Is topical satire the way to re-engage with the politically disillusioned?
According to Armando Iannucci, writing recently in The Guardian,
Surveys show that a high proportion of people aged 18 to 36 get most of their information about British politics from [TV panel game show] Have I Got News For You. In America, similar figures show that Jon Stewart’s topical comedy The Daily Show (TDS) supplies a high percentage of 18 to 36-year-old Americans with their main news fix.
In the article, he argues that political comedy fills a void left by the disengagement between the mass audience and ‘real’ news coverage:
There is an emptiness in public argument waiting to be filled. That’s where my lot come in again. If politicians fail to supply politics with content, is it any wonder people turn to other, more entertaining sources?
He’s not the only one thinking this way. We note the New York Times report of the runwaway success Hurry Up, He’s Dead — a home-grown (but Daily Show-inspired) Iraqi current-affairs satire:
Mr. Khalifa [pictured above], the show’s star, is a diminutive comedian who was a well-known theater actor in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s government. The initial episodes were taped in Dubai because the producers decided it would be too dangerous and logistically difficult to film in Baghdad. Despite its madcap humor, he said, the show has a serious message.
“The purpose of the show is to fix Iraq,” he said. “We want to fix the civil services. We want to fix the government officials. We want to fix the relationships between people. We want to fix the government and stop the corruption.”
All well and good — anything that gets people thinking must encourage engagement, right? Unfortunately the jury seems to be out on that one. University of Toronto Professor Megan Boler — whose work we know from the iDC mailing list — has been researching the online culture around TDS as a focus of her studies into ‘digital dissent’. She told BigShinyThing via email that:
Interestingly, our research (including survey of and interviews with bloggers, meme producers, political multimedia producers and TDS bloggers) indicates that TDS fans are possibly less politically motivated than the other groups we are studying who engage in political online networks. There are some surprising instances as well when an author of a political meme states that his motivation was not political but to produce humor.
Research which backs up Iannucci’s claims about the importance of topical comedy as a news source also indicates that watching TDS actually correlates with increased skepticism about politics as a whole amongst its core youth audience. According to study co-author Jonathan Morris, an Assistant Professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.:
We are not saying The Daily Show is bad for democracy. I’m a fan of The Daily Show. I watch it very frequently. We’re just pointing out that exposure to this show among young adults is associated with cynicism toward political candidates and the political process as a whole.
It seems that contemporary topical satire may better represent the worldview of the ‘excluded middle’ than do the incumbent news media, yet still not provide a meaningful ‘call to action’ to get them off the sofa and onto the streets.
Read more of Boler’s researches into the transmedial world of TDS in The Daily Show, Crossfire, and the Will to Truth, in Scan Journal of Media Arts Culture. Vol. 3, No. 1 (Summer 2006) — an excellent dissection of a key moment in the development of the show’s mythology.
We tried to find some choice Hurry Up, He’s Dead moments on YouTube, but alas it doesn’t seem to have ‘crossed over’ yet.