Because I am a strange, strange man, I recently started downloading a twice-yearly podcast by The Capitol Steps, the cheerfully inoffensive Washington, D.C., institution that has seemingly been with us since the founding of our nation, who were probably on hand during George Washington’s inauguration to sing, dance, and prance their way through sunny spoofs of then-current songs, gently mocking George Washington’s wig, false teeth, and that yarn about the cherry tree. In actuality, The Capitol Steps was started in 1981 by three Republican staffers with too much time on their hands and a desperate need to find an outlet for their corny jokes and eyeroll-inducing song parodies. But the musical-comedy revue quickly became known for a ferocious bipartisan sensibility that took great aims not to offend anyone on any side of the political spectrum.
The Capitol Steps podcast is perfect for people who want to be entertained by the beltway vaudeville of our electoral process without ever having to think about politics, critically or otherwise. There’s something strangely pleasing, even soothing, about the corniness and predictability of The Capitol Steps podcast, in the way it invariably veers to the cheapest, easiest joke imaginable. Bipartisan comedy, as practiced by the likes of The Capitol Steps and Jay Leno, transforms the scary, high-stakes, and wildly unpredictable world of politics into a harmless game where the players are all broad caricatures, the stakes are low, and there is no real fundamental difference between the left and the right, because they’re all essentially knuckleheads, narcissists, and crooks only out for their own interests.
There’s something inherently evasive, if not downright dishonest, about this conception of politics, because it denies the very real, very high stakes at play in our world. Who we elect plays a huge role in determining who gets health care, who can get married, who gets insured, and what wars we fight. The stakes have seldom been higher or the sides more divided, yet bipartisan comedy still pretends that there’s value in standing on the sidelines and quipping mildly about how Bill Clinton loves food and women equally, Mitt Romney is a blow-dried, milk-drinking Mormon flip-flopper, and Sarah Palin is an airheaded Alaskan caricature, don’tcha know?
Bipartisan comedy takes the danger and terror out of an uncertain political climate by reducing it a comic strip. The world may be a Lovecraftian den of infinite horrors buttressed on all sides by unspeakable trauma, but the tomfoolery of The Capitol Steps tells us it’s really all just a goofy joke whose punchline we all know. The Capitol Steps and their bipartisan peers are dedicated to telling us what we already know, in trafficking in the comedic equivalent of conventional wisdom.
Bipartisan comedy can be funny, but because the aim of satire is to provoke thought and outrage, and the goal of bipartisan comedy is to assure audiences that politicians are exactly the culturally mandated cartoons they think they are, it can never be truly satirical.
I want to delineate here between bipartisan comedy that goes out of its way not to offend and satire that’s either deeply ambivalent or all over the place politically. Team America: World Police, for example, is at once a brilliant satire of rah-rah foreign-policy jingoism and a much less inspired satire of the hypocrisy of limousine liberalism, but it’s animated by a palpable sense of outrage, not the need to win cheap laughs without ever taking a stand. The same is true of the equally hard-to-pin-down satire of Mike Judge.
For many talk-show hosts, bipartisan comedy is the comedic equivalent of journalistic objectivity: a default posture they are expected to adopt whether it suits them or not. Audiences for The Tonight Show could laugh at Johnny Carson’s bipartisan gibes for decades without having much of an inclination as to where his political sympathies lie. In his private life, Carson was left-of-center, but he told Life magazine in 1970 that while part of him would like to make his political views public and take on icons like Billy Graham, “I’m on TV five nights a week; I have nothing to gain by it and everything to lose.”
Therein lies the core appeal of bipartisan comedy: Take a stand, and you might offend someone. Keep your mouth shut, and audiences can imagine that your beliefs are what they want them to be. If they dig you, chances are they’re going to assume you believe the same things they do.
The world has changed a lot, however, since the days when Carson was the unquestioned king of comedy. The world has become a more fractured and divided place, especially where politics and entertainment are concerned. Carson feared he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by revealing his true beliefs, but Jon Stewart has become one of the most trusted voices of his generation—comedic or otherwise—precisely because The Daily Show is powered by his fierce convictions. Sometimes this comes through in the content of the show, but more often, Stewart’s righteous anger—and it is overwhelmingly righteous—comes through via the palpable edge in his voice when he delivers a particularly vicious or cutting joke, or the rage in his eyes when he attacks a politician whose actions seem to offend him on a visceral, personal level. Where the soothing banality of bipartisan comedy implies the stakes are low, the rage in Stewart’s comedy conveys that the stakes in our current fraught political climate are incredibly high, and that anyone who isn’t at least a little bit angry isn’t paying attention.
This undercurrent of rage lends an element of danger and uncertainty to the program, as well as the promise that on any given night Stewart might really go off on an epic, incendiary rant that promises to go viral. Carson might have thought he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by being overtly political, but in this day and age, Stewart has nothing to gain by holding back his true feelings. It’s not as if conservatives are going to suddenly start embracing him if he moves closer to the center.
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s 2010 The Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear would seem to be the epitome of bipartisan comedy. The stated intention of the rally was to let the moderate majority of Americans finally have an opportunity to drown out the 20 percent of hysterical extremists on both sides whose angry squawking now dominates the national discourse. But in calling for a restoration of sanity and an end to the frenzied fear-mongering and scapegoating that currently characterizes our current cultural climate, Stewart wasn’t escaping harsh reality; he was taking a stand and investing himself passionately in his words and actions. The Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear acknowledged that the stakes are unbelievably high and that our media have devolved to such a sad state that dramatic action—hell, a rally at the National Mall in D.C—has to be taken to try to correct its grotesque excesses.
Stewart’s rally partner Stephen Colbert found an even more ingenious way to wiggle his way out of the traps and limitations of bipartisan comedy: He created a right-wing blowhard character whose narcissism, myopia, and jingoism provide the perfect Trojan Horse for a sustained and inspired left-wing critique of right-wing lunacy. In this guise, Stephen Colbert was able to speak truth to power as bluntly, directly, and viciously as humanly possible when he delivered the legendary keynote address at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
If any occasion called for the bland inoffensiveness of Capitol Steps-style humor, it was this one. We’re encouraged to avoid politics and religion as dinner topics because of their potential to invoke heated emotions and intense debate. That’s especially true of the motherfucking White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where the wildly divisive figures people are most likely to argue passionately about are probably within earshot, most notably President Bush, who sat only a few feet away from Colbert while he delivered his monologue.
In his fearless speech, Colbert absolutely eviscerated Bush while pretending to praise him. He was so brutal and uncompromising that even some folks who despise Bush were tempted to feel sorry for him. It’s easy enough to make fun of the president from the safe remove of a television studio in Manhattan; it’s a whole lot harder to ruthlessly lampoon the most powerful man in the world while he’s sitting close enough to breathe down your neck.
Colbert’s defining moment represented a fierce rebuke of the everyone’s-pretty-much-the-same gutlessness of bipartisan comedy. Instead of offering audiences an escape into a world where politics is all just good fun, Colbert was willing, even eager, to make everyone uncomfortable, including people who agree with him politically and the president of the United States. Colbert’s captivating performance made the bipartisan pose adopted by meeker souls seem like an ugly, unpalatable fiction when he noted in his speech, in a comment that quickly entered the cultural vernacular, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” In sharp contrast, the comforting but fundamentally dishonest fantasy of politics as nothing more than a harmless sitcom, as put forth by the wisenheimers at The Capitol Steps, still professes to be rigorously bipartisan.
The Capitol Steps podcast maintains the fiction that politics is all fun and games, but that purposefully inoffensive posture is becomingly increasingly impossible to sustain. Bipartisan politics takes the sting out of political comedy, but it’s precisely that sting that gives satire, as practiced by Colbert and Stewart, its power.