Exclusive Interview with Sophia A. McClennen and Remy Maisel authors of “Is Satire Saving Our Nation: Mockery and American Politics?”

Is Satire Saving Our Nation First, I’d like to thank Sophia McClennen and Remy Maisel for taking the time to answer questions for us at The Hub. Their new book, ‘Is Satire Saving Our Nation: Mockery and American Politics?‘, argues that political satire is more than just fun: it’s a way of becoming an engaged and informed citizen — especially for Millennials. Obviously, both The Colbert Report and The Daily Show play a large role in McClennen/Maisel’s argument!

As a person who has always believed in the power of comedy to reach people, this is an argument I can fully endorse.

First, for those of our readers who haven’t yet had a chance to read your book, would you give a brief recap of your argument?

Our book makes a few key arguments. First it argues that satire has fundamentally changed the way that the public receives and responds to news. It shows that satire plays a greater role in shaping public perceptions than at any other time in global history. It also claims that satire has become vital part of engaged citizenship, especially for millennials. And finally, it suggests that these changes are a positive and healthy feature of our current democracy.

On The Colbert Report, when Barack Obama took over “The Word” (aka “The Decree”), he — with a little (okay, a LOT) of help from the Report writing staff — stated: “Young people don’t watch real news shows like this one [or fake ones like FOX.] That seems to be a perfect summation of your book’s philosophy! You explain why this isn’t such a bad thing . . . given contemporary journalism. Do you think that was Colbert’s way, after all these years of denying it, of admitting that his show actually did serve a “real” purpose beyond comedy? And that he could do that because he himself wasn’t delivering the Word?

Colbert always played with the idea of whether or not his show was making a difference. In almost all public appearances or interviews he remained elusive on the point. But those of us that have seen him at pre-taping Q & As know that he was pretty clear that his show was having a major public impact — the best sign of which was his SuperPac. This is all to say that yes, we do think that the Obama “The Decree” was a further way of playing with that idea. It was perfect to have the President be the one to make that point. But it is also worth remembering that Colbert also suggested, cheekily, his show would change the world on his very first episode.

Could you elaborate more on the difference between satire and activism? When does one cross over to the other? I’m thinking of your analysis of the Yes Men, an activist group that interferes with real events and actually succeeded in making stock plunge. Are they doing political sabotage or a form of street theater more than satire? If we create a spectrum, where would Colbert fit into this?

Satire can be public performance — and that is what the Yes Men do. Certainly Colbert also engaged in the same sort of activities when he ran for President, opened his SuperPac, and more. Not all satire has the same activist angle — but certainly there is a clear overlap in these examples. There are comedians that dip into activism — as does Colbert — and activists that use satire to make their point as in the case of the Yes Men or Billionaires for Bush. The point is that the synergy between activism and satire is especially potent and effective in today’s world.

I love your concept of the “entertained citizen” becoming an “engaged citizen.” Many filmmakers desirous of enacting change have tried to achieve this without success. But is there a flip side to this; for example couldn’t you say that FOX is doing the same for their viewers to opposite effect — for example, in helping to establish the Tea Party?

Well yes. The sad news is that Fox is becoming both a religion and a highly influential political party. Viewers “follow” Fox in ways that directly influence their political habits. Our argument is that the best example we have of a counter movement is that of the engaged citizen that uses satire as a key part of exercising citizenship.

You mention that millennials voted in high numbers in the 2012 campaign. But this didn’t happen so much in the midterms — in spite of both Stewart and Colbert urging their viewers to vote — and look at the results. My question is: exactly how much do you think satire can lead to activism and how much is activism affected by what’s actually going on? Or do you think it’s simply harder for satire shows to make a difference on a more local level?

Much was made over dismal millennial turnout in the mid-terms of 2014 — but a lot of that is hype. In fact, millennial turnout at 21.3% was fairly consistent with the past. Of course we could have hoped for it to be higher — but there are a lot of factors that influence people showing up to vote. First, it would be fair to say that the Democrats were not doing a good job of encouraging young voters. If pro-democrat folks voted in midterms it was often to vote “against” the opposition, rather than “for” the candidate. Secondly, the conversation about turnout has to take into account the fact that voting does not take place on a holiday — this means that those of us that work set hours and may also go to school have to find time to vote — a fact that disproportionately affects younger voters and voters of color, while benefiting retirees. Millennials taking full course loads and also working are at a real disadvantage. And that’s not even taking into account the impact of voter ID laws and their impact on specific segments of the population.

The satire shows like those of Colbert, Stewart, and Oliver were covering elections but mostly by mocking both sides since both sides were mounting such lame campaigns — so it is hard to say exactly what role they might have played this time around with voting. If anything they encouraged the anti-republican vote through the ways that they mocked the efforts of the GOP to reach out to young voters by making the GOP seem hip.

Throughout the book you make comparisons between the “Baby Boomer” generation and Millennials, pointing out the different ways they approach citizenship. But I did feel some crucial predecessors to groups like the Yes Men and present-day satirists were left out, especially Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies, who I think have much in common with the Occupy movement. Could you comment on this? Do you feel there’s a link?

There is definitely a link. The satire we cover comes out of a long tradition. In fact, a lot of what Stewart and Colbert do on their shows does indeed have previous versions. Recall Pat Paulsen running for President, for instance. But there is a generational distinction in how the public views citizenship. So despite the fact that there is an obvious legacy, it is also important to note that today’s young people see citizenship differently from those that grew up in the 70s.

You mention that satire often emerges when a nation is in crisis. I agree. What struck me are the similarities between what your descriptions of the use of double-meaning in language and playful speech and the kind of narrative approach I’ve seen many artists take under dictatorships. As we know, China has now outlawed puns, and I know Latin American filmmakers searched for cleverly indirect ways to their message across when they worked under military regimes. Would you say that, although neither Colbert nor Stewart were ever in similar danger, they also felt the need to employ this strategy to structure their critique in the hyper-patriotic and hysterical Bush age?

Yes. Post-9/11, there was a very strong “with us or against us” narrative. The fact that Colbert, in character at the White House Correspondents Dinner, was the only person who dared to criticize the president to his face, was no coincidence. It gave him a layer of protection to stand behind. Using a satirical persona and ironic language served as a sort of shield. That’s not to say that what he did wasn’t brave or admirable, or to excuse the journalists in that room who had abdicated their posts, just that it makes sense.

It seems to me that TV news went through a trajectory, first becoming part of the entertainment division (per one of Colbert’s favorite films, Network), and then eventually abandoning journalism to become totally “fake.” But even more, candidates have become entertainers to suit entertainment journalism. When Fey can use Palin word-for-word as comedy, with virtually nothing changed, how would you say that affects any notion of ‘serious reality?”

It’s that realization exactly that helps clarify why the line between “real” and “fake” news is so arbitrary and unhelpful to us. The idea that seriousness equals reality is flawed and outdated. The appearance of gravitas doesn’t actually lend credence to the content of what the person was saying. Anyone worried that Colbert’s deadpan presentation might be misleading people really ought to have been more worried about candidates who say ridiculous things with a straight face and mislead people all the time. So yes, the fakeness of “real news” and the antics of candidates seem to be a vicious cycle, exacerbating each other, but the problem isn’t a new one – it’s just easier to spot now than ever.

You compare today’s satire shows with some from the past — like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Of course, that show was ignominiously cancelled by CBS. Today’s shows have more options, both in terms of networks (some of which don’t depend as much on ratings) and in terms of hosts using alternative social media to publicize themselves and disseminate clips. How do you think that affects the way people like Stewart and Colbert work?

Well, the challenge is in needing to be compatible with the current media landscape – that means lots of self-contained bits and clips. The potential danger of that is things like the #CancelColbert debacle, which happened because the network tweeted a quote out of its context. The benefit, of course, is that people like John Oliver get their show seen, on YouTube, by hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have HBO or even cable. And Colbert could get people to engage through social media, starting hashtags like #IGotTheTweetsLikeGrassley. It’s interesting that Jon Stewart, though, doesn’t have a Twitter account.

How would you characterize John Oliver — whose show premiered after your book was published — to the mix? How is he similar/different from Stewart and Colbert?

John Oliver is really interesting because he, unlike almost everyone else in the media, devotes long chunks of time to extended segments. He can spend 15 minutes on a specific issue. In that way, he is unique. In terms of similarity to Stewart and Colbert, the level to which he plays a version of himself falls somewhere between the two. He isn’t quite a character the way Stephen was, nor is he as much himself as Stewart. He also is in the position of being British, which lets him examine the news from a different perspective. Sometimes, it gives him the distance he needs to criticize American politics, and other times, it allows him to introduce international news the American public would not otherwise be exposed to.

You say (on page 111) that, with satire, “the litmus test is to determine intent.” But how exactly do you determine a satirist’s intent? By what the creator of the satire claims? By the work itself (which is not “intent” but textual)? And does “intent” actually matter as much as the product itself?

Well that is the rub. Intent is always hard to pin down. But it is fair to say that we can attempt to infer intent. Similarly the effect of the joke can offer a textual clue to impact — but that is also a tricky thing to prove. So first of all we have to say that it is always hard to be entirely certain what was meant by the comedian. But secondly we do think that in some cases it is fairly clear that the joke was just meant to mock and in other cases it was meant to promote critical reflection. The distinction is not always clean and obvious — but it most cases it can be determined.

You speak of the importance and pleasure of “learning through humor.” How did that affect the writing of your book? How did you work that theory into your own practice?

In many ways, this book was itself an example of learning through humor. No professor and undergrad student have ever, as far as we can tell, teamed up to write an academic book before. For Remy, writing a book was entirely new, and for both of us, the collaboration was. So we were learning, through our mutual appreciation of a certain kind of humor. And we both had a good-humored approach to this. We also learned things we didn’t already know in the process of writing the book, and we often learned them through the discovery and rediscovery of funny satire. Writing this book would have felt a lot more like “work” if researching didn’t sometimes mean watching old Daily Show clips.

Much of your work focuses on millennials. But do you think your analysis — the way people learn and retain facts through humor — could apply as well to older viewers? If the real news isn’t reporting the facts wouldn’t everybody benefit from this?

They would. The reason for our focus on millennials was that a lot of the naysayers about satire were specifically claiming that the fact that young people were supposedly only watching shows like The Colbert Report boded ill for our democracy. But those effects certainly can apply to older viewers. And there are very likely older people out there who have more traditional views of how the news should be delivered who would actually find they were missing out if they tried satirical news – especially those who have simply stopped watching the news altogether because it has deteriorated so badly.

At one point in the book, you compare Ann Coulter’s words to Colbert’s, saying that it could be hard to distinguish them but “that the crucial difference is comedy. Colbert says these sorts of comments on a comedy show and in the context of his satirical silliness.” (99) One thing I felt that didn’t get quite as much discussion was the issue of performance, which of course is crucial to our understanding of Colbert’s work. I wonder if you could address that.

This comes back to intent. Of course Coulter is also performing, but with a very different intent than Stephen. If we were being generous, we might say that Coulter performs the way she does because she is a true believer, fighting for her ideals. More cynically, we might suggest it is possible she believes as much of what she said as Colbert did, and was just in it for the fame and money. Colbert’s intent was always to get a laugh, and along the way encouraged critical thinking. Coulter would undoubtedly prefer you not think too hard about her argument, and certainly not laugh at it.

Just after the final episode of The Colbert Report aired, @StephenAtHome tweeted: “I changed the world!” My question is, do you think he did, and how?

Undoubtedly, yes. It seems he was taking a sarcastic jab at the mourning that filled the traditional media outlets at his departure, but The Colbert Report was unlike anything ever before it. It goes beyond the specific impact of things like getting spiders named after him, or winning a Peabody for the SuperPac segments. He inhabited a character that interacted with the real world, and real politics, to a degree that hasn’t been seen before. But now that it has, I think we can expect to see more of it.

Now that The Colbert Report has ended, I wonder if you could briefly address what you think we’ll lose with his loss of his show and his entry into more mainstream media.

We lose his character — which is huge! Colbert’s character allowed the public a direct satirical line to critique punditry. Now that the character is gone, we don’t have that and it does matter. We remain hopeful though that as Colbert goes more mainstream he will continue to have a sharp satirical edge. Until we see the show, we won’t know for sure.