Irony and the Limits of Political Satire

I always thought Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is at its worst when it tries to be serious. The „Rally to Restore Sanity“ was probably the most striking example for this. But in the last days a new facet of this devastating seriousness has popped up: the case of Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Drinking, smoking crack and talking dirty the guy is certainly an easy target. And suddenly the Daily Show plays the role of the concerned and reasonable citizen who can’t tolerate such a yahoo in public office (here is their latest coverage).

It is no secret that Jon Stewart is a prototypical liberal and in itself that’s no big problem. What is problematic is the fact that he takes this position out of the equation far too often. In other terms: he lacks irony. Just as he tried to develop a „neutral“ position of „reason“ above all the dirty political antagonisms with his „Rally to Restore Sanity“ he now takes a similar stance when it comes to Rob Ford. Politics is regarded as a serious business for reasonable, clean, fit (?) and polite experts that work hard on the public behalf. And since this (Stewart’s) position is so obvious and seems so true no need to make fun of it, right?

Wrong. It’s an immensly stupid and simplistic position. Politics becomes a matter of character and attitudes. If politicians would just be sane and sober everything would turn out fine. Granted, it probably wouldn’t do no harm if they were but probably wouldn’t change a lot for the better too.

But the real trouble with this understanding is that it is just another brick in the comfortable platform of „reason“ and liberal middle-ground that the Daily Show has come to rest upon. It is a platform that seems to be beyond critique and satire. In the sea of cable chatter, endless gridlock and conservative madness it is the safe island on which the anxious liberal-urban youth begins to live a happy and self-confident life.

With such a behavior political satire begins to undermines its own foundations. Kurt Tucholsky famously answered the question „What may satire do?“ with a simple „Everything“. As it turns out the question to this correct answer has been posed wrong. It has to be: „What should satire do?“ In other words: Political satire that „cleans the blood“ and eventually has the potential to become transformative must show some sense of irony and start to saw off the branch it has been resting on. It just can’t stop at its own beliefs and positions.

This probably asks too much from a mainstream comedy show. But that even such a limited format allows at least for a bigger chunk of self-irony has been proved by Daily Show alumni Stephen Colbert.