Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Daily Show in an Obama Administration

Shortly after Obama won the election, Dan Kois of New York Magazine ran an article speculating what The Daily Show would be like in an Obama administration. Now that an Obama administration is actually in place, we can see what the future of the show might entail.

Any skepticism of TDS’s function in a new administration is legitimate, as the show has served throughout Bush’s eight long years in office as a necessary podium for satirical exorcism of many a frustration with the status quo. It provided a site of relief and mutual understanding between a limited demographic of people when such relief could rarely be found elsewhere. However, the show’s representative young, liberal, or otherwise simply disaffected audience (whether expressing anger or disapproval of the Bush admin through informed logic or simple Bush-joke bandwagoneering) can be argued to be the base for which Obama initially rose in popularity, so one can argue then that the show itself now represents the status quo…Okay, maybe not the status quo, but it’s hard to fit in some good ol’ cynical comedy when your audience won’t stop clapping and cheering at each mention of Obama as the president. As goes with many forms of art, comedy is far less inspired when things are good. TDS feels right now like what Kurt Cobain or Elliot Smith’s music would have sounded like if they one day became optimists.

However, things, quite obviously, still aren’t good. Five days into Obama’s presidency, American banks and businesses continue to tank and we still find ourselves in that quagmire of a country known as Iraq. Guantanamo won’t officially close for another year, and our economy likely won’t start bouncing back for at least twice that amount of time. The major difference, however, is the tangibly drastic change in attitude. As evidenced by the content and rhetoric of his Inauguration speech, Obama as president won't necessarily bring to fruition an immediate change in our surroundings, but rather a change in attitude with respect to our current circumstances, the sign of a simultaneous return to the idealized and constantly reinterpreted values and promises of 1776 and a move forward to accommodate with a world that continues to change instead of expecting the world to accommodate us. The cynics have become the hopeful, and the new cynics of today are few, as it seems like Americans (and much of the western world) on any point of the political barometer want some degree of improvement and progress for this country more than anything else. Only the incessant and excessive ideologues emblematized by Rush Limbaugh outspokenly hope for failure, favoring party loyalty over the greater good of the many.

TDS’s first post-Inauguration episode made as much of the last minutes of the Bush presidency as they could, prepping themselves for the inevitable disappearance of Bush and Cheney from the public eye, as the public doesn’t want to see them anymore than they want to be seen. The following two episodes, however, displayed the potential best and worst of what is to come. With the closing of Guantanamo Bay, Jon Stewart brought back Gitmo, an Elmo-like puppet representing either the ethos behind Guantanamo itself or the supposed perspective of its prisoners. The only real humor of the piece was the (seemingly deliberately bad timing and) transparency of Stewart as both voices in the conversation. However, any fresh humor to be found in the piece quickly died as Stewart’s conversation with Gitmo continually reduced itself to shameless proselytizing of the Obama ethos, sounding more than ever like a voice for the new status quo rather than the source of reactionary comedy or even subversive counter-propaganda that TDS was known for in its best days. Thankfully John Oliver added some punch this last week with his segment at the rally itself, where he satirized the crowd’s impossibly high expectations for Obama. Still, this didn’t sound like a biting criticism cutting to its satirical core as much as it was stating the obvious with a light dose of humor—the excitement over a new president simply continues to drown out the inevitable sober realization that not everything will be fixed within the next four years.

From the writers of Saturday Night Live to Chris Rock, much has been made of the fact that, unlike the imitable persona of Bush, there is little humor to be found in Obama himself. This is not because Obama is a humorless person by any means, or even because of an alleged timidity in poking fun at an ethnic minority, be they in power or not (both TDS and SNL made plenty of jokes about Roland Burris during the Blagojevich senate election scandal). It’s simply hard to make fun of Obama because of his careful control of his media persona, as he has continually proved to understand how the media contextualizes and morphs information and, in turn, makes and breaks political careers, extending to his presence on and affirmation of TDS's importance in the national political process (thank goodness we have the endearing gaffe-magnet that is Joe Biden to balance out Obama). So it goes without question that, unlike Bush, decontextualized soundbites of the current president himself will not likely provide a wealth of humor.

However, TDS has proved throughout these last eight years—especially in this past election cycle—that there is no greater source of humor than turning the camera onto the media itself, and it is in this respect that the show remains strong, lampooning the absurdly meticulous coverage of Sasha and Melia’s first day in school to its lambasting of right-wing cynicism on Fox News that will no doubt continue to remain potent throughout the Obama presidency.

TDS, at its very best, can be a vessel for counter-propaganda when it aims to deconstruct common methodologies for information dissemination not by politicians but by the news media itself, regularly highlighting contradictions or hypocrisies in both information delivery and punditry while enforcing tactics (largely through careful and inventive justaposition of news segments and/or soundbites of politicians and pundits) that arguably help train its audiences to approach news media with an analytic eye. Entertaining Politics author Jeffrey P. Jones argues that TDS “skewers” classical punditry and the partisan, performative spectacle of news media discourse attempting to pass as objectivity, which in itself requires a certain knowledge of news media or news events in order to “get the joke.” While it is certainly arguable that one does not need to actually watch the news to understand the humor in TDS or even “get the joke” (as I’m sure there are many conservative or apolitical viewers of the show who watch it simply because they enjoy comedy), as seen by TDS’s covering of “legitimate” news sources covering the Obama transition to the presidency, TDS’s joke about news is, and often has been, that news rarely features any news at all.

As Jones argues, TDS has functioned best as a court jester: not by rendering reality absurd, but pointing out the absurdity of reality. In this respect, it can be argued that this brand of satire is intrinsic to the public role of the Bush administration and its endless laundry list of absurdities (not to mention overall indifference and dysfunction), and TDS may not find as functional or influential a role in news media within the next four years. Anybody can go back and look at clips from the 2004 election and see a clear difference in the show’s utility as a oh-so necessary counterpunch to an often otherwise devastating political and social reality not so long ago. However, as long as ideologues like Limbaugh continue to persist (and they will, holding desperately onto the remnants of their former status as spokespersons for the political mainstream), and as long as the news media continues its circus act, TDS will continue to be a necessary outlet for the frustrations of a certain demographic. Hopefully Stewart and co. will further embrace the lampooning of news media, like the two segments above, rather than attempting humor through proselytizing or poking holes in Obamathusiasm, as TDS has proved itself to be at its best when it reveals the illegitimacy of legitimate news.

However, despite that its cult seems to have reached its glass ceiling, The Colbert Report may prove to be the better-enabled venue for satire than TDS. Colbert’s carefully constructed persona has represented different aspects of mediated American political society each year since the show’s debut. When his show was first launched in 2005 around the time of Hurricane Katrina, Colbert embodied the absurdity, ignorance, and dysfunction of a then-still powerful ideological base whose grip on power and influence was finally beginning to lessen. In the next few years he seemed only to be a caricature of the pundits of Fox News, etc., a cartoon of an ideology that already seemed cartoonish by that point. But now Colbert has been rendered a minority, representing those frustrated few in conservative news media that scrounge for qualitative disapproval and continue to propagate a xenophobic fear of Obama and, according to Limbaugh, have yet to “drink the punch.” Instead of pretending to like Bush, Colbert only now has to pretend to dislike Obama, and thus lampoon the scrambling criticisms of the far right. After all, as The Daily Show displayed, this brand of comedy seems to work best for the political minority.