On a Wednesday night in December, Rachel Maddow, in a toreador-style black jacket, waits for her show to start. She types last-minute notes on her computer with the intensity of a graduate student. At the 30 Rock news television studio, with its red, white, and blue décor, late-night assistants running about, and two dozen television screens on all around her, Maddow seems in her element. And when the show begins, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is devoted to “Blago”—the thoroughly and hilariously embarrassing (and now former) Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Maddow asks the “awkward question,” as she puts it: Is Blago not well? She riffs a bit and then concludes, with a sarcastic smile, “Illinois, you are getting almost as fun to cover as Alaska!”
MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show made its debut in the fall of 2008 and by October had grabbed 1.89 million viewers, beating CNN’s Larry King Live in the over-twenty-five and under-fifty-four demographic for that whole month. Maddow’s mocking on-air demeanor reminds many people of what they liked most about college. But she’s not just clever: she’s a tough-minded Rhodes Scholar, former aids activist, and an out lesbian. Her very existence as an anchor on cable television defies a number of different common wisdoms.
That’s all remarkable unto itself. But to my mind, what really makes the show special is how it embodies the rise of what I think of as sarcasm news. More and more news programs are likely to go absurdist in the coming months and years. As faith in and loyalty to traditional anchors wither, one can even hear ironic Maddowian intonations creeping into the delivery of CNN’s not-so-funny anchor Campbell Brown on her new show.
Now, you may be thinking, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert perfected comedy news a while back, no? But Maddow marks a watershed for a different sort of news comedy. Stewart (and Craig Kilborn before him) was a comic first and foremost—when The Daily Show started, the news was the surprising part. Maddow’s show works the opposite way: the news is the thing and the humor is the surprise. Along with her precursor, the five-year-old Countdown With Keith Olbermann, these are two “real” news programs permeated by parody.
What has caused sarcastic news to flower? For starters, today’s bloggers and YouTube snidesters see parody as information and information as parody. This is not entirely a mistake. Now, the news-with-satire approach can seem like the only thing that makes sense, since at least these shows are in on their own jokes. Even politicians sometimes embrace the idea of themselves as caricatures. They show up on Saturday Night Live to rap, or to meet their comedy doubles. They import self-parody into their own campaigns, as in Hillary Clinton’s faux Sopranos video on YouTube.
Also, the proliferation of niche audiences spurs sophisticated and partisan humor because these smaller groups of viewers have very particular tastes, identities, and affinities. They are thus more likely to share a sense of what’s funny. Critical verbal humor is a very specific thing—one reason that American film comedies struggle for viewers overseas. Sarcastic ripostes call for sarcastic viewers who know how, and when, to laugh. Simply put, Maddow is joking to the converted.
Finally, we have a far more sophisticated audience today than in the past, one that sees more clearly behind the manipulations and stagecraft of its political leaders. Two decades ago, Reagan got away with his spin, and his spinster, Michael Deaver, was and still is considered an untainted spokesman. Karl Rove, on the other hand, is widely seen as a vile little prince of handling. Yet Deaver, if we remember, was as much a master manipulator as Rove was; he got Reagan, you’ll recall, to gin up fake remorse during the Iran-Contra affair. Both the comedy and the news coverage of our decade and decades past reflect each era’s understanding of public relations and doublespeak. Now, news parody is truly a tool with which to strike back at political PR.
Political caricatures have been an American staple since the Colonial period. In the late nineteenth century, these sorts of illustrations tended to be scathing social critiques. In the twentieth century, though, news parodies were a bit more milquetoast. This was true even thirty-three years ago, when Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” kicked off the modern form of news parody. Back then, of course, real anchors exuded TV’s version of gravitas and solidity. The SNL Update was just milking anchors’ self-seriousness for laughs.