Did We Overindulge in Satire?

I have heard many people say we are living in the golden age for satire. I agreed before the election, but now I am wondering if I overindulged in satire at the expense of political action. Much has been said about the echo chambers we can create for ourselves on social media. Since almost all of the satiric comedy shows are left leaning lampooners of politics, they create a similar effect. We think because John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, and Stephen Colbert all made sport of presidential candidate Trump with such gusto, it was easy to think that a kind of consensus existed about his unsuitability.


Malcolm Gladwell,  in his new podcast series Revisionist History, focused on satire in Episode 10. He begins with an interview with Harry Enfield who created a character to satirize the Thatcher administration. His Loadsamoney sketch went viral and yet seemed to do little to move political opinion or effect change.

The idea of satire is an ancient one. It gives the opportunity to speak truth to power, and by couching it in humor, give the speaker a chance to keep his head (literally in some cases). Unfortunately it may also do little more than entertain. And perhaps it leaves little space to consider issues seriously.  As Gladwell points out, some political problems can be solved and deserve more than to be laughed at.

He refers to an article by Jonathan Coe, in the London Review of Books, called “Sinking Giggling into the Sea.” He writes:

“Or perhaps we should give the final, gloomiest word on this subject to William Cowper, writing in 1785:

Yet what can satire, whether grave or gay? …
What vice has it subdued? whose heart reclaimed
By rigour, or whom laughed into reform?
Alas! Leviathan is not so tamed.

Despite all this, it always seems that successive generations of entertainers, bent on laughing people out of their follies and vices, remain optimistic about the power of anti-establishment comedy at the outset of their careers: it’s only later that reality kicks in. When Humphrey Carpenter interviewed the leading lights of the 1960s satire boom for his book That Was Satire, That Was in the late 1990s, he found that what was once youthful enthusiasm had by now curdled into disillusionment. One by one, they expressed dismay at the culture of facetious cynicism their work had spawned, their complaints coalescing into a dismal litany of regret. John Bird: ‘Everything is a branch of comedy now. Everybody is a comedian. Everything is subversive. And I find that very tiresome.’ Barry Humphries: ‘Everyone is being satirical, everything is a send-up. There’s an infuriating frivolity, cynicism and finally a vacuousness.’ Christopher Booker: ‘Peter Cook once said, back in the 1960s, “Britain is in danger of sinking giggling into the sea,” and I think we really are doing that now.”

Now it appears the USA is following.

I wasn’t the only one who found it intolerable to watch comedy in the aftermath of the election. E.W. in The Economist wrote in defence of comedy, and yet acknowledged: “Now the joke (of a Trump presidency) has mutated into reality. In the immediate aftermath of Mr Trump’s victory, laughter has proved difficult. Judd Apatow, a comedy behemoth involved in such films as “Anchorman”, “Knocked Up” and “Bridesmaids”, tweeted on election night: “One thing I do not want to watch right now—comedy about any of this. That’s how terrifying and disappointing this is.”

The E.W. article asserts that satire can still influence change, but must do it as an outsider. Perhaps now that the far right is controlling everything, they will regain an edge. Gladwell would probably suggest they can regain their relevancy by becoming sharper, such as Israeli satirists have done. My concern is that when you laugh at misogyny and racism you may normalize the behavior to some degree.

Rough seas ahead. Let’s not drown giggling into them.


Leaders Repair Relationships

Warning: If you keep Jon Stewart on a pedestal and only like reading high praise for the man, stop reading now.

Jon Stewart is filming his last show today and a lot of journalists (Fresh Air, NY Times, etc.) are covering this event. I have a routine of watching the previous day’s show on the internet over lunch and Jon Stewart is the only anchor I have known on The Daily Show. I miss the Colbert Report because it went away entirely. I hope when Trevor Noah takes over I will remain enthusiastic about watching it over lunch.

I marvel at his intelligence and wit, but I have occasionally witnessed his thin skin showing through when he interviews guests or is parrying attacks from Fox News and others. And then I listened to Marc Maron’s podcast interview with former Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac. He tells his story about the incident that ultimately led to his leaving the Daily Show. He expressed a difference of opinion to Jon Stewart about how Stewart chose to respond to an event. Cenac’s opinion was informed by his experience with race as a black man in America and unfortunately Stewart took it personally and responded in anger (perhaps rage).

And then Stewart did not repair with Cenac and so ultimately Wyatt Cenac found working at the Daily Show so uncomfortable he left the show.

First, I want to share that I have done the same thing (losing it to the point of screaming) to an employee of mine. And I eventually learned to feel truly sorry. It took about 4 months of executive coaching before I could recognize how damaging what I did was to the other person. By that time my employee had moved to the other side of the country for a new job and my team had gone through hours of team building using tools from John Gottman’s research. I never repaired with the individual though.

I am not proud of this fact. And having experienced this lapse in my leadership, I have compassion for Jon Stewart and have an idea of why he may not have been able to repair his relationship with Wyatt Cenac.

I also know that leaders repair relationships. It was a much longer journey to really learn this lesson. It was only when I had experienced CTI’s Co-Active Leadership Program that I locked in the learning about how to clear with people and keep relationships in good trim. It takes a lot of conscious effort and it means I have to deal with my own “stuff” (and by stuff I mean shit).

Maybe this is part of Jon Stewart’s decision to leave. Maybe he does not feel his current job gives him the bandwidth to deal with these personal issues. We have no way of really knowing; however, I can still learn from the WTF podcast interview. I do not think Jon Stewart is a racist or a rage machine, just as I am not the sum of my episode with my employee. And this is the same Jon Stewart who did the delightful interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates. I wish him all the best and I will still miss him.