"Irony and Outrage," part 2: Why Colbert got serious — and why Donald Trump isn't funny

Media scholar Dannagal Goldthwaite Young talks Colbert, Oliver, Maddow — and Donald Trump's humor impairment

Published December 8, 2019 12:00PM (EST)

Stephen Colbert; Donald Trump (Getty/Frederick M. Brown/AP/Evan Vucci)
Stephen Colbert; Donald Trump (Getty/Frederick M. Brown/AP/Evan Vucci)

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In her new book, “Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States,” Dannagal Goldthwaite Young advances the argument that the ironic satire of "The Daily Show" and the outrage programming of Fox News — which debuted within months of each other — play remarkably similar roles for their respective audiences, speaking to their distinctively liberal and conservative psychological orientations to motivate not just voter loyalty, but political engagement. 

The twin births of these two forums was no accident, Young explains, both in the book and in Part 1 of her Salon interview, which focused on exploring the main arguments — historical, cultural and psychological — about why these twin genres emerged as they did, and how they continue to function today. In turn, this vividly illuminates the nature of liberalism and conservatism more generally, in a way that’s both sophisticated and down-to-earth.

Young knows her subject both as a scholar (she's an assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware) and a practitioner (a long-time improv comic with the troupe ComedySportz Philadelphia), which gives her a breadth of understanding few can match. In Part 2, she answers questions about particular figures — mostly in pairs — who illustrate significant ramifications of her argument. We begin, however, with Donald Trump, whose humor impairment resonates perfectly with Young’s broader picture. As usual, our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

I want to explore some of the repercussions of your book’s argument through a number of examples. But before turning to the genre practitioners themselves, I’d like to ask you about your observations about Donald Trump, who has trouble with humor, and clearly comes from the outrage side of the equation. What can we learn from that? 

A couple of things. One, he often describes things as having been jokes that are usually exaggerated statements. They are strongly valenced statements, but he meant exactly what he said. The valence of what he actually intended is very consistent with the valence of his literal statements.

He says, "Oh, don't protect these prisoners’ heads when you're putting them in the back of the police wagon," and then he says, "Oh well, I was just joking." Well, maybe he was "just joking" in the sense that he is not actually instructing police to do this. But his valence was just that: Do not be gentle with criminals, even if their criminal status hasn't been officially proven yet. So when he does this, he uses the "joking" label as an out. But don't be fooled. What he is saying, the point he is actually issuing with his literal statements, is exactly what he wants the audience to take away. So that I find very interesting. 

I have a whole section in the book about what happened when Trump was at the Friars Club roast for Comedy Central [in 2011] and the comedians got to write joke responses for him that he could then issue at their expense. He got a draft of those jokes, and systematically went through with a black Sharpie and erased all the punchlines and changed them into non-joke structures. Which, first of all, is fascinating because he thinks he can rewrite jokes written by comics. That to me is a sense of hubris that is wild. 

But also that the mere logic of the humorous juxtaposition eludes him — the notion that you do not issue the argument, you create a juxtaposition that invites the audience to issue an argument. So much so that when he was at the Catholic dinner with Hillary Clinton, where they usually do these gentle barbs at one another right before the election, his joke at Clinton's expense again violated the rhetorical logic of the joke structure. He literally said, "Hillary Clinton is so corrupt," at which point the audience was already angry because they weren't issuing the judgment. He was. 

So I keep saying, in the same way that psychiatrists are not allowed to give a diagnosis of patients they have not actually observed, can I say that he is low in need for cognition? Well, no. But can I — based on everything we know about him and based on how information is presented to him, and based on the amount that he reads — can I guess that he is low in need for cognition? Yes. Can I also guess that he is prone to heuristic judgments? Yes.

There's a whole other section of the book on "disgust sensitivity." Donald Trump has high disgust sensitivity. He often makes statements about things being "disgusting." There's word that he doesn't like shaking hands with people, it’s his least favorite part of the business world, because he doesn't like germs. 

There’s lots about his personality that reflects this sort of hyper-stereotypical version of this social and cultural conservative psychology. What struck me the most was, when looking at psychological traits linked to aesthetic preferences, people who study preference for different kinds of art have known for years that having a high tolerance for ambiguity is one of the key predictors of appreciation for abstract art. And people who are social and cultural conservatives tend to prefer very realistic art, and prefer art that has really solid frames around it. So, literally, they need a border between the art and the wall, but they also need a border between the United States and Mexico. Well, that's interesting!

There's also a really wild piece about Stephen Miller — you know, the Trump administration's anti-immigrant guy. There was some wild story about him, somebody [who knew him] from elementary school had written they had their desks next to each other and all he remembers is Miller would make a line with masking tape, dividing the desks, and it was like, "You can't cross this line."

I was like, there's a lot there. Again, fixed entities, borders, strict boundaries. Now does this mean that I'm a determinist and I think we’re born this way? No. Do I think that we are born with propensities that then work synergistically with our environments, our surroundings, to shape who we become and how our political identities become enacted? Yes! 

Now I’d like to turn to a series of paired examples, both ones you made and others that struck me as I read. You discuss how Air America, the liberal talk radio network, and Fox's “1/2 Hour News Hour” both failed. What do we learn from these failed attempts to go against the genres that fit their psychologies?

Air America, in its efforts to become like Rush Limbaugh but on the left, still led with comedy. They brought in all these comics that are supposed to be sort of angry and threatening but yet it's all play, all day. They also violated the need for one opinionated host at the helm, driving the perspective of the show. They didn’t do that. They had comedians coming in and writing for teams of people that were expected to have a kind of talk-show feel where they were open and collaborative in their approach. That to me was fascinating. 

It's also fascinating to me that probably the most successful true outrage host on Air America was Randi Rhodes, and she was so outrageous, in fact, that she got in trouble for her outrage at the expense of Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton, and ended up getting bumped from Air America. She is still a successful talk radio personality, but it’s interesting to me that she illustrates how outrage, even when done correctly, doesn't actually work for liberals so well. 

On the other hand, with “The 1/2 Hour News Hour”—again, these are cherry-picked examples to try to explain what happened when each side dabbles in the other side’s genre — but it’s remarkable for what it reveals about those creators’ inability to create comic juxtaposition that invited the audience to issue a judgment. It just seemed they were not able to do that well.

So in the book, I include jokes that simply do not abide by the logic and structure of satire. And then I rewrite them, which is fun, too. The other thing I find interesting is that because of some of the political beliefs and the judgments that were being issued through the show, sometimes it is punching down. So, like, punching down at immigrants through a joke, which just seems mean-spirited, and that itself is not compatible with that rhetorical framework.

My next pairing is how Stephen Colbert made Citizens United and campaign-finance reform a top concern that his audience became deeply knowledgeable about, and John Oliver did the same with net neutrality. What can you say about these two examples?

Both of these examples took something that could not, on the surface, be more dull, boring and complex, and both of them took on the issue. I think for Colbert, it was more of like performance art and experimentation, whereas with John Oliver, he took on the issue of net neutrality — also as performance art, by urging Internet trolls to go to the SEC's website to criticize this idea. So both of them are sort of enacting experimentation and play, taking their content offline, and engaging in calls to action.  Colbert created his own super PAC and people could donate and get what were called the Super Fun Packs, which was a box full of random fun stuff from Stephen Colbert.

Now, what's important to me about both of these examples is that they were not designed from the start to push public opinion on the issue in a particular direction. What they were, rather, were opportunities to explore these issues that are really complicated, and do so in a way that is framed — they both have a point of view on these issues, and that point of view became more crystallized as they work through them. For Colbert especially, because his work on Citizens United lasted for months.

What he did through creating his own super PAC explored the limits of campaign finance, and he found that he could do whatever he wanted. As that became clearer to him, it became clearer to the audience, and the fact that he could do these things that seemed like money laundering and could get away with it, we as an audience are forced to ask ourselves, "Should he be able to do that?" And the answer is, "No." 

So that to me is such a rich example of how something like ironic satire can be used to bring an audience to a conclusion. Both of those shows ended up teaching their audiences a ton about those issues and engaged them in such a way that influenced their opinions on the issues. The Citizens United coverage made people more critical of that court decision, and the net neutrality piece actually caused people to become more supportive of net neutrality protections. 

My next pairing is Jon Stewart and Dave Chappelle. Both left their shows for similar but not identical reasons relating to the inherent limits of intention within satire. What were the reasons for each of them, and what lessons or conclusions we can draw?

Such a great point. I hadn't thought of that! So with Dave Chappelle, I think because what he was doing was using meta-racist humor to make fun of racist beliefs, I think he realized that in the wrong hands, those very messages were supporting the stereotypes he was seeking to unpack and critique. For him, I think once he heard white audience members laughing in kind of the wrong way, it told him that this particular tool is not the right tool to use to do what he was trying to do. I think that is what happened to him, that he felt uncomfortable with the possibility that he might be complicit, which I respect. 

Jon Stewart, when he decided to leave “The Daily Show,” which I think he had been doing since 1999 — that’s a long time to be making a show four days a week, and to be exposing and mocking the problematic aspects of our political media environment. What he told Trevor Noah, according to Noah, is that he was finding it difficult to do the show because he was angry, and it was hard to make jokes from a place of anger. That, to me, is illustrative of that broader point I try to make about how when a threat is salient to you, it becomes hard to enter the state of play, which is part of this explanatory mechanism I provide for how and why conservatives are less drawn to express themselves through humor than liberals.

Speaking of conservatives being more sensitive to threat and how that impacts satire, here's another pairing: Jon Stewart's response to 9/11 and Jimmy Kimmel's response to Republican attacks on pre-existing conditions by bringing up his own child. What do those examples have to tell us?

In both of these examples you have the satirist completely dropping the mask and exiting the state of play altogether, and speaking through their authentic voice. There is no play, there was no humorous juxtapositions for these two examples. In particular, I think what we are witnessing are issues that are really salient in their own personal lives.

So for Jon Stewart, 9/11 was not just a terrorist attack. It wasn’t a political event. It was his backyard. We’re talking about how the view out of his apartment window changed that day. Stewart has always been a New Yorker, and I think for him not acknowledging it for what it was and not speaking to you with his authentic voice would have felt disingenuous. It would have made it impossible for him to then put a pin in it, to be able to say, "But now my job is to make you laugh, so we’ll move there."

With Jimmy Kimmel, when Republicans were looking to restrict the ECA protections, Kimmel thinks of this directly in terms of the impact it would have on his son, who has a congenital heart issue, and says, "There are many children in this country who, because of the ACA, can get the care that they need," and thinking in his own mind, "If my son couldn't get this procedure done, he would not survive."

I don't think it's just about willingness. In social psychology we talk a lot about motivation and the ability to do things. I think it would be easy to say, "No, he doesn't want to deal with this playfully." I truly believe that sometimes issues hit home so hard, and tap into such a primal place of fear or anger, that we are not able to engage issues in a playful way. That's what happened with Kimmel.

Next, I want to ask about something your book tangentially highlighted for me — how MSNBC both is and is not the “Fox News of the left,” as it’s sometimes called. It is, in that it has liberal opinion shows that qualify as outrage. But it’s not because satire, not outrage, is the coherent, appropriate and politically effective means of informing and motivating liberal activism. So it's Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah and John Oliver who are more the “Fox News of the left” in that way.

One person who complicates that is Rachel Maddow, who does do outrage, but not like Keith Olbermann who was totally in that bucket with his “Worst Person in the World” segment, in particular. Instead, Maddow shares some similarities with ironic satire. She engages in self-deprecatory humor, for example, she checks and corrects her facts. When she has a guest on, she asks, "Did I get anything wrong?" She plays in the process of finding things out: Her "A-block" narratives tend to be winding journeys of exploration, with surprising twists and turns. The good guys and bad guys don't always line up uniformly, they have quirks. So she’s sort of a meta or hybrid figure. She does outrage programming, but in a way that's informed by irony. That's what occurred to me as I read your book, but you didn’t deal with her in depth.

A lot of people ask me how Rachel fits in, and I think she is a fascinating example, because on the surface, obviously, her show looks like outrage. Sarah Sobieraj [co-author of "The Outrage Industry"] classifies her show as "quiet outrage." But when you look at the actual content of her arguments — when you look, like you said, at these long, winding segments where she connects the dots, talks through things, revisits things, and says, "Well, this might mean this, but on the other hand, perhaps it also means that" — that does embody more of the spirit of ambiguity that would be more typical of the liberal audience member, and the liberal producer, than we tend to find on Fox News analysis shows.

So to put her in the same exact category as a Hannity or O'Reilly feels like it doesn't make sense. Because when I think about how she does her segments, in the book I describe it as almost like an incredulous professor working through things with her students, as opposed to, like, a fire-and-brimstone minister who is saying, "This is the way things are! Either this or you're going to hell!" To me that is substantively different in a way that is consistent with the underlying psychological component that we've talked about. And she is playful and funny. She can be very funny. So I think that's fascinating. She doesn't quite fit. 

Finally, I’d like to ask you: What's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

The most important question you didn’t ask is "Is this good or bad? And what do we do about it?" The answer is, I’m wrestling with this myself. You know, in the last chapter, I see the the symbiotic relationship between outrage and the psychology of social and cultural conservatism as really problematic. Because what it does is it renders the genre of outrage into a wonderful vehicle through which conservative elites can exploit the psychology of conservatives. These are our soldiers, our protectors, people in our society who are here to keep order and maintain peace, and I think this exploits what are really to be thought of as gifts.

The idea that you have people who are really well suited to making quick, effective decisions in a way that is consistent, that are oriented towards threat — these are people who will run into the fire. These are people who are so necessary for our society to survive and to thrive. And for those psychological traits to be exploited through these kinds of genres, in ways that mobilize them based on hate, I feel is dangerous for democratic health. 

And in terms of what we can do about it, my sense is that knowledge is power, No. 1. The more our media environment becomes fragmented, the more there are going to be efforts to curate and develop content that appeals to these tiny niche groups of people. But if we as consumers and users decide that we want to transcend those categories, we can. If we decide that we would like not to be put in a box anymore, we can. Based on collective action we can make that decision and transcend those kinds of categorizations.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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