News broke earlier this week that Trevor Noah will be taking over The Daily Show when Jon Stewart steps down later this year. Although Stewart is stepping out of the limelight, numerous Daily Show personalities are stepping into it: Samantha Bee is developing a show for TBS; Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show has taken over Stephen Colbert’s time slot; John Oliver’s Last Week Tonightis a hit; and, of course, Colbert will resume his late-night career, this time as the real Stephen Colbert on CBS’ The Late Show.
Admittedly, I’m a huge fan of Stewart, Colbert and their colleagues. As TC has noted in the past, the tradition of using humor, satire and irony to call leaders to account goes back to the Hebrew prophets, as well as Socrates and Plato. But I wonder: well over a decade into this new normal of comedy/news/satire/entertainment, are we getting too much of a good thing?
I’m cynical about politics and especially about cable news, but I have to ask: has Stewart’s irony and satire pushed us closer to desiring and seeking truth? Have they enhanced our public discourse, making us more self-aware about our own biases and more ready to listen to others? What’s the end goal of this mode of rhetoric?
Well over a decade into this new normal of comedy/news/satire/entertainment, are we getting too much of a good thing?
About two decades ago, David Foster Wallace presciently worried that our penchant for irony and ridicule were producing despair and inertia. In a world made cynical by television, the next step is TV that appeals to its audience by playing to and commodifying our unease and cynicism about TV. So we become addicts, Wallace wrote, in a genuine way - we go to the very thing that causes our problem to try to solve our problem. But we don’t notice this because Stewart and company allow us to feel good about ourselves. We comfortably listen to them “heap scorn” on those who have some measure of sincere belief, and we, the audience, eat it up because it “shield[s] … the heaper of scorn from scorn and … congratulat[es] the patron of scorn for rising above the mass of people who still fall for outmoded pretensions,” such as sincerity and authenticity.
Wallace’s words are convicting. I can no longer pray like the Pharisees, thanking the Lord that I am not like those who take Bill O’Reilly as Gospel. Yes, I appreciate that Jon Stewart mocks the doubletalk of politicians, but he also calls names, engages in ad hominem arguments and just plain makes fun of people, leading me to simply expect that as normal public discourse. I wonder if we tell ourselves we’re laughing at Stewart’s name-calling and ad hominem as satire, when in fact we just plain like name-calling and ad hominem. It reminds me of Ricky Gervais pointing out, to an audience laughing at the Japanese version of The Office, “it’s funny because it’s racist.” The laughter died down pretty quickly. When was the last time I checked myself and asked: why am I really laughing?
Hear me carefully. I’m not saying Christians should remove irony or satire from our repertoire of ways to get at what’s true and expose what is false. But as the Apostle Paul says, “let love be genuine.” Rather than embrace ironic shock and awe, perhaps Christians can take up Wallace’s challenge to be genuine and sincere, and thus risk being perceived as naïve, boring and sentimental. (Leslie Knope’s Pollyanna optimism on Parks and Recreation might be an example to follow here.) Being wise as serpents and harmless as doves doesn’t mean we’re stupid or gullible. It means that in the face of hardened cynicism - “what is truth?” - we follow our Savior’s lead, recognizing that there are things worth living and dying for. That’s a level of authenticity even a cynical world should find hard to ignore.