Good satire takes time, because it requires effort to find a suitable skewering sword. That deliberation works against many contemporary purveyors of the form; even a satirical team on top of its game, like Spy magazine in its prime or The Daily Show today, does well to hit three segments out of the park for every seven that are just serviceable. And America's bandwidth is clogged with third-rate satirists whose hits-to-misses ratios make the masters look all the more masterful.
America (The Book), the Daily Show staff's brilliant send-up of civics textbooks, doesn't shirk timeliness: References include American Idol, Bill O'Reilly, NASCAR dads, and Strom Thurmond's illegitimate daughter. But the book also has designs on being an artifact, so the writers balance out the ephemera. While The Daily Show (as befits its name) takes a snapshot of the day's blunders and outrages, America (The Book) has its way with the whole range of history and political science. The foreword was quilled by Thomas Jefferson ("We wrote the Constitution in the time it takes you nimrods to figure out which is the aye button and which is the nay"), and the book takes on Greek and Roman democracy, the Founding Fathers, the branches of government, the fourth estate, and even the future of democracy. ("There will be 17 Carolinas.")
The secret ingredient is point of view, and even, at times, a flash of partisan passion. The Daily Show aims at targets on both the left and right, but there's no mistaking where its heart is, nor does it pretend that all ideologies are morally or functionally equivalent. Bread buttered on both sides makes a lousy sandwich, as Saturday Night Live's topical sketches generally illustrate, and satire thrives on taste, even when the humor skirts propriety. When audience members laugh because Stewart says what they would never have thought to saybut will now gleefully repeatThe Daily Show has done its job.
America (The Book) dispenses plenty of quotable zingers, like this description of the job requirements for the Secretary of Transportation: "Driven a car before? Seen an airplane? Hispanic? Goodput on this tie." But more importantly and more satisfyingly, the book contains moments that clarify the writers' outrage, like the abortive attempt at an introduction to Chapter 7, "The Media: Democracy's Guardian Angel": "What the fuck happened? These spineless cowards in the press. 'Was the president successful in convincing the country?' Who gives a shit? Why not tell us if what he said was true?" Even though the book gives up and restarts the chapter ("The Media: Democracy's Valiant Vulgarians"), the outburst remains for posterity, a perfect example of what satire should be in 2004.