A Politically Unbiased Report on the Satirization of “Jesus Freak” Sarah Palin and Her Hillbilly Family
Eric Shouse/East Carolina University

Bill Maher — A Politically Unbiased Product

“We at FlowTV are dedicated participants in the democratic process, and we hope to publish a politically unbiased product.”
–FlowTV’s Call for Papers about Sarah Palin1

I am sure the author of the previous quotation had only the best intentions. That little caveat probably cut the number of submissions with needlessly incendiary epitaphs like “Jesus Freak” and “Hillbilly” in half. I get it. Sincerely, I do. But here’s the thing. Many of the most interesting media treatments of Sarah Palin have been satires. And when it comes to satire, “politically unbiased products” actually harm the democratic process far more than they help it. Take a look at the following pseudo-satirical comedy, parsed from several popular late night comics, and regurgitated on The Today Show shortly after Sarah Palin’s appearance at the Republican National Convention.


Comedians Riff on The Republican National Convention

In retrospect, it is difficult to say which of the humorists featured in The Today Show review was most insightful. Was it Jimmy Kimmel, with his penetrating satire of Governor Palin’s convention speech? (“She promised a walrus in every igloo.”) What Alaskan Governor wouldn’t recoil at being taken down a couple of pegs by such a pointed jibe? Or maybe it was Conan O’Brien, who joked that Palin’s membership in the NRA “might explain why she is in favor of shotgun weddings.” Then, of course, there was Jay Leno’s observation about the potential Vice President’s penchant for hunting: “What could go wrong there?” Whatever one wants to call this type of mainstream humor, it is not political satire. Satire makes a serious political point. As Russell Peterson argued in Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke, “in spite of the fact that comedy about politics is now as common as crabgrass, political comedy—that is, genuine satire, which uses comedic means to advance serious critique—is so rare we might be tempted to conclude it is extinct.”2

Peterson suggested that authentic political satire almost never appears on network television because serious criticism of political candidates and their policies is bad for business. Fortunately, for those of us who enjoy the genuine article, cable comics regularly take political risks that network comedians (with their larger and less homogenous audiences) dare not. When cable comedy is “quoted” on network television its sharp corners are regularly and purposefully removed. Notice the way The Today Show edited the previous clips so that the only genuine satirists in the bunch—Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert—were entirely defanged. At the hands of The Today Show editors, Jon Stewart, in particular, was transformed from the astute political satirist he often is into the flailing monkey Tucker Carlson always wanted him to be.

Network television comedy demands a strange brand of objectivity. As Matt Lauer put it in his introduction to the clips, “the late night comics, just as they did last week with the Democrats and their convention, have had a field day with the Republican National Convention this week.” The Today Show recap of “convention comedy” is a vivid example of what happens when the journalistic ideal of objectivity is applied to satire. Rather than seriously questioning their policies, or even their personal integrity, mainstream humorists simply reduce all candidates, regardless party affiliations or policy positions, into unflattering caricatures of themselves:

The bottom line of all the jokes about Bush’s dumbness, Kerry’s dullness, Al Gore’s stiffness, Bob Dole’s “hey-you-kids-get-outta-my-yard” crankiness, [and Sarah Palin’s rustic, M.I.L.F.-ishness] . . . is that all politicians are created equal—equally unworthy that is—and that no matter who wins the election, the American people lose.3 By presenting the political processes as a choice between evils, the equal-opportunity offenders who dominate late night network television actively promote disengagement from the democratic process—a process they feign interest in for comedic purposes only.

Although genuine satire often includes some of the same personal attacks as mainstream late night humor, it goes beyond mere “caricature assassination.” Take, for example, the following exchange about Governor Palin’s candidacy on Real Time with Bill Maher:


Dan Savage, Scott McClellan, and Kerry Washington on Real Time with Bill Maher

After about three minutes of a fairly banal discussion about whether a woman with children is capable of serving as Vice President, we see the kind of satire usually verboten on network television. It begins with Kerry Washington calling on the panel to discuss the real issues.

Kerry Washington: Let’s talk policy. Because I do think that if the candidates have agreed that certain family stuff is supposed to be off the table, I respect that. So let’s not talk about this teenager [Bristol Palin]. Let’s talk about the fact that Governor Palin supports abstinence education. And I find that often when you don’t give adolescents full information to make informed decisions about their sexuality, sometimes adolescents wind up pregnant. So let’s talk about the issues.

Dan Savage: You know what else we need to talk about? That Sarah Palin opposes abortion. [She] thinks it should be illegal in all cases including rape and incest, and yet praised her own daughter for the decision she made to carry this baby to term.

Scott McClellan: That’s fine. Talk about the issues is fine, and that’s perfect, that’s fair game. We should leave the family, the kids, alone. That’s a family matter.

Bill Maher: But they brought the family into it.

Scott McClellan: You’re absolutely right. It’s news because she is pregnant, and her mother is in the spotlight. That’s why it’s news. But we should leave it a family, private matter.

Dan Savage: No, your guys have been politicizing the private conduct of American families for thirty years. You can’t spin on a dime now. You’ve been trying to micromanage people’s sex lives, when they have babies, who can have babies, who they can marry, when they can marry them.

Bill Maher is not the garden variety “equal-opportunity offender.” His program lacks even the facade of neutrality or objectivity, and that is what makes Maher occasionally palatable to this critic—despite his rampant, and self-admitted, sexism. No network comedian would ever end a monologue with the line, “You know who is putting country first? I am, by supporting Obama.” More importantly, no network executive would sanction the mixture of humor and serious political dialog that regularly takes place on Maher’s program.

As a whole, political satire tends to be far less “jokey” than the broad commentary that passes for satire on network television. Kerry Washington’s statement, “So let’s not talk about this teenager. Let’s talk about the fact that Governor Palin supports abstinence education,” was not even meant as a joke. However, judging from their howling laughter, the irony that Palin’s policy clearly failed in the case of her own daughter was too much for several members of Maher’s audience. Dan Savage pointed out the additional irony that Palin publicly praised her daughter for making a “choice” that the Governor would like to take away. These are not the kind of “moose jokes” that everyone, regardless of political affiliation, can potentially find humorous. They are serious critiques of Palin’s politics.

The highpoint of Maher’s program was Dan Savage’s refusal to let Scott McClellan take the issue of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy off the table (as Republican Party talking heads have attempted to do ever since the matter first arose). Bristol Palin’s pregnancy is not “a family, private matter,” as Savage so eloquently retorted, because the Republican Party has “been politicizing the private conduct of American families for thirty years.” One of the reasons satire is an important form of political discourse is that it can skewer hypocrisy like this, and hold politicians and pundits accountable for the personal implications of their publicly espoused opinions.

This kind of humor is only possible when comedians have the latitude not to try to play things down the middle. Genuine political satire takes sides, and rarely takes prisoners. It communicates the idea that our political choices matter because one candidate is superior to another. As a result, unlike the majority of mainstream “moose joke” humorists, genuine political satirists encourage us to participate in the democratic process. Satire can be unbiased or it can promote deliberative democracy. As Dan Savage might say—we can’t have it both ways.

Image Credits:
1. Bill Maher — A Politically Unbiased Product
2. Front page image

Author Bio:
Dr. Eric Shouse is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at East Carolina University. His teaching and research interests include rhetoric, cultural studies, and the role of humor in popular culture. He is currently working very hard thinking and writing about the proliferation of blasphemous humor in the digital age, whereas you have squandered your valuable time and energy reading his biography.

Please feel free to comment.

  1. See http://flowjournal.org/?p=1711 []
  2. Peterson, Russell. 2008. Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 8. []
  3. Peterson, 12. []


  • This is a really great essay. I have nothing else to add.

  • I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “satire,” and I feel as though you overvalue partisanship, in critical essays on Flow and in late-night comedy. Sure, the late-night network hosts’ political “humor” is tepid and centrist, but that doesn’t mean that most partisan humor (e.g. The Daily Show) isn’t repetitive, predictable, and equally tedious in its own way. Regarding the quote from Real Time w/ Bill Maher, I wouldn’t have known that it was intended to be (or received as) comedy unless you pointed out that the audience was howling with laughter. There’s a certain kind of critique that pervades Olbermann’s and Stewart’s shows – its definitely biased, arguably correct in its indictment of repubs, but I can’t say that I find either one particularly witty or funny. Not that satire has to be funny, but if its not, it comes off as self-congratulatory, one-sided, snark.

    My hunch is that The Daily Show is apt to make viewers more cynical, rather than encourage them to engage in the political process. That isn’t to say that I don’t know lots of people who are political engaged and love TDS, but that doesn’t mean that TDS causes them to be politically engaged. In fact, I’d argue that they’re political engaged in spite of the fact that they watch TDS.

    Maybe it would help to offer a point of comparison: The Onion. The humor occasionally points out the irony of politicians hypocritical stances, but just as often, it traffics in apolitical absurdism. I’m aware of the fact that some writers have worked at both TDS and The Onion, so I can’t explain the differences in humor in terms of the creators, and yet I feel as though there is a difference. Are they both satire? Are either one of them “good” in the sense that they point out heretofore undetected hypocrisy among our leaders and inform people of the issues or “bad” in the sense that they substitute cynical snark and detached irony for political engagement?

  • Eric:

    I really enjoyed the piece, the points you made, and the examples. Especially the example that now exists in negative space: “Comedians Riff on the Republican national convention.” Censorship (conscious, unconscious, commercial or for whatever reason) looks really good on the printed page. This time the censorship is polite as well. “We’re sorry, this video is no longer available.” I once saw an edition of fairy tales, including “Bah-Bah Blacksheep” and other classics, with lines and paragraphs blacked out. Boy, did that volume read dirty.

    You posted the blog on Oct 15, 2008, it says. And I was rushing to read it, looking forward to those video clips you were talking about, on approximately Oct 22. Within a week the YouTube gods had taken it down.

    Are there others besides myself who have gone through that frustration?

    And now a plug for fair use.

    That’s the doctrine (fairly well established and supported by now) that you can “quote” video imagery, the way you can quote words and paragraphs, to make a point. For a recent and highly readable explanations of that, see the work of legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, or Peter Jaszi, or Pamela Samuelson. There is a whole cottage industry of people who are knowledge and good at explailning the legal principle to teachers, filmmakers, culture critics, et al. For a good web site on it for film doc producers and anyone working as an on-line producer (as you were as a culture critic), the best place to go is the Center for Social Media site (www.centerforsocialmedia.org/fair use.

    Lessig says that the creative/transformative uses that appear daily from culture critics and just ordinary citizens–re-mixes and mash-ups–should be considered fair use. And so too should scholarly, teacher or culture critic mash-ups – even if its a 1-, 2- or 3-minute piece you are “mashing” into y our commentary or commenting upon.

    If enough of us do not lose our conviction and anger at “holes” in commentaries, like yours, and continue to make this point, AND if Google video or other video clip sources turn out to be smarter and more willing to take fair use seriously (Google has hired some legal talent recently that might give us some hope in this direction), we will maybe emerge from the “black hole” landscape that one small part (and one of your two examples) represents.

    But this is the sujbect for a FLOW Conference roundtable two years from now, and getting back to your piece–great article! I think your summary quote at the end made the point:

    “This kind of humor is only possible when comedians have the latitude not to try to play things down the middle. Genuine political satire takes sides, and rarely takes prisoners.” Inscribe that and put it on the wall.

    And I also enjoyed that little dastardly wit you placed in there for the reader who had the energy and gumption to read all the way through to the end of your credit line.

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