In the 1990s and 2000s, this satirical mode built up a head of laughing gas with The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Air America’s Al Franken. Comic news has become so popular that it even saved the career of a louche pothead named Bill Maher, who in a few short years went from comic outlier to éminence gris.
According to Bill Wolff, executive producer of The Rachel Maddow Show and vice president of msnbc’s primetime programming, nothing less than George W. Bush has paved the way for his programs, as well as the others. “The funnier side of the political spectrum is the one where your enemies are most ridiculous,” says Wolff.
Maybe, but I think it has more to do with a shift in how people like information conveyed. Bush perhaps accelerated the process. So many felt degraded by the Bush era that they wished to degrade him back, on television. And then there are liberals who are now recalling their long-forgotten weapon: wit. As Jackson Lears, a professor of American history at Rutgers University, says of Maddow and the rest, “After decades of being mocked for excessive earnestness, the Left is remembering what the [1960s] counterculture knew: flagrant lies demand absurdist responses; they deserve to be not merely refuted but laughed to scorn.”
Still, MSNBC’s Wolff admits his network has gone in this direction partly due to the success of its rival network, Fox. A decade ago, Fox was established and MSNBC was just starting to brand itself as a distinct network. After Olbermann’s show became a hit, one might hypothesize that msnbc thought it could go for broke by doubling down on Maddow.
Wolff ties the rise of Maddow and Olbermann to their ability to bring analysis to news audiences. “With information becoming cheap, the success of Rachel and Keith is because people want someone collating or commenting on information,” says Wolff.
A lot of Maddow’s success derives from her taste for the absurd. At one point during the night of my visit, I watched from the sidelines as she showed a Christmas ad made by the coal industry, starring pieces of coal with bulging eyes and green and red carol books. “Anthropomorphic lumps of carbon singing,” Maddow hooted. Three cameras swung around her, using the in-your-face-and-out-of-our-minds technique so beloved by Olbermann. She then went further into the comedy ether: “The earth’s rotation is slowing down . . . that’s fodder for your next existential crisis.”
Throughout her show, Maddow’s bookishness comes through her wit. Early in the fall, she had a field day with Sarah Palin’s penchant for falsehoods, but in a very particular way. On one show around the election, she called Palin “a prevaricating, mendacious truth-stretcher or whatever other thesaurus words we can come up with for lying, is just far less efficient than calling a lie a lie, and a liar a liar.” I realized that in order to find this fully funny, you had to like jokes about abusing the thesaurus.
In October, Maddow’s wit became the accidental subject of one of her shows: a tormented-looking David Frum complained on-air that her humor was juvenile. “Making jokes about it is part of the way that I am talking about it,” Maddow fired back. “I don’t necessarily agree with you on ‘grown up.’ I think there’s room for all sorts of different kinds of discourse, including satire, including teasing, including humor. There’s a lot of different ways to talk about stuff, and Americans absorb information in a lot of different ways.”
It was a standoff between a conservative who knew that his party had lost its sense of humor and an anchor utterly assured that satire was the transom for getting political information—and critique—to her audience.
I talked with Maddow after her show about her absurdist approach. “When Frum said I talked about things in an immature way, I am cool with that,” she said, as she gleefully removed her pancake makeup (which she appeared to despise). She then told me how she first found her ironic humor, in college, when she crashed an event called Conservative Coming Out Day, stole the group’s sign, and changed it to Sexually Frustrated Conservative Mud Wrestling Day. After graduation, she had more prosaic practice in comedy: her early jobs in commercial radio included writing a hot-tub-company jingle and dressing as an inflatable calculator.
Still standing in the show’s mirrored makeup room, she donned her signature horn rim glasses and said, “I realized I didn’t have to be afraid to be smart, and the audience can be there with me.”