Between Cartman and Jon Stewart: America’s Culture of Satire

by: Mariann Devlin

About a week ago, I got into a minor debate with a group of people about “The Daily Show” and “South Park” — shows I started watching when I was too young to understand their significance, but which shaped my critical eye. Two nights later the editor of In Our Words called for a comparative piece on the two shows. Serendipitous.

Now, there are the obvious similarities. “South Park” and “The Daily Show” work with the same material (meaning neither show would exist if Americans, including the media, stopped doing stupid shit) and both have had a priceless impact on American political culture and our relationship with the mainstream media.

Both also consider themselves a purely comedic enterprise. When accused of having an agenda, Jon Stewart, Trey Parker and Matt Stone all hold their hands up and say, “Relax! We’re just here to make you laugh!”

I’ll be the first to admit that’s not very convincing. It’s not a matter of either show being left-leaning, although “The Daily Show” certainly is. It’s that both shows have chosen to be something more than “Crank Yankers.” Neither one deals with topics like illegal immigration or Christian fundamentalism (or “Jersey Shore” and Justin Bieber) because its funny. The message is that American political and cultural understanding is skewed, demented even. The delivery method is humor.

The first South Park episode I ever watched was, auspiciously, “Death.” It’s the episode where Trey Parker and Matt Stone address the shrill, misguided concerns of parents who didn’t think such a shamelessly violent and vulgar show should be aired on cable television. (In a way, they were right to think it a slippery slope. Thanks to “South Park,” we have lots of “offensive” hit shows that kids have easy access to.)

In one scene, Stan shouts “Dammit! You know, I think that if parents would spend less time worrying about what their kids watch on TV, and more time worrying about what’s going in in their kids’ lives, this world would be a much better place.”

Indeed! For the first time ever, I saw myself as a victim of high moralizing, and I was determined to keep watching it against the wishes of adults everywhere.

“The Daily Show,” which I began watching around the same time, added to my intellectual rebellion, although it was definitely more wholesome. I spent much of my young adult life crushing on — I mean, watching — Jon Stewart, and it not only made politics more interesting, it also made me suspicious of how the press portrayed and even shaped political events. The news montages, with anchors using recycled platitudes to sum up complex issues — euphemisms they no doubt heard from competing stations — gave me good reason to question the news I consumed. News I would otherwise take at face value. I can honestly say that Jon Stewart has had more of an effect on my sense of journalistic integrity than any real journalist.

(He isn’t a journalist, guys.)

Even though “South Park” doesn’t take the form of a news show, it does the same thing. The prejudices it lampoons are obvious, but what’s less so is the parody of opinion itself.

Such ridicule is necessary in an age where everyone with a strong opinion can shout it from the highest rooftops. (This totally includes me.)

“The Daily Show” does it too, to a lesser extent. Although it’s clearly aligned itself with the left, it’s not against criticizing its so-called allies when necessary. The Democrats are consistently made fun of for being weak-willed do-nothings. Obama has been the target of criticism too, for the U.S. operations in Libya to his continuation of Bush policies, to his failure to close Guantanamo Bay.

This, coupled with a humor that has attracted the attention and devotion of young people, makes “The Daily Show” one of the most important media events of the last two decades. It’s because “South Park” is an “equal opportunity offender” that we can look at our own biases, and propensity for half-baked opinion without getting too defensive. We may even find ourselves in flat-out disagreement with Parker and Stone’s assessment on, say, pretentious hybrid car owners or atheists, but since they make fun of everyone it’s not so bad. I’m open to it.

Now, if any number of Fox News commentators say the same thing, chances are I’m going to denounce it with the fury. I can trust the creative output of a couple of guys who, even if they love something (oddly, it’s Mormonism) will show their respect by making fun of it along with everything else. I trust their views on Mormons more than I do Mitt Romney’s.

Is this what objectivity looks like? Not in the traditional sense. “The Daily Show” and “South Park” don’t have access to the one, single truth of any matter, any more than any of us do. But its safe to say that in a world where mainstream political and cultural analysis is poisoned by sensationalism and prejudice, these shows at least present a fairer picture of the absurdity of our age than any HBO drama or “serious” news analysis could.

The creators of “South Park” just signed a contract to produce new shows through 2016. Jon Stewart is going to host “The Daily Show” for another two years. (Given its continued influence and success, I’m certain he’ll sign another contract.) But when the dust they’ve kicked up has settled, or when they’ve decided to throw in the towel, I hope another show take its place. And I hope it stirs the rebellious imagination of my future kids, making me worry incessantly about their values and maybe even ground them. If I want them to be anything like me, they’ll need their own “South Park” to show them the way.

Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.

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One response to “Between Cartman and Jon Stewart: America’s Culture of Satire

  1. Pingback: In Our Words: Update « Mariannecdotes·

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