From 'The Daily Show' to the Onion to Michael Moore, satirists grab funny stuff
By Sam McManis -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Anchor met anchor - one fake, the other not - across a table on late-night cable recently. They exchanged certain grooming habits and other tricks of the newsman trade.

Wonder which was which? Read the following on-air exchange to try to decide.

Anchor 1: "I button (my jacket) when I sit. But sometimes I open up for emphasis. ..."

Anchor 2: "Let's try that trick. 'There were no (he bows head slightly, unbuttons) survivors.' "

Anchor 1: "I personally like the unbutton lean-in. 'Let me (he leans in, unbuttons) ask you this.' "

Anchor 2: "Nice. That could be (used when) asking for their phone number."

Anchor 1: "Also, you get extra gravitas from the French cuffs. ..."

Hard to pick, isn't it?

But that's just the point: You can barely tell the two apart. For the record, Anchor 1 was CNN's Anderson Cooper, apparently secure enough with his journalistic street cred to appear with Anchor 2, Steven Colbert, whose "The Colbert Report" weeknights on Comedy Central has turned the harsh and scalpel-sharp weapon of satire on a new and irresistible target - the media.

OK, so the media are not exactly "new" targets. Political satire - using TV, radio or newspaper as the delivery system - has been around at least since Mark Twain scribbled away in this very town.

In the era of electronic media, the short-lived "That Was the Week That Was" satirized the Johnson years, followed in the mid-'70s by "Saturday Night Live" and, especially, its "Weekend Update" segment. In the late '80s, the Onion started in print, although it garnered national acclaim only after making its way onto the Web.

And now, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" is a TV ratings champion, one that has spawned Colbert's hilarious spinoff.

Satiric ground is being broken by such spoofs. Anyone even vaguely familiar with cable news can identify, for instance, whom Colbert is aping - Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Joe Scarborough.

Still, his is not solely a parody of conservatives. Colbert's character is every pompous and pretentious news anchor writ large, and his presentation features over-the-top graphics that skewer the maudlin melodrama of "Dateline," "20/20," "48 Hours," etc.

It's all there: the mock earnestness, the righteous indignation so totally out of proportion to the subject at hand, the "looking out for the little guy" sham that media demagogues always fall back on.

"That Anderson Cooper interview, that was such an incredible revelation about modern news," says Richard Dahm, a supervising producer of "The Colbert Report," in a phone interview from New York.

Of course, the vapidity of journalists who are more concerned with appearance over substance may not be a startling revelation. A recent Gallup poll asking Americans to rate the "honesty" and "ethical standards" of workers in different professions showed that only 28 percent ranked journalists high in their esteem. That's down there with politicians and used-car salesmen.

So, do programs such as "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" shape or reflect public opinion?

"Maybe a little of both," says Dahm, laughing. "Where we're always coming from first is just doing what makes us laugh.

"Of course, we'd like to think we're making a difference and changing the way (the media) works, but I'm not sure of that."

Satire - and its partner in guffaws, irony - can effect change. And, at heart, a good satirist must have an underlying affection for his subject matter. Jonathan Swift's classic 1729 satire, "A Modest Proposal" - which advocates the killing and consuming of Irish children to ward off famine - is nothing less than a cry for help.

You get the impression that the minds behind "Daily Show" and "Colbert" ply their snarky trade expressly because they hope the mainstream media will get the message, shape up and talk about issues rather than circle endlessly in the spin cycle of news.

But Allison Silverman, a supervising producer and head writer of "Colbert," is almost apologetic to cable news channels she so savagely skewers.

"These 24-hour news stations, I don't know how they do it," she says. "I never have to say to anybody, 'This is what you should know.' They do that every minute of the day. What an impossible task."

And yet ...

"We love parodying that stuff," she says. "Some people will watch these cable shows and see the connections we draw. Others will just think it's funny because they've sat around with a windbag at lunch or something. You substitute that guy for Steven, and they can relate."

Oh, they relate, all right.

Media consumers - and that means all of us, since the information onslaught is unavoidable - are savvy enough to get what satirists are doing, says Martin Kaplan, associate dean of USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

"We live in an age of 'meta,' " Kaplan says by phone from Los Angeles. "Everything is about itself - self-reflexive and ironic and knowing - and done with a wink.

"I think it'd be hard to find anybody with a pure trust in the messages that now reach them through media. The whole point of media literacy is to question the accuracy, authenticity and reliability of what you're reading or hearing. Satire turns that questioning into fun, as opposed to an intellectual exercise that people will tune out."

Judging by the strong ratings and lucrative advertising bucks accrued, "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" certainly have viewers tuned in.

However, Comedy Central's shows aren't the only outlets feeding the public's discontent with news organizations. The Onion is the granddaddy of online satire sites and its progeny are legion. At least two dozen "fake" news sites waft in the Internet ether - from "Bongo News" to "FNN 24/7" - and satiric blogs sending up news organizations are too numerous to list.

Which leads some chin-pullers to wonder if we're experiencing a "golden age" of satire. But "Colbert's" Dahm - an alumnus of the Onion and HBO's "Da Ali G Show" - begs to differ.

"Proportionally, it's about the same," he says. "You just have more venues, more channels - the satire has room to travel."

And it turns out that people want to know how the sausage is made - if it can be presented in an entertaining way.

When "The Daily Show's" Stewart goes "live" to a "correspondent" for a stand-up in front of a realistic but fraudulent background - be it the White House or Baghdad - the correspondent parrots the Bush administration's talking points with humorous earnestness that lets us all in on the joke. Sure, the bit is intended to make the administration look bad. But, it makes the faux news organization look even worse for being so willing to swallow the party line without healthy skepticism.

Often, "The Daily Show" shines most brightly when it just splices together actual news clips and lets the audience see the idiocy for what it is.

Last month, after a mentally disturbed airline passenger was shot by an air marshal after his flight landed at Miami International Airport, Stewart termed the breaking story a "scary, tragic, confusing" situation, then added, "the good news ... is that the 24-hour networks were up and running to bring us information and context."

Then he cut to a montage of sound bites and videotape from CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and local Miami affiliates. It was a series of urgent-sounding reporters' voices spouting a variation of "I don't knows."

An excerpt: "We don't know who was shot or who fired the shots. A lot is still up in the air. ... Was this person of altered mental status? I'd really hate to speculate. ...We don't know how he made the threat. ... Did he scream it? Whisper it or pass a note? ... I have nothing more than imagination to go on. ..."

Finally, to end the bit, the voice of CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "We're going to take a quick break and then continue our extensive coverage."

Quick cut to Stewart: "Extensive coverage of what?"

"Sometimes, people are frustrated with what they get through the media but can't quite put their finger on it," says USC's Kaplan. "Stewart will cut together sequences like that and you instantly realize what's (ticking) you off."

Colbert's preening and pretension is both more broad and somehow more subtle than Stewart's. His blowhard persona is a buffoonish but also pointed parody of O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

A typical Colbert rant: "I'm not a fan of facts. Facts can change. But my opinion will never change. No matter what the facts are ... you're going to hear the same thing coming out."

But it is during Colbert's tongue-in-cheek interviews with media types that the mainstream media's underbelly is truly exposed. Two months ago, Colbert sat down with Harry Smith, the co-host of CBS' "The Early Show," and had this exchange:

Colbert: "You're a journalist?"

Smith: "I'm a TV guy."

Colbert: "What's the difference?"

Smith: "A TV guy puts on makeup and reads out loud."

Colbert: "... And what does a journalist do?"

Smith: "Actually reports. ... My preferred thing is to be out in the field (reporting)."

Later, Colbert asked Smith to name a gripping interview he'd recently conducted. Smith mentioned an exclusive chat with pop star Madonna.

Colbert didn't miss a beat: "And what was the news you broke there? Or was that 'TV Guy?' "

Smith smiled sheepishly.

Those in the studio audience howled with laughter. In the age of heightened media scrutiny, they knew the answer.

About the writer:

* The Bee's Sam McManis can be reached at (916) 321-1145 or smcmanis@sacbee.com.

A half-century of satire

1952 - Mad magazine debuts, poking fun at pop culture.

1958 - Paul Krassner, a disciple of Lenny Bruce and a former Mad magazine writer, starts the Realist, a satiric magazine.

1964 - An American version of Britain's satiric news program "That Was the Week That Was" debuts on network TV. It lasts one year.

1968 - TV's "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" introduces a "news" segment.

1970 - National Lampoon magazine, a spinoff of the collegiate Harvard Lampoon, hits the stands. It folds in 1998.

1975 - "Saturday Night Live" kicks off "Weekend Update," with Chevy Chase as the "anchor."

1983 - HBO presents "Not Necessarily the News," which features "reports" from edited footage of actual news. It airs through 1990.

1986 - Spy magazine debuts. Edited by Kurt Anderson and Graydon Carter, it sends up politics, the media and celebrities. It folds in 1998.

1988 - The Onion, a satirical newspaper, first prints in Madison, Wis.

1991 - Comedian Harry Shearer debuts "Le Show," a syndicated satire program on National Public Radio.

1994 - Filmmaker Michael Moore satirizes newsmagazines with "TV Nation" on NBC; it moves to Fox in 1995 and wins an Emmy. It ends in 1995.

1996 - "The Daily Show" premieres on Comedy Central with Craig Kilborn as host; Jon Stewart takes over in 1999.

1998 - NPR introduces a satiric "quiz show," "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me."

1999 - The popular Web site SatireWire begins. Creator Andrew Marlatt satirizes the media, especially high-tech media. The site closes in 2002.

2003 - Humorfeed.com begins. The blog includes more than 60 news-satire Web sites and generates feeds to members.

2005 - A spinoff of "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report," debuts.

- compiled by Sam McManis

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