When Jon Stewart signed off from The Daily Show he despaired that the world was in a worse state than when he had started.
This meant one of two things: either satire had absolutely no power to make the world a better place, or it actually made things worse.
His fans applauded, adoring his self-deprecating schtick with the solipsism we’re all guilty of when it comes to the art we love. Oh Jon. Of course you made a difference, because you made a difference to us, and we are everyone.
But Stewart wasn’t really joking. He was describing the limits of comedy, and gently suggesting that satire questions its own beliefs about what it can achieve in the real world.
When Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show I started following American coverage of the late-night satire scene and was immediately struck by the triumphalism and kragdadigheid of the reportage. Satire, it seemed, could achieve anything it damn well wanted. You’ve probably seen the headlines: Trevor Noah eviscerates Rubio! John Oliver destroys Trump! Colbert lands a Cruz-missile, obliterates GOP hypocrisy!
The more I read, the more I saw a belief that mainstream satirists were single-handedly taking out all the baddies. And yet, like Stewart in his sign-off, I was confused, because these claims of obliteration just didn’t seem to reflect reality. Few politicians in history have faced a broadside of criticism as relentless, intelligent, or widely broadcast as that faced by Donald Trump, and yet there he is, polling ever higher. Jacob Zuma is fodder for every comedian in this country, and yet it is patronage, not punchlines, that keep him up at night.
I was piecing together a column on this disconnect when Salon beat me to it. In an essay titled “They’re not eviscerating Trump: John Oliver and Stephen Colbert will never save us from fascism”, Jacob Sugarman described the “ongoing fetishisation” of comedians, and suggested that “liberals have abandoned actual politics for political theatre”.
His point about political theatre was interesting but what really struck me was the idea of fetishisation because it is a word that has two meanings. And both offer insights into the trend I had been watching.
there are millions of disciples sitting at the feet of satirical prophets
The first is the one we’re perhaps most familiar with: turning something into a fetish is a process of becoming fixated on it or obsessed with it. I’m not sure that fans of John Oliver and Trevor Noah are literally obsessed with them, but it’s true that there are now many millions of disciples sitting at the feet of various satirical prophets, eager to share their parables on Facebook and to spread the Gospel of Righteous Left-of-Centre Outrage.
The second meaning, however, looks past a description and offers an explanation.
Long before they referred to high heels or spanking, fetishes were carriers of ancient magic. They were objects imbued with supernatural power, with the ability to heal the sick or smite the iniquitous. They protected us from our enemies. They guided us towards the light. They were, in short, Jon Stewart.
That’s why the “fetishisation of comedians” is a perfect description of what we’re seeing; this growing, largely unconscious belief that political comedians are imbued with a kind of transformative magic; that simply shouting funny condemnations can achieve what activists and elections can’t.
Of course, this fetishisation is not new. Each generation conjures up its own saviours and worships them in popular culture. In the deadly serious 1980s, as the superpowers rattled their nuclear sabres, we looked to vigilante gunmen: Rambo, Death Wish, Lethal Weapon, Predator — even Airwolf and The A-Team — all offered us steel-jacketed, fully automatic protection in a mad world that was armed to the teeth.
When the USSR vanished, so did our muscle-bound bodyguards, replaced by comic anti-heroes; self-obsessed, over-sharing Generation Xers discussing their, like, stuff. Jerry Seinfeld spent 180 episodes talking about nothing, and we loved it.
Flippancy devolved into flatulence. American Pie broke the box office, Austin Powers broke the fourth wall, and South Park’s Cartman broke wind. Snark had arrived to protect us — against piety, against the humourless machinations of The Man — and as the new century matured, so did snark, eventually taking on its adult form: prime-time satire.
Good satirists play an important role. They release pressure and, if they can stay independent, they can speak up for the underdog. But to believe that they can protect us from malevolent power is as odd as believing in the transformative power of Rambo. Spraying rapid-fire zingers at enemies might be exciting but it’s not necessarily changing anything.
So who will save us from the baddies? The boring answer is: ourselves. By listening to many voices, not just the witty ones. By reading the complex stuff and not just skipping to the witty column. By thinking. By voting.
It’s not a great punchline, I know. But maybe that’s the point.
First published in The Times