Writing Right with Dmitri: How Influential Is Snark?
In the modern world, can snark be weaponised in the fight against public stupidity? Let's talk about some people who've said, 'Yes, it can.'
Making mock of the news of the day is not new. Mark Twain did it. Back in the Depression Era, Will Rogers mocked politicians, often while twirling a rope. In the 1960s, audiences on both sides of the Atlantic laughed and learned from That Was the Week That Was. In 1975, comedians found a new format for mocking the news with Saturday Night Live, a weekly show that used a mock-newscast formula for one-liner jokes and scurrilous impersonations to make points. It's still going on. And yes, if you watch that clip, you'll see Al Franken. And if you watch the news from the Senate hearings today, you'll see Al Franken. And yes, it's the same Al Franken. This proves something about US politics, but we wouldn't like to say what. (Homeland Security might be reading.)
In 1999, Jon Stewart became host of The Daily Show on the Comedy Central cable channel. Stewart and his team of improvisational comedians took snark and politics a step further: they went out into the highways and byways of the land, and roped unsuspecting participants into sketch comedy disguised as news interviews. They won awards. The formula was so successful that three Daily Show alumni got their own shows: Stephen Colbert, who went from faux-right snark to hosting The Late Show, Canadian Samantha Bee, whose Full Frontal is lively and thoughtful, and takes on more feminist issues than other shows of its kind, and British emigré and bane of US administrations, the redoubtable John Oliver.
Is political humour an effective tool for social change? Well, let's see. All three spinoff comedians/commentators have drawn the ire of those who disagree with their opinions, implied or expressed. These days, #FireColbert has become a Twitter hashtag, and yes, the FCC is currently looking into whether Mr Colbert has the right to say a certain word we won't repeat when describing the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. At least, whether he has the right to say this on US network television at 11.30 at night, even if the offending epithet is bleeped out. Twitter's debating whether the joke was 'homophobic', although Colbert is a known supporter of gay rights. Sharp observers have noticed that the 'homophobic' accusation tends to come from a political direction not known for its support of gay rights, so most of the public is taking this brouhaha cum grano salis. This writer's view? The joke was a dud, and the language didn't make it better. But writing clever Stuff every week is hard work. (Personal experience.) Give the writing staff a break on that one, and move on.
Samantha Bee recently hosted her own Not the White House Correspondents Dinner in direct competition with two other opposing nationally profiled political events: the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, which the president refused against precedent to attend, and the president's own rally held in Harrisburg, PA, where many people voted for him. This caused her television show to be covered by political pundits, who approved or disapproved according to their own political attitudes, as well as online media bloggers, who liked or disliked according to whether they thought Samantha Bee was 'cool'. It caused this writer to be glued to Youtube for an hour, laughing hysterically, because these were really good jokes.
John Oliver, a Green Card holder married to a US citizen (she's a military veteran, too), is rapidly on his way to becoming a national hero to some here in the US – and, of course, a cause of offence to those who don't like what he's saying. Oliver has egged his viewers on to crash the FCC's website. Twice. Oliver created his own church. It was perfectly legal, and made a good point about religious scammers. (They gave the money to charity.) He produced television ads that aired during a morning news programme known to be a favourite of the president's. The purpose? To influence one particular audience member. This not only brought laughs, but garnered the comedian more news coverage.
Here's my point: snark, satire, and comedy can influence opinion. It can contribute to the debate. Colbert is friendly and articulate, but his humour mostly consists of 'preaching to the choir'. But even this kind of snark can make a stir, as when he testified before Congress on migrant farm workers. As the news media reported, he ruffled a few feathers and got the media focused on the issue. Samantha Bee and John Oliver, however, go beyond this kind of one-off grandstanding: their humour is actually educational. Go on Youtube and watch some of their programmes. Seriously: you're guaranteed to learn something about current issues, such as net neutrality, prison overcrowding, and the like. Bee and Oliver are like the cool teachers you had in high school, if you were lucky. You take it in while you laugh, and you remember the take-home lessons.
Here's an example: John Oliver explains the House of Lords. Yes, it's rude. Yes, it's hilarious. But afterwards, US viewers know a lot more about the House of Lords and its issues. The man is nothing if not informative. When Samantha Bee speculates on rumours that Donald Trump is illiterate, the piece turns into an insightful deconstruction of. . . well, all manner of things in public discourse. We can learn from her (and her excellent team of researchers and writers).
So what have we learned? Political humour is ancient, but it need not be mere venting. Political and social criticism, if handled correctly – with integrity and attention to the truth – can serve a useful purpose. It can inform and educate. We should pay attention to it. We should reward the good in it, and reject the puerile. We should also remember that snark in our own work can be effective when used wisely.
Just beware when and where you say what. Some of those people have lawyers.