happy jig in celebration of his remark. The debate had moments of comedy and moments of seriousness, and both Stewart and O’Reilly had the opportunity as wide-reaching pundits to address the issues in a way much too risky for the candidates themselves.
In one fit of feigned rage, O’Reilly asked Stewart, “Are you sitting or standing?” making a jab at Stewart’s short stature to O’Reilly’s towering 6 ft. 4 in. Imagine this kind of comment during the presidential debate (maybe not about height – both Romney and Obama are rather tall gentlemen).
It would never happen, because politicians are expected to be all too proper: their mannerisms, their words, everything. Normal people don’t point with their thumbs.
But most of all, satire calls out our talking heads on the issues the mainstream media wouldn’t dare touch for fear of “bias” or “opinion.” Oh, the irony. Maybe this is the cause of such misinformation alluded to in the poll – people expecting to get non-biased news from cable, when in reality, it is often neither news nor satire.
Can satire lead to social change in ways conventional political discussions cannot? Do we buy into it because of some human-to-human connection, or even because it’s just plain funny? I would say so, and it’s a great way to temper the heat during an election season.
Regardless, I hope we can all find a happy medium between reality and satire in tonight’s vice presidential debate. I’ll get the laugh track ready.