What is the role of comedy in the political life of a democracy? In Ancient Athens, comedy took place at festivals in which civic engagement was supported and the drama was penned with an entire audience in mind instead of an individual whereas American comedic appreciation takes place passively in front of the television or movie screen. The communal nature of Athenian theater also connected it to the democratic society, where citizens (albeit a minority of the population) were expected to engage in the public realm of politics and cultural life. Comedy was used as a tool to hold public citizens accountable, although not always fairly, as was apparent with Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates in his play “The Clouds.”
A sharp contrast with the Ancient Greeks, there is no special ritual surrounding American absorption of entertainment: no festivals, more an individual or small group immersion in leisure. What are the particulars of the gap between Greek theater and entertainment, so linked to a communal democratic society, and the American approach, as typified by television? In his essay, “Aristophanes in America” (available in part here) Euben lists voyeuristic, private, consumerist, passive, cosmetic, power-centric (although the “workings of power [are] invisible”), utopian, homogenous (catering to lowest common denominator), and ahistorical as qualities of the American television culture (107-8).
While television shows like The Simpsons, as Euben writes about, provide entertainment and an outlet of escape for Americans, they lack the “interrogatory role in our public life” to delve deep into the social conditions (116). While I agree with Euben’s evaluation of mass audience shows like The Simpsons or South Park, which may offer nuanced social commentary but will largely be taken purely for entertainment, to the right minds political satire like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show or the Colbert Report or certain other comedic outlets might not only spark an interest in political issues but also provide an engagement that could inform a wide public audience.
It’s difficult to force people to appreciate the nuance of satire and its critical take on society and politics, especially given how the satire would be framed: Euben makes a very good point about the conditions under which Athenian theater flourished, communally with ties to democracy, whereas in America entertainment is an increasingly private realm. However, he undersells the ability for satire television shows to ignite political debate and – to some degree – inform audiences about issues.
Satire sets up a target, provides an attack, and doesn’t fully alienate the audience while also providing a certain degree of ambiguity allowing reflection on the part of the audience. In Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report recurring segment “People Destroying America,” the satire is fairly apparent. Targets range from landscaping goats to safer table saws and the tone blends from the downright contrarian to the purely absurd.
In March 2012 an episode focused on teachers as a key source of destruction in America. Colbert identified Dawn Quarles as an American anti-hero in her efforts to register students at the high school she worked at in Florida. Quarles ran into trouble when a Florida state law rebuffed her efforts that limits who is allowed to register voters in the state. In his seemingly mock outrage against the teacher, Colbert latches his satire onto two hot button issues in America: voting access and the role and importance of teachers. Colbert’s story was picked up by websites like NPR, bring attention to the topic.
At the time (not that anything has changed), teachers had been receiving a lot of flack from conservative Republicans, who see government intervention like public schools as something that should be minimized. Meanwhile, leading up to the election there were also efforts by conservatives to ostensibly reduce voter fraud, which liberals decried as efforts to reduce voting by minorities and poorer people, who would be more likely to vote Democrat.
In choosing to “attack” the teacher trying to encourage political engagement of her students, Colbert seems to be lampooning the ridiculousness not only of certain elements of society’s opposition to the decidedly unglamorous profession of public school teaching, but also the law limiting voter registration — with such voter suppression being part of a larger trend, especially in Florida. The segment drew attention to the wider campaign against voters. In a democracy, a law reducing the ability for voters to be registered seems absurd.
Colbert’s brand of satire could be lost on some individuals, for its nuance depends on the political affiliation and irony awareness of the viewer (especially since a study shows that people watching Colbert will assume his political leanings match their own). In addition, due to the show’s more intensive focus on entertaining rather than educating, the spirit of levity may cause viewers to overlook the deeper issue at hand. However, it seems to be a notable deviant from Euben’s assertion of television not being able to provide truly satirical content.
Much as I’d aspire for comedy in this country to reach its full satirical potential, it requires not only content creators and outlets but a captive audience. At the end of the day I can’t help but think of E. B. White’s idea that analyzing comedy is “like dissecting a frog: both die in the process of displaying their innards.” It’s difficult to laugh if you’re analyzing so thoroughly. Given the way Americans see (mass) art, comedy in particular – as private and mostly for entertainment – perhaps social commentary is best left to the realms of drama and nonfiction.