If self-sacrifice is the mark of a true patriot, then Mike Barker is an American-flag pin incarnate. Barker is an executive producer of "American Dad," Fox's animated sitcom featuring Stan Smith, a xenophobic, far-far-right CIA agent—the type of Republican who believes we're winning in Iraq because the MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner said so. "Dad" derives much of its humor from Stan's slavish adherence to cultural conservatism and President Bush's cowboy diplomacy, so attendees at this year's Television Critics Association press gathering wondered aloud how a Barack Obama presidency might affect the show. Could it benefit more from a McCain upset? Barker put any questions of his allegiance to rest: "I think we have to put the needs of the country ahead of the show." McCain might be hogging the slogan, but sometimes even Hollywood liberals put country first.
Barker's sentiments are indicative of the precarious position in which political satire finds itself. On one hand, this election has made political humor the most relevant kind, and television has ridden the cresting wave. "Saturday Night Live," which has struggled against sagging buzz and ratings for years, found its biggest audience since 1994 when Sarah Palin appeared to face off against Tina Fey's impression of her. In late September, Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" hit a nightly average of 2 million viewers, a 28 percent jump from last year. The audience that watched David Letterman grill John McCain was the largest the "Late Show" had seen since 2005. But political satire is at a vital juncture, and what happens in the coming weeks, and how its practitioners react to it, will determine whether the genre continues its dominance.
The dearth of solid Obama material is the most striking symbol of satire's growing pains during this historic campaign season. McCain is, of course, a fount of material, from his age to his legendary temper to that awkward smile that tears across his face like a fault line. Palin is just as juicy, with her nasally drawl, hammy stage presence and her meandering, content-free sentences—"blizzards of words," as Charles Gibson put it. It's been noted for several months now how difficult it is to pin a joke on Obama. He's good-looking, cool, eloquent and well educated, the type of guy about whom, if you were to meet him at a cocktail party, you'd have nary a criticism to make. But it's the job of comedians to find the angle, and Obama has been all too eager to help them. He's brimming with confidence, which at times can seem to veer close to arrogance (see: Greek columns; faux presidential seal). To puncture pomposity should be the political satirist's raison d'être. At the Al Smith dinner, a New York charity event, Obama poked fun at his alleged messiah complex. "Contrary to the rumors that you've heard, I was not born in a manger," Obama said. "I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-El, to save the planet Earth." If Obama wants the job of mocking him done right, he has to do it himself.
The conventional wisdom on the reason for this has been the race issue. Many comedy writers, the logic goes, are liberal whites afraid to invite a backlash by making an off-color joke about Obama's race. But some top sitcoms with typically white writing rooms routinely trade in racial jokes, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "The Office" and "30 Rock" among them. The last—Fey's show—has made numerous political jokes, some about Obama. In an outpouring of embarrassing personal details to a potential beau, Liz Lemon (Fey) confesses the likelihood of her contributing to a Bradley effect: "There is an 80 percent chance in the next election that I will tell all my friends I'm voting for Barack Obama but will secretly vote for John McCain." That prophetic joke was in a March 2007 episode, long before either man had clinched the nomination.
So why has Fey's other show, "SNL," had such difficulty landing a punch on Obama? Fred Armisen has slowly improved his Obama, but he's only just beginning to get laughs, and mostly for his newfound mastery of Obama's herky-jerky speaking cadence. Even as "SNL" skewered the media for giving Obama a free pass while Hillary Clinton was scrutinized, it was actually "SNL" and its peers that were handling him with kid gloves.
The reason is that our comedy has veered too close to our news. It isn't just the "Weekend Update" segment on "SNL." It's Comedy Central's troika of fake news shows, "The Daily Show," its mock-conservative spinoff, "The Colbert Report," and the new "Chocolate News." It's HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher." Even the cable news networks are getting in on the action. Last year Fox News premiered "The ½ Hour News Hour," a short-lived right-leaning answer to "The Daily Show." CNN, meanwhile, just bowed a news-comedy hybrid, "D. L. Hughley Breaks the News." Hughley is among our edgiest comics: when Don Imus was beset by critics of his comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team, Hughley didn't rebuke Imus's comments, he seconded them. But it's clear now that viewers like their politics with a dollop of levity, and CNN is merely following the rainbow. Never before has our comedy and our news commingled to this degree. By adopting the methods of journalists, satirists have saddled themselves with journalism's ethical quandaries over fairness, bias and responsibility, at least where Obama is concerned.
Jon Stewart will tell anyone who will listen that the goal of his show is to make people laugh, not to act as a news substitute. This is what satirists typically say, that the goal is to be funny, not to lead the public conversation. But by now we know that this is an unavoidable consequence. Satire solidifies opinions we already have because we've internalized the logic that all humor finds its root in truth. If "SNL" says Hillary was being unfairly picked on in the primary debates, then it is so. For many, Obama represents an opportunity to restore America's promise, and it's clear that satirists, perhaps for themselves as much as the rest of the country, don't want to lend credence to the notion that he might not be the real deal. A few jokes, it seems, aren't worth further depressing a nation embroiled in two wars and a financial crisis, a nation for whom Obama could represent the leadership we need. But satire, at its best, requires a willingness to scorch the earth. Just as we need a leader who is steady, we need political satirists who are willing to find his sweet spot and never stop attacking. Laughter could prove to be the best medicine, so long as we don't lose our healthy skepticism.