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  • Retheorizing Comedic and Political Discourse, or What Do Jon Stewart and Charlie Chaplin Have in Common?
  • Rob King (bio)

On November 1, 2010, the progressive newsblog Huffington Post ran an opinion piece responding to the previous weekend’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” held on the National Mall by comedic news pundits Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.1 Asking in its title “Can Comedians Really Lead Us to Sanity and Civility?”, the article expressed both gratitude and surprise that it had taken the Comedy Central comedians to “remind us that life can be lived devoid of the nasty rhetoric that has become all too commonplace in what passes for [political] discourse these days.” “Perhaps,” the writer even suggested, “the two comedians could lead the effort to bring politics into an atmosphere of disagreement without having to be disagreeable in the process.”2 This was hardly a lone voice: the rally’s staged series of comedic showdowns between Stewart (as advocate of reasonableness in politics) and Colbert (in his persona as blowhard advocate of a politics of fear) had seemingly conveyed lessons for many seeking a transformation in politics. Although Stewart himself went on record to claim that the rally was not political “in any way,” most interested observers and media pundits sensed a loftier agenda: “This event, while originally intended for jest, could possibly become a ‘turning point’ … for having [End Page 263] immense impact on how political discourse is conducted in the future,” commented one fan on the rally’s Facebook page, adding that “You have created a political movement, intended or not.”3 A sign held up by a rally attendee captured a similar sense of paradox: “It’s a sad day when our politicians are comical and I have to take our comedians politically.”4

The exact content of the rally—including Stewart’s well-reported closing monologue in which he lambasted news media partisanship and hyperbole—will be addressed later in this essay. For the purposes of introduction, I want only to note how commonplace these conflations of comedy and politics have become in recent years and how they might prompt us to rethink comedy’s potential as a mode of political expression. There can be little question that the last decade or so has marked something of a golden age in political humor. Whether in the spate of news satire programs (The Daily Show [1996–present]; The Colbert Report [2005–present]), politically themed talk shows (Real Time with Bill Maher [2003–present]), or satirical documentaries (notably Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 [2004]), our contemporary media landscape has increasingly drawn color from the impulse to blend humor and political nonfiction as a way of critiquing the inadequacies of political and media discourse. One immediate set of questions to ask, then, would be: What are the sources of this impulse, and what are its effects? Within existing scholarship, answers usually begin with the heavily stage-managed, manufactured quality of contemporary political spectacle and the attendant desire, through comedy, to pierce the veil of talking points and media spin. This in turn opens onto discussions about whether news satire programs constitute meaningful political interventions or simply reinforce the cynical apathy of young adults who, as is often said, “get their news from The Daily Show.”5 Yet for all the recent academic discussion of these comedic encroachments on political debate, there remains little attempt to explore the implications of these developments for a broader theory of comedy, particularly as this intersects with a theory of politics.

What I hope to do in this essay is to pursue these implications by shifting the frame of discussion from the question of media sources and effects (potential or real) to that of comedic and political discourse, and I want to do so by taking quite seriously the query posed by the Huffington Post: Can comedy indeed contribute to a space for political discourse? By what processes and under what conditions might comedy be expected to establish such a space? I take my lead here from the recent work of philosopher Jacques Rancière, whose definition of politics points to a parallel [End Page 264] with comedy that this...


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