Comedy and democracy

Posted: April 5th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: politics, youtube | No Comments »

There is a new book out, which talk about the role of comedy in a democratic country. It is called “Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke” by Russell L. Peterson. I have not yet read the book, but I have read the review at The book talks about the negative and positive impact that comedy can have to democracy. Although the view is US-centric, I guess it can also be looked at in larger terms.

Political satire in my mind, when well done while being mindful of the consequences and responsbility, is an essential element of a democracy. In the US, this is very well executed by cable TV shows such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher. They are witty and clever, they are critical, but they are critical of the right things. In Estonia, there is less of it, but it is a strong element in shows such as Ärapanija.

There is other kind of political comedy, namely when the people are either ignorant of their responsibility or afraid to be cast as partisan and therefore criticise and find fault with almost everything politicians do. They enforce the idea that all politicians are scum of the earth, they are there to be ridiculed. Any mistakes done by a politician is almost immediately applied to all other politicians etc. This applies to late-night shows in the US, as stated in the book:

“Topical comedians,” says Peterson, “keep finding new ways to tell us what we already ‘know’ about politicians.” And because they harp so remorselessly on candidates’ individual quirks — ignoring the hard, complex, often maddening substance of policy — they declare, in effect, that every choice is equally bad and that the system itself is “an irredeemable sham.” “Election after election,” Peterson writes, “night after night, joke after joke, they have reinforced the notion that political participation is pointless, parties and candidates are interchangeable, and democracy is futile.”

It also applies to the media in general, and Estonian media in particular. The media seems to be on a march against democracy, by destroying bit by bit any credibility or public trust the people might have for democratic institutions. Of course one can say that the politicians have brought it on themselves by being irresponsible and doing stupid things. To an extent it is true, but to an extent it is not. Politics is tricky and the decisions and choice politicians have to make cannot always be compressed to a soundbite. They cannot always put in one simple sentence a complicated policy.

Coming back to comedy, the saviour of political discourse can also be the media itself, but when it takes a more responsible approach. Political comedy is good, when it is targeted and nuanced enough not to brush all politicians with the same stroke. Good satire can save democracy, by pointing out the inconsistencies, the stupidity, the political BS, etc.

Here are some videos of this kind of excellent satire:

Stephen Colbert at White House Correspondents Dinner

A recent clip from The Daily Show:From Estonia (Ärapanija on Mart Viisitamm’s election as Vice Mayor of Pärnu)

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