Satire, of course, has a long and proven history as the source of bona fide social change. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, George Orwell’s Animal Farm – all of these led to new public awareness that then led to protest, even some pragmatic reforms. But does the one-millionth joke about President Bush’s preschool perception of global geography really regain the trust of the international community?
It seems that the difference between a satire such as Animal Farm and The Daily Show is that the latter too often makes us comfortable, satiated, even happy, as opposed to the very motivating and sometimes terrifying disequilibrium caused by Orwell. Rebels distributed copies of Animal Farm, a novella satirizing totalitarianism, to displaced Soviets in Ukraine right after World War II. The occupying American military discovered them and confiscated 1,500 copies that would later be handed over to the Russian authorities whom the Americans were, at least temporarily, trying to aid. The vicious and powerful humor contained within that small book sure scared the corrupt leaders of that time.
Clearly, the huge audience for sarcastic, sophisticated slapstick means an increase in public awareness of current events. This is an undeniable benefit, beyond the salutary giggle, of consuming this kind of news. The National Annenberg Election Survey released in September 2004 reported that The Daily Show ‘s viewers knew more about election issues than people who regularly read newspapers or watched news.
But what are we doing with this knowledge, besides rehashing it at the water cooler the next morning?