Is satire saving our nation? If it's trying to, it's doing a cluster-Trump of a job. Of course, Sophia A. McClennen and Remy M. Maisel couldn't have known that when they began writing this book. The book is as audacious in its conception as it is provocative in its assertion that satire is our [End Page 244] salvation. McClennen is a professor of comparative literature and international affairs at Pennsylvania State University. Maisel is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University; at the time she and McClennen wrote the book, she was an undergraduate student in media studies and a blogger for the Huffington Post. I repeat: audacious.
The unlikely pair, a full professor and an undergraduate blogger, argues that satire "has played a central role in shaping public debates and fostering productive engagement with democracy" (7). Like Jeffrey Jones in Entertaining Politics (2009), Geoffrey Baym in From Cronkite to Colbert (2009), Amber Day in Satire and Dissent (2011), and McClennen herself in America According to Colbert (2012), I tend to agree. But I didn't have to read this book to come to that conclusion. Of course, a reader unfamiliar with those previously mentioned books should find this a particularly useful crash course on the existing literature on contemporary political satire. For that reason, it would be a particularly useful companion to an undergraduate class and a readable introduction to the subject for the casual reader.
Although this book's thesis is not groundbreaking, its conceit is provocative. It outlines a series of threats to our political order—in this case, cynicism, the decline of journalism, and the Tea Party—and demonstrates how satire provides solutions to such threats. The first half of the book emphasizes the role Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert played—and still play—in our political culture. Over the first four chapters, McClennen and Maisel justify studying satirical subjects, demonstrate satire's capacity to step in as the fifth estate amid journalism's failures, and provide an outstanding cultural history of The Daily Show and Colbert Report. For this reader, the fourth chapter, on Stewart and Colbert, is the book's most engaging and useful because it reads together the two most important satirical programs of the post-9/11 era in a concise and readable manner. This chapter, "The Dynamic Duo," is a valuable resource for anyone attempting to teach political satire to students who are increasingly less familiar with these programs.
The fifth and sixth chapters of the book move toward a definition of satire appropriate for our contemporary moment. In the fifth chapter, the authors struggle with how to differentiate satire from a number of other comic modes—irony, snark, smarm, mockery, and sarcasm, among others. In their quest for a suitable definition, the authors focus almost entirely on satire's role in fostering critical thinking, its use of figurative language, and its questioning of power. The sixth chapter takes up the monumental [End Page 245] task of attempting to categorize and theorize digital satire. It contains a series of incredibly short descriptions of popular websites and social media sites with examples of how they promote satire. The authors also introduce a pair of terms—byte satire and flash satire—that gesture toward powerful theoretical development but fall short because they lack definition. Framed as an attempt to address how millennials use satire on the web, the chapter feels out of place in this book, but is perhaps an interesting idea for follow-up. Its cursory analysis certainly leaves room for future scholarly exploration.
The final chapters deal with satire as an American tradition and the scholarly struggle over satire's political effects. The organizational whiplash of moving from a chapter featuring Snapchat and YouTube to one featuring Ben Franklin notwithstanding, the authors demonstrate quite adeptly satire's deep roots in American history and its connection to our founding mythologies. The penultimate chapter weighs in on the argument over satire's political implications by pitting the satire-is-terrible...