People understand comedy like they understand electricity. They utilize it, enjoy it, know it comes from somewhere – but fundamentally don’t know much about it. And judging by the reaction to The Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s championing the Zadroga 9/11 responders bill to a successful passage during the lame duck session – most of the media doesn’t understand comedy either.
On Fox News Channel, Fox and Friends’ reflective co-host Gretchen Carlson commented, “Stewart decided to have a serious show about it - that’s like mixing apples and oranges.” No, that’s like mixing your simile.
Even the far more reputable Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News, told the New York Times this week, “His audience gets to decide if they like the serious Jon as much as they do the satirical Jon.”
“Serious” is not the opposite of “satire.” Satire is especially serious to the satirist. Ask anyone who pokes fun at power for a living if they’re serious (that’s if you can stomach the moroseness), and they’ll tell you what they do is solemn. They will describe their plight in life like others describe their Type 2 diabetes. “It’s not as bad as it seems, I’ve found a way to live with it.”
People who are not satirists hear “comedy” and think of Jackass 3D. They think vaudeville. They think rubber chickens. They think light. They think whimsy. They think goofy. They hear “comedy” and think “clown.”
So what is satire? Satire is a kissing cousin of comedy. Yes, they’re related, but not one and the same. Comedy is the more familiar cousin who the press will automatically bring up to demean the satirist. Especially when, like Gretchen Carlson, they themselves have been easy prey for satirists.
For example: Satirists won’t distract bulls at a rodeo, but they will point out how the event has tons of bull crap. Zing.
And just being funny doesn’t make you a satirist. Stewart, during an interview with the cute and quirky Rachel Maddow, tried to explain, “I feel more kinship to Jerry Seinfeld than I do to, you know, what you guys do…in that he is able to comedically articulate an intangible for people.” Maddow didn’t understand how her using humor to tell a story is different than what they do on The Daily Show.
The difference between reporting and satire? Bad reporting is still reporting, while there’s no such thing as bad satire. If it’s not true – if it doesn’t work – it’s not satire.
Satire is much more delicate than telling a story.
Stewart also pointed out in that same interview the legacy of the satirist - he referred to it as “the box.”
“You know, there‘s been a form of me around forever, a comedian who, with political and social concepts, criticizes them from a haughty yet ultimately feckless perch, throwing things, like, that - the box that I‘m in has always existed,” relayed Stewart.
The court jester is an often-used example: the only guy who could tell the King the truth and keep his head. The Babylonian Talmud says Elijah the Prophet told a man named Rabbi Beroka of all the people in a marketplace, comedians are the only ones who are God’s servants.
And if you think NASCAR crashes are tragic – try watching one of God’s Servants bomb on Friday second show. Eep.
Reporters compile the first draft of history. They’re supposed to be shortsighted - focused on the small picture. It’s their job: what happened today. Commentators create the second draft. Historians after that. Satirists catch folly whenever it occurs. All are important - but all are not the same.
Jon Stewart had on his show four 9/11 first responders who are all sick with cancer. The Zadroga (paid-for) Bill could help them not bankrupt their children with their medical bills. It was being filibustered by a party who likes to use 9/11 for punctuation. Stewart’s role is to point out silliness. Sometimes silliness surrounds a New York firefighter with inoperable Stage 4 throat cancer.
What Stewart did was both satire and serious. Congress ended the joke when they did the right thing.