The Jay Leno Show and the rise of political humor
Jay Leno's new show debuts tonight and features a Washington-based political correspondent.
(Page 5 of 6)
And the country that laughs together, in theory, stays together. "Humor has played a very particular role in American culture," says Joseph Boskin, a history professor emeritus at Boston University. "We are a fractious, diverse, multiethnic society, and unlike other, homogeneous cultures, humor has played a much more prominent role in helping us cohere, in actually keeping all these parts from just flying apart." He thinks today's political satire promotes "awareness and engagement."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Some in the industry agree it engenders more than just laughs. "Colbert and Stewart are the most important comics right now," says veteran comedic actor John Lithgow. "They are incredibly important to the body politic. When I think about newspapers failing and important journalists looking for paying work, I think 'thank God at least Jon Stewart is there.' Our whole society depends on people having skeptical intelligence."
Carey goes one step further, pointing out the vital role humorists have always played in pushing the limits of free speech and challenging the status quo. "American comedy clubs are the last places where you can say what you want and say what you feel," he says.
Yet not everyone is ready to canonize comedians as the saviors of American democracy (what's next, electing one to the US Senate?). As early as 1985, social critic Neil Postman, in his work "Amusing Ourselves to Death," worried about the erosion of public discourse in the era of television. While his critique wasn't aimed at humor, many see parallels to the current din of news-based comedy.
If we turn too many politicians into cartoon characters and if young people get their news from monologues – which polls today show they do – doesn't this affect our worldview? "We should be very worried about the cynicism this satire engenders," says Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va. He, in fact, maintains that issues don't enter the public consciousness "until they are a joke on late-night shows."
That, of course, is a comment about us more than any comedian. Once again this summer, a poll, this one of Time.com users, found that Stewart is the "most trusted newscaster in America." This horrifies no one more than Stewart, who always reminds people that what he does is "fake news."
Others worry that as political humor becomes more prevalent, it will also become more polemical, further dividing the nation. Many comedians, to be sure, are equal opportunity offenders. Yet some in the industry would like to see more parodying of the political class the way Will Rogers did it in the 1920s, in a nonpartisan way. "Real comedy should be daring enough to cross party lines, because the truth doesn't live on just one side," says Cary Odes, who teaches stand-up comedy in Los Angeles. "A comic's job is to pry up the floorboards of our preconceptions and show what's really going on beneath us."