Sophia A. McClennen in Salon:
This week saw the end of one of the most significant satire news shows in our nation’s history. But if you listened to what Comedy Central said about it, you’d think the show was anything but significant. According to network president Kent Alterman, the decision to cancel “The Nightly Show,” hosted by Larry Wilmore, was made because the show failed to attract young adults and had not thrived on social media: “We hold Larry in the highest esteem, personally and professionally. He brought a strong voice and point of view to the late-night landscape,” Alterman told Variety. “Unfortunately it hasn’t resonated with our audience.”
…And yet, despite the fact that Wilmore and his team offered our nation a historic first in satirical comedy, not everyone recognizes their accomplishments. In an uncanny coincidence, Wilmore’s show wasn’t just cut at the same time that we needed his humor as a foil for the hate-mongering of Donald Trump, it also came in the same week that Malcolm Gladwell released his latest podcast in the “Revisionist History” series: The Satire Paradox. As if anticipating Wilmore’s claim of success, Gladwell argues that satire really can’t have any positive impact. Analyzing the satire of Stephen Colbert when he’s in character, Gladwell suggests that politically motivated comedy can be read by opposing viewpoints in radically different ways. For Gladwell, if there can be more than one interpretation of satire, it fails. He then describes Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin as “toothless” and goes on to say that “her comic genius is actually a problem” since she’s so funny that she distracts the audience. It isn’t just that the ironic mode of satire can lead to misreadings that bothers Gladwell; it is also that it is funny. So funny, in fact, that it can drive the audience away from serious issues. That there is ample research suggesting that Gladwell is entirely wrong on this doesn’t sway his opinion at all. Gladwell would simply prefer straight debates about politics — without irony and certainly without laughter. Well, Gladwell is just as wrong as Alterman, the Comedy Central head.