Monday, June 20, 2011

Comedy and Kitsch: The Daily Show, Political Satire, and American Media Consumption

The changing way that people view the world necessitates a change to the way the news media provides information, as well as a change to the information given; beyond the simple presentation of fact, the modern consumer needs engagement and explanation, needs to understand why the topic is important to them. This has spawned a new era in news reporting, which in turn has inspired the creation of satirical shows to lampoon the news' more ridiculous aspects. In our media-oriented society, political satire plays a very important role in the average American's comprehension of current national and global events. The strength of satire is the ability it has to draw the individual out of their own tacit culture, providing them with the opportunity to analyze the day-to-day occurrences that they might otherwise take for granted. People like being told things they already know, even if they hadn't yet realized that they already knew them. The postmodern nature of this interaction has become a vital part of political comprehension, building on that most vital part of humor, the ability to laugh at oneself. The comedic device of satire is a form of ironic kitsch, particularly in relationship to the news media and current events, influencing the overall American political consciousness.

Kitschism is a concept that is more commonly associated with objects and images than with a seemingly amorphous institution like satire. The book Tourists of History, by Marita Sturken looks most specifically at items such as souvenir teddy-bears and snow globes as elements of kitsch to illustrate her point regarding America's need for memorialization. The definition she provides, however, is broad enough to allow for a far more flexible interpretation. Sturken describes kitsch as “an outcome of mass culture”, and sited mass production as an important component of defining something as kitsch. (Sturken, 19)

Kitsch on it's most basic level solely considers the object or image and it's immediately associated meaning or emotion; the second stage of kitsch, that of irony, usually takes time to develop. (Sturken, 21) A concrete example of this would be the recurrence of retro design in modern aesthetic. At the time of it's inception in the 1950's, chrome, bright colors, and smooth forms evoked thoughts of the modern era brought about by the birth of the atomic age; those same colors and forms when used in design today are an ironic reflection on the differences between past expectations for the present day and the actuality. Sturken quotes the Czech writer Milan Kundera, who said “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!” (Sturken, 22) It is this second tear, the tear of personal reflection and irony that I will be considering. This tear represents the postmodern concept of removal from tacit culture, and through removal the separate consideration of individual aspects of culture.

In order to gain more thorough understanding of the institution of political satire in the television news media, this paper will look specifically at the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the kitsch devices it employs. The Daily Show airs Monday to Thursday each week, providing highlights from the top news articles of the week. Even more so than serious news presenters, the Daily Show plays to the desire of the average American television viewer for easily digestible, pop-culture laden news morsels, providing information in a readily consumable form that makes it easy for the viewer to get a little information about a lot of different topics in a short amount of time; the Daily Show, however, understands that it is doing this and views these news morsels, as it does most of it's content, with a certain degree of irony and levity. One could consider this the result of mass produced news-kitsch, a postmodern outlook on the way that information is packaged for today's consumer. As satire, the Daily Show critiques not only the actions of politicians and celebrities, but also the way that said actions are handled by popular news media. This concept of media examining media is part of the reason why the show is so successful, and though it is questionable whether most viewers analyze the meta nature of the device, it's efficacy is undeniable.

The average Daily Show episode can be broken down into two parts: the current events segment, and the interview segment, showcasing a special guest. The current events segment takes up roughly two-thirds of the show's run-time and may include series' covering continuing events, reports from Daily Show correspondents, media critiques, and political analyses. These newsworthy moieties usually feature catchy graphics, made to imitate the dramatic ones used by serious news shows to emphasize their points, and are peppered with facetiousness to keep the viewer's attention. During the interview segment of the program, Jon Stewart converses with a guest of the show, usually a politician, author, musician, or actor. The topic of discussion, while not necessarily directly relating to the topics of the earlier segment, usually pertain to current circumstances. Authors speak of their recently published books, politicians and political analysts talk about recent issues, musicians discuss their latest albums, and actors describe their most recent screen appearance. Most of the show's ironic kitsch appears in the first segment, but there are also occasional moments of perfect clarity during an interview which demonstrate the vital character of modern politics, even beyond the scope of satire.

Sturken comments that “kitsch is the primary aesthetic style of patriotic American culture, indeed that American political culture can be defined by and thrives on a kind of kitsch aesthetic.” (Sturken, 25) This means that those kitschy aspects of patriotic culture that garner much attention from mainstream media in turn generate their own unconscious dialogues. In the same vein, kitsch is a primary ingredient to any discussion of political culture, particularly in mass media. In the episode that aired on April 20th, 2010, a dialogue took place that illustrated the nature of this aesthetic. In a previous episode, Stewart made a comment on the hypocrisy of Fox news commentators, who were criticizing generalization regarding the Tea Party movement while ignoring their own past generalizations about liberals and the Democratic party. The episode on the 20th centered around the response Fox commentator Bernie Goldberg made to Stewart's commentary; what followed was a distinctively postmodern analysis on the part of Jon Stewart regarding the role of comedians in political commentary and the news. “I have not moved out of the comedian's box into the news box,” said Stewart, “The news box is moving towards me.” This single statement describes the entire point behind this consideration of kitschism in American political satire; without changing the way that the show is presented, the Daily Show is rapidly becoming less and less discernible from serious news shows..

The starting point of the whole convoluted issue arises from the manner in which news media handles the discussion of extremes in any political perspective. Generalizations are the basis of a cultural or political identity, and can develop about them a sense of sentimentality. Diversity of experience can be bridged when a broad identity can be overlaid on a large group as a whole; as Sturken says, “Sentiment is the glue that holds the fragile and dispersed nation together.” (Sturken, 26) Extremes of political perspective arise from the need to make said perspectives into easily consumable soundbites of information, such that they can be presented to the public through a diverse variety of mediums. The conundrum, therefore, is that the media was criticizing the generalizations that it's own format necessitated.

A critique that has made of the Daily Show is that it has too much bias towards one particular political agenda.; of course, this argument can be made regarding any show providing political analysis, even many of those who claim to be legitimate news sources. Considering this perspective, kitschism is even more applicable, as a kitsch object not only embodies an existing sentiment, but it also conveys “the message that this sentiment is the one that is universally shared.” (Sturken, 22) I would go beyond this statement to suggest that, in the spirit of ironic kitsch, alternative sentiments are presented, but with the specific intent of justifying the implicit existing sentiment. The political satire in the Daily Show supports a distinctively liberal agenda, but makes no effort to disguise this fact. Where some networks and shows present and analyze information solely on it's own basis, the ironic kitsch model when applied to satire describes the analysis of the presentation of information, as well as the information itself.

The purpose of political satire, as demonstrated by the Daily Show, is to draw the media consumer out of their generally accepted tacit culture, to allow them to gain new understanding, not only of the information they ingest, but the way that they attain it. This method of communication is a form of ironic kitsch, which, as Sturken says, “often works in tension with kitsch to speak to consumers and citizens in complex forms of address.” (Sturken, 26) The fast pace of modern interactions necessitated the innovation of a new media form, political satire being the natural progression of order for the understanding of current events. Beyond comedic satire, kitsch in imagery and action has become a vital part of the American television experience. Memes, attitudes, and perspectives, making up mass and popular culture, are the most prevalent way that kitsch is communicated through modern culture.

(Sorry, my reference page is currently AWOL. I will attempt to post it as soon as I can find it...)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Sherlock Holmes Addiction

I have always had a particular fondness for Sherlock Holmes-- I've read all of the Conan Doyle collections I can get my hands on. When I found out that BBC had remade the greatest detective ever known with a modern-day twist, I was filled with anticipation and dread. Though there are some excellent adaptations, I've been exposed to enough bad versions as to be a bit gun-shy. The recent big-screen adaptation, featuring the inimitable Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes, provided a new outlook and a flatteringly large budget to the characters (though somewhat tamed for our delicate American sensitivities.) Of the past television adaptations, I am particularly fond of the Jeremy Brett interpretation, with his aquiline nose and eccentric mannerisms.
I finally got around to watching the new series. I love it. The casting is superb, the wardrobe and the scripting are excellent, and the cinematography is as good as any I've seen this year. I am really delighted that so much work has gone into it.

And frankly, I'm in love with Benedict Cumberbatch.

Who isn't?

Friday, October 1, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different

I made a pocket-sized Charles Darwin, for all those times you need to be reminded why you're here. (In a physical sense. I'll have to make a tiny Karl Jung or Socrates for some philosophical perspectives on that.)
I also made a little Captain Disillusion. The full-sized version can't be everywhere at once, so I figured he needed a few pint-sized buddies to back him up in the whole "defending cyberspace from idiocy" thing.
Now with clever catch-phrases!

Friday, September 24, 2010

And Suddenly What Wasn't, Was

From past experience, I'd say having a blog is like having a demanding pet. You've got to feed it, walk it, trim its nail, put up with its shedding, and keep it from biting the neighbors (at least the ones you like). Blogs are slightly less likely to chew the corners off of your coffee table, or to vomit on your rug. However, if you're not careful a blog can take over your life, turning you from a functioning member of society into one of the pale, anti-social individuals, known to the world as "bloggers".

There's something tantalizing about having your own web address, a personalized place to display your innermost thoughts and ravings. As an opinionated person, I love the idea of spewing said opinions into the outer atmosphere of the internet, to mingle amidst the cosmic cacophony of information stockpiled there. We'll see if I have enough personal potential energy to keep this ball rolling.