As far as the Emmy nominees for Variety Series are concerned, it’s the politics, stupid. A category once dominated by music and sketches now tilts decidedly toward contemporary commentary and lampoons.
Whether the hook is faux news reporting (Jon Stewart; Stephen Colbert; “Saturday Night Live”) or legit roundtable punditry (Bill Maher), latenight explorations of the political process regularly garner nods — 2014 marks the third consecutive annual roster boasting the same six contenders.
Emmy voters have responded in a landslide. Over the past decade the statuette has exclusively landed on the two best-known, and arguably most influential, satirical series: 10 consecutive wins for “The Daily Show,” plus last year’s honoree and “Daily Show” spinoff, “The Colbert Report.”
Though political satire is clearly a force to be reckoned with at the Emmys, does it impact the world outside the industry? Howard Kurtz, host of Fox News’ “#MediaBuzz,” has no doubt. “These programs are an underrated force in American politics, precisely because they reach the broad middle of America that’s not tuning in to the Sunday morning chat shows. And in our post-ironic culture, humor and satire are as important in defining and framing political issues as garden-variety punditry.”
Dick Cavett, 1972’s winner in the category, agrees. “I honestly subscribe to the idea that probably a large segment of the enviable youth get their news from Stewart and Colbert, Kimmel and Fallon. The evening news is probably too dreary and middle-aged for them.”
In their new book “Politics Is No Joke!: How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life,” S. Robert Lichter and co-authors Jody C. Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris survey over a quarter century of smallscreen comedy to conclude: “Late night humor has indeed become entrenched as a force in American politics … transmitting a somewhat jaundiced view of politics to viewers who may come for escapist entertainment but leave as better-informed citizens.” (A Pew Research poll found 82% of regular latenight viewers — and 89% of those addicted to “The Daily Show” — are registered to vote.)
Those 10 Emmys, and consistent kudos from the media elite, certify Stewart as the gold standard here.
To Dan Amundson, research director for Lichter’s Center, “he’s current in a way that speaks directly to the issues, and has put himself in as the boy who tells the emperor he has no clothes. It’s the stuff you wish a major anchor or The New York Times would say.”
Lichter reminds us that Stewart takes down journalists as often as politicians. “Satirizing the news is built into the show’s DNA,” whereas “traditional talkshows don’t do much about the media. Maybe it’s (because) the networks have news departments and there’s some sensitivity there.”
At the same time, he says, “comedians poke fun at bigshots, and journalists have become bigshots.” The stereotype of regular-guy reporters and rumpled city editors has given way to “glamorous, wealthy celebrities who can be pompous.”
Of course, you can’t spell “pompous” without Stephen Colbert, whose prime target Lichter defines as “the genre of infotainment. He’s the talkshow host who presents the news in the context of his own perspective.”
So successful is Colbert’s impersonation of a conservative buffoon, many Americans reportedly don’t get the joke. Surveys suggest a widespread belief, as with Archie Bunker decades ago, that he’s seriously speaking his mind. (Lichter refers to “the powerful motive to get what you want out of a character,” to which Kurtz responds, “If people take Colbert seriously as a right-wing blowhard, our country is in worse shape than I thought.”)
Cavett is certain both Comedy Central tentpoles contribute to a general cynicism, or at least skepticism, about public life. “It’s hard to see one of Colbert’s pieces on some decrepit, loony politician out in the midlands somewhere without thinking, ‘I wonder how many others are as impossible as he is.’ ”
No one reflects more skepticism than HBO’s Maher, described by Amundson as “a balloon deflater. … Stewart or Colbert without clips.”
Kurtz sees Maher as “an unabashed liberal crusader who goes further than the basic cable guys in skewering the right. He’s also capable of taking on Obama from the left, because in some ways the president isn’t liberal enough for him.”
“SNL” has contributed a giant footprint on the body politic, from Chevy Chase’s turning Gerald Ford into a stumblebum to Tina Fey’s uncanny evisceration of Sarah Palin.
Debate mavens fondly recall Darrell Hammond’s impersonation of Al Gore drawling about his “lockbox,” so uncanny that Gore was made to watch the footage and change his strategy during the 2000 presidential race.
Lorne Michaels’ legendary brainchild awaits a new big public target and a big talent to mock it. “Maybe,” speculates Kurtz, “ ‘SNL’ is one Tina Fey away from relevance again.”
While Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel remain relevant in ratings strength and as revenue drivers, their status in terms of political flash points is more debatable.
Recent Kimmel ventures into the arena — October’s skit in which a kid advocated “kill everyone in China,” or last month’s aborted Obama visit — ignited Internet firestorms. Far safer and more popular to faux-feud with Matt Damon, or have parents confess they ate all the Halloween candy.
As for Fallon, reports Lichter, “he’s done much more sketch comedy, more like Steve Allen in his prime.” All of which suggests both Jimmys are reflecting, as Kurtz puts it, “their sensibility that political comedy is not their passion.”
But poking fun at politics remains Emmy’s passion, perhaps because the industry senses it’s a way entertainment can move the needle.
Cavett quotes Mark Twain in defiantly asserting, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”