As a fan of comedy in general and satire in particular, I’ve always enjoyed the late night television circuit. I’m especially fond of David Letterman, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. One of the chief complaints I’ve been hearing from conservative friends over the last several years, though, is that these shows are nothing more than thinly disguised bastions of left-wing brainwashing where pseudo-intellectual elites bash the Grand Old Party and indoctrinate the nation’s socialist youth against sound conservative thinking.
Examples abound, including a running series on Letterman titled, “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches.” Clips of inspiring appearances by the likes of Eisenhower, J.F.K, and Reagan were juxtaposed against the last president caught in some of his moments of “Bushisms.” Such treatments were widely viewed by the president’s supporters as mean-spirited and shallow, but they provided a popular source of guilty pleasure for many viewers.
My argument against these charges and in defense of the entertainers has been simple and seemingly sound. Comedians who butter their bread with political commentary generally direct their fire at the figures currently in power. There is little fodder to be found in the party huddled in the minority. Thus, with Republicans holding the White House for the last eight years and Congress for a fair portion of that time, it was obvious who the easy targets would be.
As an example, I point to Lewis Black, a weekly comic analyst of current events appearing on The Daily Show. He’s been a relentless critic of the Bush administration and its policies, an opponent of the Iraq war, and a huge fan of the Dick Cheney as Darth Vader meme. For these atrocities, Mr. Black is regularly labeled as a hopeless liberal windbag, offering nothing of substance to the national discourse. In response, I point his detractors to his 1999 release, The White Album. In it, he devotes nearly a third of the entire production to blistering attacks on William Jefferson Clinton. Black examines both the politics and personal peccadilloes of the former president, finishing with a declaration that Big Bill should serve as sufficient reason for no person from Arkansas being allowed to run for the Oval Office for the next 100 years.
When a new occupant moved in to the West Wing, Lewis turned his wrath on the Republicans, so I assumed that the ascension of President Obama would herald a similar sea change in comic gold mining. During the transition, however, I saw nothing of the sort. Of course, the “office” of president-elect doesn’t carry much in the way of duties or authority beyond the naming of cabinet members. Also, Barack Obama was just entering his honeymoon period, so it may have been understandable. Even after the inauguration, though, I couldn’t escape the feeling that these comics were still afraid to utter anything which might be viewed as negative regarding the new leader of the free world.
Were they frightened? Had they simply spent so long attacking the Republicans that the idea of criticizing a Democratic president was beyond the scope of imagination? Or were they truly liberal, partisan hacks as so many of their critics had suggested? Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton were still being abused on a regular basis and the never-ending tale of Blago was a movable feast for all, but the digs at President Obama failed to appear. Instead, Stewart pilloried Fox News for having the audacity to criticize the White House and Letterman ripped into Michael Steele’s rocky start as RNC chairman. My hopes for bipartisan comedy goodness began to fade.
That may have begun to change this week, however. The first encouraging sign came when Stephen Colbert examined Obama’s new health care initiative and expressed his hopes that it would “cover him for the stroke he was going to have when he filed his tax return.” There may have been some veiled cynicism in that critique, but the real breakthrough came on The Daily Show when Jon Stewart heard about Obama’s plans for Iraq over the next few years. After railing against the war since before it began, this was clearly a bridge too far and Stewart came out swinging. A partial transcript of the following video is provided below.
Obama: Let me say this as clearly as I can. By August 30, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.
Stewart: (singing) War is over! Hey you, Mess-O-Potamia! Get out of there! The war is over!
(The Mess-O-Potamia graphic sinks off of the screen.)
Obama: There will be a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions.
(The camera cuts briefly back to Stewart who is cocking his head in one of those, “what you talking ‘bout Willis?” looks.)
Obama: This force will likely be made up of 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops.
Stewart: MOTHER F#@KER!
(The Mess-O-Potamia sign rolls back on the screen along with balloons rising into the air as Stewart lowers his face into his palms.)
Stewart: So it sounds like the only difference between our combat troops then and our combat troops now is that we’re calling them something else. But that can’t be right. The units remaining there will be characterized differently. … YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO TELL US THAT! Just tell me straight without any funny business, when are we going to be out of Iraq?
Obama: I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Stewart: You’re positive about that? You’re not going to leave the clean-up and disinfecting brigade? 30,000 soldiers of the cable installation squad? Maybe re-classify the troops as trees so they never have to go?
It was a very entertaining clip, and one of the first times that I’ve seen Jon unload on the new president with both barrels. The fact is, potential comedy is flowing out of the Obama White House on a daily basis. Many promises made to his liberal base have proven to have expiration dates. Any negative market indicators during George W. Bush’s second term were fodder for abuse, so the current, massive collapse of Wall Street should be easy pickings. From a virtual rogues gallery of tax scofflaws to embarrassing gift exchange gaffes, Team Obama is serving up softballs to the late-night funnymen if they are only willing to step up to the plate and swing.
So where do we go from here? Now that the ice is broken, will the trend continue? Will right-wing blogs begin regularly linking to video clips such as the one above? A larger concern may be that the ax of the free market swings in both directions. Even if Letterman and company go on speaking truth to power in the Age of Obama, I have to wonder whether their younger, largely liberal audience will continue to tune in as their own team takes its turn in the barrel. I, for one, hope these comics continue their work as they did during the Bush years, but it will take more than a few opening jabs over Iraq and universal health care to convince me that the tide has indeed turned.