Satire failed to pack a punch in the 2020 election

In June, Joe Rogan welcomed former Daily Show host, Jon Stewart to his podcast, declaring “I miss you on TV, this is the perfect time for you. It’s kinda crazy that you’re not hosting that show anymore”.

Rogan raised a valid point; we are in the midst of a global pandemic where well over 200,000 American’s have lost their lives, and we have experienced a divisive election tainted by aggressive partisanship and conspiracy theories. Stewart’s sharp-witted satirical monologues would have been the comedic voice of reason we all needed during these turbulent moments of 2020.

Of course, since Stewart’s departure from TV satire an abundance of similar programs emerged to fill the void. But they have tackled a very different political landscape compared to Stewart and the result is that TV satire’s reporting of the 2020 election has often appeared tired and uninspiring.

This isn’t just an election problem. It started at the beginning of Trump’s presidency when questions were raised about whether America’s political system was beyond comedic criticism. For four years, this has posed a series of dilemma’s for late-night comedy hosts in how they approach their satirical take downs of the Trump administration. One of the most pressing matters was how could they use satire, a genre defined by its use of irony, exaggeration, and ability to expose stupidity and vices, to lampoon Trump when he embodies many of these characteristics in real life.

Despite these issues there have been many examples of good practice in the last 4 years. My research on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Sam Bee’s Full Frontal found that both programs adopted advocacy reporting strategies in an attempt to engage their audiences in more meaningful forms of civic participation. We saw Stephen Colbert embody the role of critical journalist when taking John Bolton to task for holding back criticism of Trump until he received a lucrative book deal. Similarly to Jon Stewart’s passionate activism for the Zadroger Act, current Daily Show host Trevor Noah became an advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement and regularly discussed the issue of systemic racism on his show.

Given the craziness surrounding this year’s election, there was hope that TV satire would offer the same level of sharp analysis that The Daily Show’s ‘Indecision’ coverage delivered in 2000 and 2004. These were defining moments that saw comedy become a serious contender in the world of political journalism. According to The Washington Post, this is because Jon Stewart’s nightly analysis was able to cut through the election noise and offer thoughtful and accurate takes on what was happening. Unfortunately, satirical news coverage of the 2020 election was nowhere near as scintillating in its analysis of the campaign.

Part of the problem was that many of the hosts became stuck in a perpetual cycle of calling out Trump’s lies and hypocrisies, with some perfected impressions thrown in for good measure. This was once a successful reporting model for these programs but, more recently, the critical elements of this practice have since been adopted by the hosts of MSNBC and CNN, leading to huge ratings gains for the networks. Indeed, humor may be absent from cable news, but what TV satire offered was often limited to Trump parodies, an approach that reached saturation point and that’s why the humor fell flat. Consequently, satire audiences have been stuck in a never-ending loop of political outrage like that found on cable news, albeit with the inclusion of tired Trump impersonations.

The late-night host that fared best in their coverage of the election was John Oliver. Because his program rarely followed the news values of the mainstream media, he was able to explain and dissect unreported topics like immigration policy that had very nearly disappeared from the election news agenda. There is no disguising the fact that Oliver was once a correspondent on The Daily Show as he approaches satirical storytelling with the same veracity that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert applied to unpublicised stories like the 9/11 first responders bill and campaign finance reform. But the disadvantage of Oliver’s show is that it only airs once a week, thus it fails to deliver what Jon Stewart did on The Daily Show which was offering nightly guidance and analysis to help audiences make sense of the election.

Returning to the Joe Rogan interview, Stewart’s response to a TV satire come back was one of reluctance as he described the format as “redundant.” Interestingly, he praised Rogan’s creative control over his podcast as he “gets to curate” the content. Perhaps then it is the commercial imperatives of TV satire that have blunted the critical edge it once had. This is why it needs a dramatic reboot that takes into consideration the flexible boundaries of the genre. Stewart succeeded in doing just this by incorporating political reporting and activism into his programming. Now is the time for TV satirists to show the same level of tenacity and creativity so that the genre can remain a powerful tool of critical insight and investigation.