comedians are not public intellectuals II

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

Last week Megan Garber posted an article in the Atlantic online that argued that comedians are the new public intellectuals. I disagreed with that assertion and put my thoughts about it in this post. I am following up on that now because of an interesting new take on that issue from Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig of The New Republic. She also takes issue with Garber's contention, but does it from a different direction that I did. While I argued that what comedians do doesn't really constitute intellectual work, Bruenig made the point that comedians short-change political discourse. In her view, the fact that young people get so much of their political information from comedy programs, rather than being something to celebrate, constitutes evidence that this demographic is not terribly well informed.

Bruenig argues in her piece that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hardly present sophisticated new ideas to their audiences. Instead, they cater to their prejudices, which are as reliably liberal as the Fox News viewers' are conservative. "Entertainers, unlike tenured professors and think-tank fellows," she writes, "rely on mass adulation to remain gainfully employed. This means that Stewart, Colbert, and the rest of their ilk have a special motivation to flatter their audiences: They’re not here to teach, after all, but to win some laughs and get good ratings."

What this leads to is a radical pose that is not justified by the content of their ideas. "Today’s mass-marketed comedy tends only to tease at genuine subversion, while making commonly held views—Those clowns in Congress! Those hypocritical suits on Fox!—the meat of its act." Confusing these two things, Bruenig writes, "is dangerous because it convinces those in the center that they’re on the vanguard, which severely delimits their view of the range of political possibilities."

One could say the same thing about most of the acts that fit in this category: Amy Schumer, Lewis Black, Bill Maher and the like. (I differ with Garber's original point in not finding anything terribly political about Louis C.K. or Key & Peele.) In fact, though I am very interested in politics and a big fan of comedy, I frequently find myself not enjoying these acts, and for exactly the reason that Bruenig notes. Stating your tribe's conventional wisdom in a tone that is louder or more sarcastic than everyone else's just doesn't make me think or laugh. Years ago, I had a friend who used to say that the Bill Maher program Politically Incorrect damaged public discourse. At the time I thought this was a more than a little overblown. But things have changed since that show was cancelled amidst much controversy in 2002. Then Maher had a late-night program with a limited audience. Today, people are saying things like "comedians are the new public intellectuals." My friend might have been right.