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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
Strange Bedfellows by Russell L. Peterson 
22nd-May-2008 11:05 pm
Peterson, Russell L. Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
          Summary: In this scholarly monograph, Russell L. Peterson traces the history and development of late-night political comedy from Johnny Carson to Stephen Colbert. He argues that this political comedy is dependent upon both the mainstream news and the conditions of American democracy--and that, moreover, much of it (Letterman, Leno, O'Brien, et al.) might be better characterized as "anti-political" in its total cynicism. He believes that the best political comedy is of the sort that jokes in order to point out wrongs and prod us in the right direction.
          Comments: It just so happens that I had just finished writing up two short papers for my "Methods in Interpreting Popular Culture" class about The Daily Show with Jon Stewart of which I was intensely proud when I saw a review of this book. In them, I argued, among other things, that the show's alliance to philosophical postmodernism is much exaggerated because its performance of the news doesn't just make genre codes transparent--it also acts as a critique of the failures of the news to report the news in a way that cultivates an informed citizenry. This, in turn, assumes that there is a "more perfect nation" out there somewhere to be had, and that (at its base pedestrian) belief in an ideal form of democracy is definitely not a postmodern position.
          So imagine my delight--and chagrin!--when I realized that Russell had independently arrived at the same conclusions that I did about Stewart and Colbert. In the book that was the logical end product of his doctoral dissertation! It sure makes me feel vindicated in my beliefs, but I sure do hope my professor doesn't read this book and think I plagiarized him. Even some of the phrases he uses to talk about satire are quite similar to what I recall having written. Naturally, I think Peterson makes some brilliant observations, such as, for example: "Genuine political satire, like good investigative journalism, can function as democracy's feedback loop. It can illuminate injustices, point out hypocrisy, and tell us when our government is not living up to its ideals, thereby raising the awareness that is the first step toward alleviating any of these problems. Real satire--such as Colbert's excoriation of the press and the president--sounds the alarm: something is wrong, people must be held to account, things must be made right" (19). Smart and sensible. My kind of academic.
          Peterson's book is a tour de force on so many different levels. First of all, it's readable and witty...not what you'd expect from a university press at all. It's also informative, yet the exhaustive history of late-night political comedy provided did not feel burdensome in its scope. I was even impressed by how far back into American history the text reaches; who would have thought that the Civil War era had its own Stephen Colbert??? That surprised me. Anyway, this book feels like especially apt reading material for disaffected twenty-somethings, and I highly recommend it to anyone who occasionally gets their news from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.
          Notes: hardcover, 1st edition
          Rating: 8/10 - The author's experience in comedy means that he lucked out on a super-topical dissertation topic. All the better for both him and for us.
24th-May-2008 11:59 pm (UTC)
Russ Peterson is a graduate of my PhD program and I'm really pleased you enjoyed the book (I've read the first few chapters and am looking forward to sitting down with the rest of it this summer.)

And, I too, once wrote a paper about The Daily Show with similar claims as Russ *sigh*. He makes it look so easy but we all know it is so damn hard to write for a popular and academic audience at the same time.
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