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.”
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.