Is There a Liberal Bias to Political Comedy?

There is a liberal bias in America’s political comedy scene, says Alison Dagnes. What gives?

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Where does political satire stand today?

It is incredibly strong, for many different reasons. First of all, our media system is so enormous, and there are so many different ways to get political humor. You can get tweets from the Borowitz Report [now a part of the New Yorker’s website.] That’s just 140 characters of humor in quick little bursts. You can subscribe to online content from Will Durst or go to The Onion. You can get it from Comedy Central. You can get it from late night humor. You can get it on the radio, on NPR and also on satellite radio. There is just a lot of it out there.

If you and I want to get together and do a comedy show, we can put it up on YouTube. Nothing is going to stop us from doing that. If we want to put out our own political humor on Facebook or on Twitter, we can do that as well. So the obstacles to getting your humor out there are very, very few.

Satire is also rich because we are in a very, very polarized environment right now politically, and with that polarization comes a lot of finger pointing, hostility and nastiness. I think that amidst all this anger, vitriol and distrust there is a lot of room for laughter. It is an easier way to get the hard stuff down, and there is a lot of hard stuff for us to get down. 

So, satire can be productive at a time of partisan gridlock?

It can be. If we can laugh together than maybe we can talk to each other a little bit better. I think that political humor can be something that can bring us together as long as everyone understands that it is a joke. When we start taking it too seriously, then it loses its efficacy and moves into a very different category.

In July 2009, Time magazine conducted a poll, as you note in your book, asking its readers to identify the most trusted newsperson in America. The winner was Jon Stewart. How do you feel about this?

I feel mixed. I know that Jon Stewart and his writing staff at The Daily Show do a tremendous job of exposing hypocrisy. They do exactly what satirists are supposed to do. They differentiate between what is and what should be, and that is invaluable. But I think that when their viewers conflate their job descriptions, it is problematic.

You cannot go to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert and understand something that is going on that is multifaceted and complicated. What you can do is take existing understanding of these things, go to comedy shows and outlets and get a different angle on it.

I like to give an analogy. I know practically nothing about sports. So, when my husband turns on ESPN, I don’t understand sports better, because they are doing commentary on something that I don’t understand. The same thing goes for any of the satire programs. They are doing comedy on something, and you better have a preexisting understanding of it or else you are not going to get the joke.


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