The Effects of Political Satire in Television

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One night while flipping through TV channels I came upon The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and it featured Stephen Colbert. I stopped to listen for a few minutes, only to find that they were making satirical jokes about congressmen and political figures, and the comedy and truth by means of satire intrigued me. Satire is the act of using humor to expose societal or governmental flaws in order to bring about change from the intended audience. It is an appeal that has been proven to be very effective in provoking audience auction, even if though it has never been proven to have changed legislation or anything of the sort. Satire is used commonly in non-scripted, night show television programs by their hosts such as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. They use satire and sarcasm in order to get their audience to agree with their opinions as well as expose governmental action in society which they do not support. Their use of satire in the entertainment they produce is pivotal in gaining support for a cause. In recent times, satire has been regarded as sometimes being inappropriate or ill-colored, even though it is a reliable appeal. While other types of appeals are important in producing audience reactions and actions, satire is essential, especially in political television, because it uses humor and comedy to bring attention to a problem in society and is ultimately fundamental in coercing the audience to take a stand for what they believe in, whether that be by voting or participating in a movement.

When used effectively, satire plays an important role by building trust with the audience. The use of comedy and humor to build this trust is a unique that other appeals do not have efficiency in. However, much like pathos, satire is capable of appealing to the emotions of the audience, and building trust that way. In Janet McCabe’s article “Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era,” she describes Jon Stewart’s use of satire and emotional appeals and how they establish trust between him and his intended audience. McCabe says, “It is an exquisite paradox that US viewers looking for the real news often find themselves switching to The Daily Show, and, for many, Jon Stewart is the most trusted man in the US since legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite” (McCabe 137). She describes how Jon Stewart’s demeanor and expressions, much dictated by sarcasm and satire, has made him a dependable news source to many. McCabe goes on to describe the late-night political television genre’s success by creating this sense of trust when she says, “the genre is doing incredibly important cultural work in creating an oppositional public sphere at a time when mainstream US news media has reduced political debate to partisan vitriol or parochial indifference” (McCabe 137). In essence, she is saying that the use of satire in this realm of political television has made people really examine their beliefs, and by forming their own beliefs based on what they are viewing, they build trust with the shows’ hosts. This trust makes them much more likely to side with the host, which achieves their rhetorical purpose. Satire forces people to think for themselves and form opinions, and this makes them more likely to put more trust in the hosts.

After satire creates a sense of trust within the audience, it is able to bring attention to current societal problems. Jay Hmeilowksi’s article “Predicting the Consumption of Political TV Satire: Affinity for Political Humor, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report” describes what satire is and how it is used in these shows. When describing satire is capable of doing in these shows, he says, “In terms of politics, people can form social bonds or connections by making fun of politicians or political parties” (Hmeilowski 97). Hmeilowski is saying that hosts use comedy to talk about politicians and government action, and it is a creative, intriguing way to bring attention to them. He goes on to say that some pundits of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert describe their shows as “a new type of journalism” (Hmeilowksi 98). Hosts of these political shows use satire in their platform to bring serious attention to issues, and it is effective. Amber Day describes the means of bringing attention to an issue by use of satire in these shows when she says,

What is immediately striking about The Daily Show, in contrast to many of its variety and sketch comedy predecessors, is the extent to which it blends both the mimetic and the real. Rather than rely on impersonations, sketches based on politicians’ personal foilables, or entirely made up news items, the program works to blur the line between news and entertainment, recontextualizing and deconstructing current news footage and interviewing and engaging with actual public figures. (Day 85)

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She describes how well the hosts can use satire in comedy to bring attention to issues and make them a very serious part of the show, and how that is effective in achieving the rhetorical purpose. Satire establishes trust with the audience, so that it can bring attention so societal issues.

With foundational trust and appropriate attention brought to issues, satire engages the audience with the topic at hand. Lisa Colleta wrote an article describing satire and irony in political television, specifically referring to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and their programs. When describing satire’s role, she says, “Satire rests upon engagement and the faith something will actually happen” (Colleta 856). Colleta acknowledges that the effectiveness of satire stems from the audience being engaged in the topic at hand, as well as their established trust and believing that further action will occur. She goes on to say that while watching these shows “we may be forced to see things in a new way and to acknowledge alternative possibilities. This, in turn, could make viewers more tolerant of those who approach things differently, and thus inspire them to action that they have not yet considered” (Colleta 856). Colleta recognizes that satire plays an important role in getting the audience engaged in the topic. By getting the audience engaged, they are able to consider and test different beliefs, or make their own pre-existing opinions stronger. By causing the audience to think fundamentally about what they believe about a specific topic, they are kept engaged with what the hosts have to say, and since there is an established trust with the host, they are more likely to agree with one another.

Finally, after satire has established trust, brought attention and engagement with a problem, its inspires its audience to take further action. This action taken by the audience is why it is so effective. Alliana Kilby’s article “Provoking the Citizen: Re-Examining the Role of TV Satire in the Trump Era,” talks about the effects of satire in television in recent history. When mentioning an example of how Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s use of satire in their shows have inspired action, she says, “Contemporary TV satire has started to challenge this perception by promoting political action. In 2010 Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held the “Rally to Restore Sanity”, an event that encouraged citizens to gather on the Washington Mall to advocate deliberative compromise in politics” (Kilby 1934). Stewart and Colbert held an event in a local mall and invited their audience to attend in order to support an issue, and it worked. According to the New York Times article about the rally, the Parks Service recorded that ‘there were well over 200,000 people at the rally” (Travernise and Stelter). Their use of satire in their programs was effective enough to build the relationship with their respected audience, and inspire 200,000 members of their intended audience to attend a rally. Building trust and inspiring audience members in such large quantity to act on their beliefs is something only satire can do. It uses audience engagement to inspire action, and is ultimately effective in doing so.

In conclusion, even though satire has not technically been proven to have completely changed political action taken place in the past and their results, it has consistently urged the intended audience to examine their views and take further action on them. Other appeals used by rhetors are important in engaging the audience, but satire is essential. It uses humor and comedy to bring attention a problem in society or in the government and mundane in convincing the audience to participate in further action on a specific topic. In his book Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, Jonathan Gray describes the ability of satire to inspire action when he says, “Thus, whereas news- television’s privileged discourse on public life- most often posits politics as something to learn, satire not only offers meaningful political critiques but also encouragers viewers to play with politics, to examine it, test it, and question it rather than simply consume it as information or “truth” from authoritative sources” (Gray et. al. 11) Gray is talking about the process of how satire works, and ultimately argues that it is effective in achieving the rhetorical purpose. Political television show hosts start out by using satire to establish trust within their audience. After a trust is established, they then use satire to bring much needed attention to a problem in society or with government action. By bringing proper attention to an issue, this allows for the audience to be fully engaged in the conversation. This engagement, in turn, can inspire future action to be taken by the audience. It is important because it inspires action, whether that be to go out and vote, or be politically active. It accomplishes the rhetorical purpose in ways no other type of appeal does, and that is why it is so efficient.

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