Prophetic Comedians

Jon Stewart’s the cover boy for Sojourners magazine this month – [full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor.  But I’d like the magazine even if I wasn’t] – engaged in conversation with Jim Wallis about the comedian’s role in society.  Stewart tends to downplay his identity as prophetic jester – he deflects praise with statements like

“Because we’re in the public eye, maybe people project onto us their desires for that type of activism coming from us, but just knowing the process here as I do, our show is maybe the antithesis of activism, and that is a relatively selfish pursuit. The targets we choose, the way we go about it—it’s got more of a personal venting aspect than a socially conscious aspect.”

I’m sure he believes that; but I’m also sure that his show does a hell of a lot of good – releasing the pressure felt by people who otherwise were ignored or insulted during the Bush era, and holding the rest of the media to account.  (Even though he also denies that’s what he’s doing.)

Part of it, honestly, is trying to reconcile our reality to the reality we’re seeing in television. It’s trying to get back to, “Okay, so why is it that I’m seeing this as ‘yes, we have tortured,’ yet it appears that we keep hearing how we have never [tortured].” Make your case! Make the case that in these urgent times that’s what we needed to do, but don’t be disingenuous.

Tell the truth.

Yeah! Tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. Too often the role of government and corporations is to obscure their real argument, and we feel like the role of media and the role of editorial authorship is to re-clarify those things. If there’s anything we think, it’s that we’re presenting it in what we believe to be the clearest position that we can in a satirical framework.”

Stewart and his comrade Stephen Colbert are walking in a tradition that demands attention – the Sojo interview put me in mind of a few other prophetic comics:

The Marx Brothers: Not only did they manage to represent Freud’s notion of what constitutes the self (if you want to know what the ego, id and superego are, look no further than the interplay between Groucho, Harpo and Chico.  Alas, poor Zeppo, whom nobody seems to have known that well doesn’t really get much of a look-in), in ‘Duck Soup’ they created a political satire that is both insanely funny, and as powerful a humanist statement as anything written by Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain.

Lenny Bruce: Spoke what he felt, not what he ought to say.  If this meant telling people that he thought Life magazine’s saccharine captions underneath photos of Jackie Kennedy’s escape from the open top limo made them ‘dirty pictures’, then he said it, puncturing sanctimony so the light could get in.

Bill Hicks: A man who died 15 years ago and still seems ahead of his time.  Preached against fear and made people feel alive; without denying that transcending fear is itself a frightening business; and told the truth about money, desire and war.  I need to stop now, because a) I’m still a little bit afraid of him (in a good way), b) It seems to diminish his work to talk about it rather than just watching or listening, and c) He’d probably think I was an idiot for blogging.

And finally:

My Dad: A man not afraid to go toe-to-toe with one of the members of Monty Python and at the end of the encounter, Michael Palin was laughing at himself.  Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime.


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3 responses to “Prophetic Comedians

  1. Gareth, a great post. I enjoyed your thoughts! You might also like the book Truth in Comedy.

  2. Kim Mitchell

    left thinking of court jesters and Shakespeare – comedians as prophets is good – always sort of thought of them as medicine men and women, myself

  3. Kim Mitchell

    …btw – I really hope you do tell us that story about your Dad and Monty Python…