Like Fox New and the truth, comedy and politics are both constantly at odds and still simultaneously inseparable. Satire, the particular strain of comedy that deals with politics and power, has existed as long as there has been some kind of government to mock. The Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, for example, attacked the British government in his ironic pamphlet A Modest Proposal (1729), setting a precedent for the same ruthless mockery that Jon Stewart employed while serving as the host of The Daily Show and that hosts like Stephen Colbert or the cast of Saturday Night Live continue to employ on a weekly basis. Without George W. Bush’s bumbling speeches or Ted Cruz’s absurd filibusters, political satirists, especially late-night hosts, would be out of material and out of a job. In this way, satirical comedy really relies on the disastrous nature of American politics.
If satirists and audiences alike can turn politics and government into a suitable source of entertainment, does American politics have anything to gain from being continuously teased and taunted by throngs of funny men and women. Most politicians, barring the occasional reality-detached egomaniac, are never excited to see their names trending on Twitter following a public blunder or dramatic policy change. Politicians, in fact, likely gain little other than an adversary from political comedians. Outside of Washington, however, there's certainly something to be said for the kind of influence satirists have on our political culture and involvement.
On November 8, 2016, following Donald J. Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States, The Late Show host Stephen Colbert, offered audiences a thoughtfully optimistic take on the election results: “You cannot laugh and be afraid at the same time, and the devil cannot stand mockery.” As the A-list celebrity and rising king of late-night television, Colbert’s comments can seem a bit detached. Surely, Colbert can laugh at the results of an election that would, as we know now, have detrimental effects on millions of Americans with the knowledge that his daily life of writing and telling jokes would change very little. In fact, Colbert and his staff have only seen an influx of laughable political events prepackaged for his brand of scathing satire, a bizarre benefit of the administration.
But there is something much more sincere and patriotic going on in Colbert’s attitude toward the election. Colbert is not suggesting that the actions of a divisive president be viewed as lighthearted and inconsequential. He’s not even asking Americans to give Forty-Five some time and a chance. Instead, the host is waging a kind of political protest that he and his contemporaries have adopted across late-night television. Consider this clip from an episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in which Stephen Colbert criticizes President Trump’s response to alt-right protests in Charlottesville, VA and the death of Heather Heyer.
Beginning with solemn acknowledgments of those killed, injured, or otherwise affected by the August 2017 events in Charlottesville, VA, Colbert does that which the President could not or possibly would not. Not only does Colbert condemn Nazis and alt-right protesters who provoked chaos and violence, he addresses the inherent hypocrisy in President Trump’s ambiguous, non-condemning condemnation of the hate groups by acknowledging previous groups and individuals that the president has swiftly berated, such as The New York Times and the cast of Hamilton. By humorously mentioning previous comments made by Trump that ignited media frenzies, Colbert reminds the public that this controversy is typical for Trump’s offensive and problematic administration and not at all unique. Colbert refuses to be swept up in the latest controversy.
Colbert then pairs President Trump’s weak condemnation of the Nazi protesters with the Tiki brand’s response to the event, whose products were used at the “Unite the Right” rally. The company, unlike the president, immediately denounced the events in Charlottesville. Colbert not only contributes to a national discussion regarding the rally and the president’s response to the matter but highlights a proper moral response to such a tragic event.
This kind of “moral modeling” has become a signature move on Colbert’s show and often involves appearances by major political figures. Senators such as Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul, and Elizabeth Warren have appeared on The Late Show to discuss the latest Presidential controversies and how either the Democrats or Republicans will (or should) react to the continuously changing political landscape. Even politicians like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden frequent the show, bringing with them a wizened perspective on current events. Though viewers might consider appearances by politicians on Colbert’s show to be an example unabashed pandering by reelection-seeking public servants, The Late Show has actually come to serve as one of the best places for thoughtful political discourse. Colbert not only exposes audiences to grounded conversations with actual Washington politicians, but he does so in a setting that is not inherently charged with disagreement and disarray, like, say, the Senate floor. Colbert’s comedic style is inherently disarming and allow the host to honestly digest the news with those in the spotlight. Following his short and laughable tenure as White House Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci appeared on The Late Show to discuss the Trump Administration. Though certainly representing distant stances on the political spectrum, the pair discussed the president with an air of civility that has come to define Colbert’s interview style and that is frequently lacking in contemporary media and political talk. In doing so, Colbert is not leading a vapid assault on the President’s appearance or family; instead he is separating the president from his persona and carefully finding error in the consistent absurdities that have come to define this administration. Though certainly not protest in a traditional sense, Colbert’s presence in American homes via television screens puts him in a position to reject the president and his administration in a way that is simultaneously entertaining and, as any successful protests must be, accessible to the public.