A Culture of Satire is Transforming Politics Across Diverse Media

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New book by Bryant U. professor surveys the mushrooming field of political parody: the parodist news show, the politically motivated satiric documentary, and ironic activism.

More Americans get their news today from “fake news” shows than ever before. But when did “The Daily Show” and the power of satire enter the mainstream as a dominant means of political critique and engagement?

Amber Day, a professor at Bryant University, studies how political satire evolved from stand-up acts to launch the nightly news analysis of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and their contemporaries into the mainstream. Her findings have been compiled in a new book, "Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate," released this week by Indiana University Press. In it, she explores how and why satire in today’s political theater has gained such prominence, with Stewart ranking as one of the most trusted newscasters in the U.S., and where the films of Michael Moore are a dominant topic of political campaign discourse.

Day, an assistant professor of performance studies at Bryant, delves specifically into the parodist news show; the politically motivated satiric documentary; and ironic activism by those attempting to capture media attention through public spectacle. She also explores how the power of the Internet has served to disseminate online political parody, both amateur and professional.

One reason for the growing popularity of “The Daily Show” and others of the genre, Day says, is that they represent a very powerful backlash to political, corporate and network control of the news. “In an era of stage-managed and choreographed political showmanship and debate, today’s brand of political satire offers a refreshing alternative to the predictable script,” Day says. “Today’s political satire is here to stay, and is now both lampooning and directly competing with mainstream news media.”

“The political conversation in America has been carefully staged for many years by a small group of insiders,” she says. “Today’s popularity of political satire reveals a growing interest in seeing the system change, as those who have long dominated the discussion have lost much of their credibility in the eyes of Americans.”

“In questioning the status quo and the standard political messages they deliver,” Day says, “new and provocative discussions are being raised, which actually help foster a more meaningful and honest debate in America.”

Day's research also explores:

  • Parody and Punditry: By blending the mimetic and the real—news and entertainment, satire and the political argument—Day says that programs have been thrust into serious political debate with hosts as pundits in their own right, becoming legitimate players in the wider political dialogue.
  • Viral Phenomena: Synergy between the Internet and new technologies and emergent forms of satire and irony are turning life into highly managed spectacle, Day says, and those same technologies (Facebook, YouTube and Google Video) are being used to deconstruct and critique the spectacle.
  • Cynicism and Engagement: Some critics say parodic news shows foment cynicism and detachment from the real world. Day's view is quite the opposite: “This blend of satire and political nonfiction enables and articulates a critique of the inadequacies of contemporary political discourse, while demonstrating an engaged commitment to the possibility of a more honest debate.”
  • “Truthiness and Consequences” (as coined by Stephen Colbert): Hosts like Stewart and Colbert distill official rhetoric and media sound bites to uncover what they believe to be the real story. Satirists throw into question scripted news. By contrasting, interrogating, and mocking, Day says, they are sometimes able to develop deeper analysis of the story in question than straight news programs.

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Tracie Sweeney