Why Liberal Comedy Failed

I think one of the fallouts from the right wing revolution this year is basically the end of the relevance of satirical news. We used to enjoy both the deconstruction and bizarre reconstruction of Stewart-Colbert hour. It was at its best in the Bush – shinning a wry light on the hypocricies, mendacities and pretzel logic of the neocons, Fox News and talk radio. These shows blazed a trail in which people, especially young people, got the news, while at the same time the mainstream corporate media itself was bending away from any semblance of objectivity and embraced open punditry, becoming closed circuits with their audiences. No longer would news claim as Walter Cronkite used to say with authority, “and that’s the way it is,” becoming instead “we report, you decide” or “fair and balanced” or “leaning forward,” among other ridiculous bromides.

John Stewart carried the knee-jerk resentment of politics run amuck, and Stephen Colbert, in putting together his fun house mirror version of Bill O’Reilly, gave the rest of news watchers a decoder ring with which to decipher the endless double speak and duck quacking of politics. Their news, though, crept from satire to punditry itself, drifting then to an apparent open advocacy for liberal causes. It also meant that they, and their spiritual projeny, would be held to the standards of pundits and activists and not mere court jesters. The crossing of this Rubicon for their satirical news was when Stewart and Colbert did the 2010  “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in Washington, modeled after Glen Beck’s weepy maudlin performance art at the same spot a few months earlier with his “Restoring Honor” rally. What was remarkable about the Stewart/Colbert call for “sanity” is that it was, at the end, rather vague and hollow as they themselves called it a “non-political” event. What exactly were they trying to do?  They went as far as to decry the delusional partisan bickering “on both sides” and called for bipartisanship, as if there was an eqivalence between the insanity of Obama’s policies and the right’s unprecedented and radicalized obstructionism. How silly and naïve does that sound now? Their liberalism was exposed there, at bottom, substance free.  At best, it indulged in the deep ironies and cynical consents of our system.

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That rally presaged why these two groundbreaking shows ultimately failed and why these two comedians had to part from their shows. For Stewart, the Daily Show was becoming tiresome. He fatigued of being a media watchdog of Fox News. In a way, he was defeated by the divisive political rhetoric, the hopelessness of politics that many Americans feel. He basically burned out, retreated to helping animals with his veterinarian wife in New Jersey. It’s the kind of hobby a shell-shocked veteran donning a depression beard would take up. As for Colbert, he had been contemplating quitting his show for a couple years before seizing opportunity of the Late Show mantle from David Letterman. Colbert explained to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross of quitting the character of Colbert, that he felt tired of doing it, and feared that he would lose the character on the air and ruin the show. He was burned out, too.  The character, it seems, had an expiration date.

Why, we may ask, is satire news prone to this kind of burn out?  I propose that it is prone because it really offers no substantive challenge to the status quo. Sure, it can snidely critique the ludicrous or offensive behavior and activities of politicians and elites, but stripped of this, it has no real point of view.  As Chris Hedges noted, these “liberals are tolerated by the capitalist elites because they do not question the virtues of corporate capitalism, only its excesses, and call for tepid and ineffectual reforms.” So it becomes, instead, an activity of cynical liberal identity politics, because their shows, whether being run by Viacom like at Comedy Central, or at CBS, are part of the same system of wealthy coastal elites that rural America resents.

Satire is like a barometer for politics in general.  The point where liberal comedy fails is the same point where liberal politics fail.  Likewise, the reason these shows burned out is the same reason the Democratic Party has burned out. It is why the Clinton campaign lost steam and inspired no hope. People understood that she was an insider, a consultant to Goldman Sachs, and former member of the board at Walmart, used politics to make her fortune.

And perhaps they remember how Bill Clinton deceived the working classes by running on a populist pro-labor message, but then appointed one of Ayn Rand’s inner circle, libertarian Alan Greenspan chairman of the Fed, signed NAFTA, which was written by corporate elites in secret to serve their own class, into law, ended the Glass-Steagall Act which protected banks from speculative markets since 1933, curtailing the welfare state, and created tough federal drug laws that doubled the prison population and wrecked African American communities.

Those who didn’t vote for Hillary her found her not credible; those who did, did so largely out of fear for the monstrous alternative. No one, however, believed that Clinton would improve the great economic inequalities tearing at the heart of global capitalism or address climate change, the greatest environmental challenge in the history of civilization. She gave no substantive reason to believe she had a real vision to improve the world. It wasn’t Russia, the FBI, the electoral college, the server, the emails, and it wasn’t Facebook or faux news or Breitbart that ended Clinton.  In a change election, people craved a bolder message.  If there had been a genuine message for real progressive change, that election should have not even been close.

So here is the problem for liberals: it converted from a party of the people, a party of labor, to a party of the new economy; a party of Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Big Pharma – the winners of globalization. It’s how it became a party of the coasts. And this how it became the object of resentment for disenfranchised middle.  This shift has left the party vulnerable, nay, moribund – as moribund as Stewart and Colbert’s old shows. It’s gone, finished. If you are an alarmed liberal, check out Thomas Frank’s book Listen Liberal!: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?  It is an honest critique of the party that deserves an honest response.

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Point being, liberals cannot continue to be a politics of identity, as Bernie Sanders has been pointing out despite indignant liberal criticism.  See, political liberals campaign like liberal comics conduct their comedy news, of which now there is an abundance. They like to attack issues on civil rights, racism, sexism, transphobia, warhawks, et cetera, (not that these things aren’t important!) So among the comics we get folks like that walking smirk Seth Myers nightly mocking Trump but has demonstrated no further substance. Or Samantha Bee, who has some liberal feminista tirades on the ugly, pernicious aspects of the radicalized right but has no apparent economic populism, and used her show to mock Bernie Sanders. Or Bill Maher, who has weekly smug liberal mocking of the wacky Reich, but has is own blind spots to the economy and personal complexes about religion and Islam. Or there is Trevor Noah, who excels in some respects as a voice from South Africa, born a crime, but again, has offered little beyond civil rights and identity politics. It is like these folks are just shouting into their liberal echo chambers, unable to transcend their audiences any more than Glen Beck is able to for his. 

And again, there is Colbert, who has changed the way he does his show. He started out by hardly touching politics, but then gravitated back to what his audience was accustomed to, just without the character. We get jokes about hand size, hair, orange skin, the political obsenities and mendacities du jour. But there is something just so … unfunny about these matters any more. Colbert confessed as much about his ill-conceived attempt to do an election night show amid the biggest political upset in American history. It was like trying to do stand-up comedy while the World Trade Center burned, only compared to 9/11 this was a historical event much, much worse. The laughter has died amid the shock and we sense that the old Colbert shtick is gone.  As Colbert said himself, “Trump is playing me better than I ever could.” Indeed, the clowns have gone to White House, while the comics have become sincere.

And then there is SNL, where Alec Baldwin has been doing an outstanding job with his obscene Trump caricature, but what does SNL really stand for? What does it mean that only last year, Donald hosted the show? Whose side are they on? SNL hardly has any sketches that are not reflections on further media.  SNL riffs on the echo chamber of television, replete with impressions of celebrities, recreations of debates, news shows, talk shows, game shows and commercials.  It is a television show about television. Their most complicated task is figuring out how to make an obsene impression of Trump, who is already in a sense a hyperreal post-truth caricature of himself.   So SNL, like all television as a whole, helped normalize Trump by constant coverage of every outrageous thing he said.   SNL did the same for George W. Bush. Remember that Will Farrell impression made Bush seem goofy, normal, a regular guy. That crap actually matters.

Consider further, in 2011 during Occupy Wall Street, SNL used their sketches to mock protesters and engage in petty character defamation. It’s as if they did anything but take the meaning or intent of the protest seriously, positioning themselves as out of touch elites. SNL really is a nihilistic cul-de-sac signifying nothing. So it is that Baldwin can mock Trump well – and hell, there is an abundance of raw source material to work with – but it offers nothing further than ad hominems because the mechanisms at work in the corporate media are parts of the same cynical and banal cultural industry, which can at once mock its excesses yet promote its own cynical logic. You may chuckle courteously, gawk even, but only on the condition of first either stomping your feet, gasping in horror or sighing in resignation. And as we’ve seen, gawking does little to change our politics here in the end times. It just makes us feel defeated inside.  I’m sure people will still post videos with headings like “Baldwin destroys Trump.” Whatever.

Is there any way to get laughter back? Nietzsche somehow reminds me, “Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we slay.  Come, let us slay the spirit of gravity!”  Laughter is a key way to cope, offers insight, brings people together for a common cause. It’s a craft of the people, not elites, and has a place in good thought and healthful emotions. I think so, but I don’t think the revolutionary laughter will be televised. I think there is theoretically comedy yet to be done but it will sadly not be on television. I think there are probably improv troupes and stand up comics doing some amazing work in some warehouse or cellar somewhere.   Perhaps in the near future, all the few remaining sane people will be sent to asylums where they will perform some variation of Marat/Sade.

But I think the requisite for further satire, like the requisite for any party of opposition, is that it has to be standing at the correct spot. You have to stand with the people. You have to, while getting your chuckles, speak truth to power. You have to name the elites, to have to stand with the audience and orient them toward the real masters of the universe. There are few who really do this. Bill Hicks is a great one (check this).  And Doug Standhope (check this), a self-proclaimed libertarian, has disdain for political power.  For a real progressive comic, try the Youtube show The Jimmy Dore show.  However, for my money, the master of this was George Carlin – particularly the late work, when he earned the merit to crack it all open. His shows then were not even particularly jokey, just an hour or so of pure truth told humorously. He was evidently a well-read man too, knew history, politics, economics, and joined with us in marveling at this culture steeped in lies, violence and exploitation.  He would say, “Being born is like having a ticket to the freak show.  And being born in America is having a front row seat.”

* * * * *

In a nutshell, liberal politics, like liberal comedy, is in the wilderness somewhere.  It’s going to have to be bolder if it is going to transcend the trappings of nationalism, neoliberalism and the culture industry.  It must transform from identity liberalism and return to progressive politics and performance art (the theater of Brecht, Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, Artaud, as well as Situationist Art, et cetera) of the 1960s may be instructive.  But that is another story …

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