National Review columnist Jim Geraghty expressed his chagrin last week with liberals’ misunderstanding of political humor. In a piece titled “Liberals Can’t Tell the Difference Between Satire and News, and GOP Presidential Campaigns Are Paying the Price,” Geraghty noted examples of fake quotes, attributed to Republicans, that were nonetheless perceived as genuine by people already inclined to hate their supposed speakers. The author apportioned special blame to a Facebook community called “Stop the World, the Teabaggers Want Off,” which lampoons Republicans, usually by laughing at things they never actually said. I don’t know what’s funny about that but apparently that’s their shtick. Their page has a disclaimer warning that the site is “for entertainment purposes only,” though it’s clear that some of its readers didn’t get the memo.
In the internet age, it doesn’t take long for a satirical quote to enter broad circulation on blogs and social media. Divorced from its comedic context, an even larger portion of the population will take it for truth and further perpetuate it.
I must confess that even I have been duped by a satirical quote. I once believed that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin actually claimed that she could see Russia from her house, which she didn’t. A Palin-impersonator named Tina Fey said that on Saturday Night Live and from there it spread like wildfire. How surprised I was to learn that Palin’s actual quote was “…[A]nd you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska…”
After learning of my mistake I wondered where I had picked up this false impression. Then I remembered—sometime during the 2008 campaign, I read a news item about a bunch of protestors crashing a campaign rally where Palin was scheduled to speak. There in the accompanying photograph was a protestor holding a sign that read: “‘You Can See Russia From My House’—Actual Sarah Palin Quote.”
I rolled my eyes and groaned that Palin, who almost made the McCain-Palin ticket worth voting for (almost!), would say something so dumb. For several months thereafter I believed that she had really said it. How surprised I was to learn that in fact the real idiot was the protestor, not Palin.
This problem of people not knowing satire from reality is likely a phenomenon of the Daily Show Generation. I consider myself part of that generation, though not a fan myself. Regardless of whether I actually watch the program, many people my age (I’m thirty-four) and many members of the generational cohort fifteen years my junior, consider the Daily Show to be a real source of news, along with The Colbert Report, The Onion, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, and Saturday Night Live. For some, it’s the only news they get.
And they brag about this. No, seriously. They snicker at the Left’s latest object of scorn while clapping like trained seals at all of Jon Stewart’s jokes, even the unfunny ones, which happens to be most of them. They love to tell you how savvy they are about current affairs. When I was in college, students actually wrote columns in the campus paper arguing that people who got their news from the Daily Show were actually smarter than the average bear.
I was recently reminded of the boastful Daily Show fans I once knew when I wandered into a gift shop in the People’s Republic of Amherst, Massachusetts. A bumper sticker sold at the shop featured the Comedy Central logo with the words “My News Channel,” and the Fox News logo with the words “My Comedy Channel.” Oh, I get it. So the person who would buy this sticker thinks Comedy Central has actual journalistic value but Fox News is just for giggles.
These people remind me of grown adults who still think that professional wrestling is real, except WWE fans aren’t nearly as smug. Also, their misplaced love for moronic entertainment is innocuous because it doesn’t affect elections. But other than that, they’re pretty similar.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. Satire has value, both comedic and political. Can its purveyors be blamed if stupid people don’t get the joke?
I’m beginning to think that the answer is yes. When you know that your audience contains a substantial number of boobs who don’t know a joke when they hear one, it helps to remind them every once in a while. If they still aren’t getting the message, do it more. Tina Fey might want to mention that Sarah Palin never said she could see Russia from her house because that’s a stupid comment and Sarah Palin is not stupid. But she never says that because her fans hate Sarah Palin and Tina Fey wants them to like her.
Comedians should also avoid other pitfalls that inadvertently blur the line between satire and reality. Stephen Colbert, for example, should probably not testify before Congress in character, as he did in 2010. People were left wondering what qualified a fake newsman to pronounce on much of anything. To my knowledge, the only other fictional character ever to testify before Congress is Elmo from Sesame Street. Both incidents were dumb stunts. Having a funny man testify while donning a fictional persona makes a mockery of congressional hearings, which I think was Colbert’s aim. Most people seemed to agree that Colbert’s performance—and that’s what it was—fell flat. As in, not funny.
But how many of his fans thought it was great? And how many didn’t understand that they were watching an actor play a character? Judging by the number of fools who believe the obviously made-up quotes on satirical websites, I would say quite a few.
It doesn’t help that the character named Stephen Colbert—the clueless conservative reporter who excels at asking dumb questions—is played by a performer who has the same name but opposite politics. Colbert is unique in this regard. Rockers Alice Cooper and Kid Rock both claim that their on-stage personas are fictional, which explains why they don’t use their real names. When Alice Cooper washes off his makeup he becomes Vincent Furnier, and when Kid Rock is relaxing with his family he’s Bob Ritchie. But Stephen Colbert is always Stephen Colbert, even when he’s poking fun at conservative reporters (all three of them) by pretending to be someone he’s not.
These are curious times we live in. Journalistic gags gain currency because a segment of the population lacks the power to discern satire from reality. They in turn spread that misinformation to other people who would probably identify satire for what it is if they had heard it from its source. At the risk of sounding like a humorless curmudgeon, I must say that this trend is not healthy. When elections are decided by razor thin margins, we can’t afford such blatant foolishness. Satire itself is not to blame, but its creators need to take some responsibility for the misinformation that it spawns. In short, they’re doing it wrong