The Onion, once a satirical broadsheet published by starving college students, is now a mini-empire with its own news channel. Stewart and Colbert, in particular, have assumed the role of secular saints whose nightly shtick restores sanity to a world gone mad.
But their sanctification is not evidence of a world gone mad so much as an audience gone to lard morally, ignorant of the comic impulse’s more radical virtues. Over the past decade, political humor has proliferated not as a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source. Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.
Our lazy embrace of Stewart and Colbert is a testament to our own impoverished comic standards. We have come to accept coy mockery as genuine subversion and snarky mimesis as originality. It would be more accurate to describe our golden age of political comedy as the peak output of a lucrative corporate plantation whose chief export is a cheap and powerful opiate for progressive angst and rage.
Look. The Hebrew prophets used to fill a role in society similar to the one you seem to think Comedy Central is obligated to fill now. But bear in mind, “The System” took the most famous prophet of all, nailed him to some boards, and made him into the mascot for one of the most authoritarian institutions of all time. The game has always been rigged, and the idea that all we need is some hero to “speak truth to power” (oh, how I despise that stupid fucking cliché) to start the glorious revolution is a delusion.
But anyway, there’s two basic assumptions I find puzzling in these perennial complaints. First, are Stewart and Colbert moderate centrists by nature, reinforced in their boat-stabilizing instincts by fame and success? Almost certainly. Then why waste your time haranguing them to release their nonexistent inner radicals? Secondly, would all the youngsters be singing the songs of Joe Hill while stringing up politicians and banksters on every lamppost if only they hadn’t been mollified by the narcotic insouciance of Viacom’s court jesters? Almost certainly not. But if they were so inclined, couldn’t they find a bunch of camera-phone videos of grad-student Marxists on YouTube to point them in the right direction?
He strangely asserts that the reason Bill Hicks never became a mainstream star is “because he violated the cardinal rule of televised comedy—one passed down from Johnny Carson through the ages—which is to flatter and reassure the viewer,” a rule which apparently doesn’t apply to South Park, which he lauds on the next page for bravely confronting its audience over the course of sixteen seasons. Personally, in this entire article about comedy, I found this to be the funniest part—I mean, if you want to talk about comfortable poses and niches that don’t challenge the status quo, you can’t possibly do better than the one favored by so many fans of Hicks and South Park, that of the insufferably self-righteous hipster hiding their wounded idealism under a mask of sneering cynicism, content to live as lords in their petty fiefdoms of consumer taste.