Thursday, October 7, 2010

No joke, US satirists are turning serious

Oct 3, 2010

By Tracy Quek , US Correspondent

Washington - They make a living poking fun at the absurdities of American politics, lampooning politicians of all stripes and skewering the news media.

But recently, two of cable television's sharpest satirists and most visible political comedians have viewers wondering if they are suddenly turning serious.

Comedy Central's top liberal wits Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are leading a pair of rallies in Washington on Oct 30, three days before the mid-term legislative elections. The event is expected to draw hordes of the duo's young, left-leaning fans.

Separately last month , Mr Colbert, host of The Colbert Report, testified in front of Congress on the politically sensitive immigration reform issue and spoke up for illegal immigrants working on United States farms.

Their engagements have spawned reams of analysis on whether the comics, in between delivering punchlines, are also wading into the realm of political activism. Commentators are also debating the larger issue of whether in this age of the 24-hour news cycle the distinction between entertainment and politics has all but disappeared.

'Comedians are driving the political debate this year,' columnist and author John Avlon wrote in political news website The Daily Beast. 'Consider it a sign of the times - laughter and satire is the only sane response to the sickening spin cycle we're subjected to on a daily basis.'

Experts The Sunday Times spoke too agreed, noting that humour is what makes the edgy comedians so influential in an environment currently dominated by polarised and angry rhetoric.

But their appeal 'is not only because they tell jokes. They also make very sharp, serious political points and observations', said Mr Jason Easley, founder and chief editor of news and commentary website

Mr Stewart and Mr Colbert spare neither Democrat nor Republican, left-leaning nor conservative news networks when it comes to getting a laugh, and 'are able through their satirical comedy to hold politicians and the media accountable for things they say and do. They are watchdogs in a way', Mr Easley added.

The comics have a huge following among the 20-something and 30-something crowd, who increasingly tune in to them for their daily dose of news and current affairs. Tellingly, Mr Stewart was named the 'most trusted man in news' by a Time magazine online poll last year.

Both comedians have disclaimed any interest in participating in electoral politics. But the timing, message and potentially huge turnout of loyal fans to their rallies imbue the event with political significance.

The purpose of his 'Rally to Restore Sanity', Mr Stewart has said, is to provide a civil alternative to a vocal minority - the 15 per cent or 20 per cent of Americans - who have dominated the national political discourse with their extreme views and rhetoric.

'We're looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive and terrible for your throat,' the rally site - - reads.

Many see the event as a satirical response to the conservative Tea Party movement, and a riposte to a rally organised by right-wing TV host Glenn Beck last month in the US capital.

Just as the Tea Party movement and Mr Beck's 'Restoring Honour' rally drew a huge conservative crowd, Mr Stewart and Mr Colbert's event is expected to attract thousands of young, liberal viewers.

This fan base is the crucial demographic President Barack Obama and Democrats hope will come out to vote during the mid-term elections and help prevent a Republican takeover in Congress.

Some Democratic strategists fret that the comedians' rallies will distract from the real campaigning just days before the mid-term polls. But others argue that it is just the jolt that will re-energise jaded Democratic voters at the last minute.

Mr Obama seems to think it would do no harm. Last week, he lauded Mr Stewart's rally, saying it was important that the voices of ordinary Americans, who expect common sense and courtesy in their daily lives, be heard.

Mr Stewart and Mr Colbert are just continuing in a long tradition of American entertainers using their celebrity to attract attention to causes or issues they believe in strongly, said Professor Michael Freedman of George Washington University's school of media and public affairs.

But are the Comedy Central stars and others like them making the jump from entertainment to serious politics?

'They do only if allowed to in other people's minds,' said Prof Freedman. 'But if we have what should be civilised, serious discussions about issues on news shows turn into comedy shows, then why should anyone mind if a comedy show raises important, serious issues?'

It appears Mr Stewart's and Mr Colbert's fans do not mind at all.

According to the event's Facebook page, at the end of last week more than 180,000 people had signed up to 'Restore Sanity'' in the nation's capital.

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