Maddow, like so many others in the Obama age, is moving the mainstream in her semi-subversive direction. But before progressives pop open Prosecco, celebrating how they’ve finally taken over not only the White House and the Senate but also cable news with comedy, let’s pause to consider these shows’ future. Olbermann and Maddow’s audiences combined aren’t as big as Brian Williams’s, and their market share fell off along with everybody else’s after the election. Will the clever-comedy-news trend last? I think yes, mostly because I don’t believe that Obama is so radiant that he will defy parody, or that Bush and Palin alone created our taste for irony-laced news. Also, the Republicans, and their nutsy pundits, are not going away.

There are those who fret about whether news humor simply co-opts political life, acting as an escape valve that lets our civic energy dissipate. I agree with them that news satire like Saturday Night Live’s can serve as this kind of vent, ameliorating outrage with a laugh. But Maddow’s wit—and more obviously, Olbermann’s—is too pointed to just act as a kind of political-anger-management regimen.

As for those critics who fear that Maddow and Olbermann and the others have replaced thoughtful newsgathering with snickering, I can see their point. But I think they don’t need to worry so much. As I watched Maddow do her show in the studio that winter day, she struck me as a relatively trustworthy source for news.

She may look Chaplinesque, with her dark cap of hair and expressive black eyebrows set against pale skin, but her humor is, actually, pretty serious stuff. In fact, her take on the news is so gravely absurd it often makes the news seem even darker than it is. By calling attention to the malevolence and dishonesty around us, Maddow and the new ironic anchors have come up with one way to shake us out of our exhausted acceptance of it all. 

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.


Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.