The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park — there isn’t really room for a genuinely heroic or noble character in those worlds. A storyline can’t include Mother Teresa or a Medal of Honor recipient or Dr. Benjamin Carson working miracles with pediatric neurosurgery — unless, say, the protagonists had just claimed to be noble and virtuous, and the genuinely heroic figures appeared in order to make the protagonists appear pitiful by contrast. The true heroes of the real world aren’t particularly funny (that is, their heroic acts aren’t funny, however wry or witty the individuals may be personally), and recurring appearances of people of that sort in the worlds of The Simpsons, Family Guy, or South Park would suddenly make the protagonists’ flaws and foibles much less endearing. The Simpson family, the Griffins, and Stan and Kyle are about as good and moral folks as you’re going to find in their fictional universes.
And perhaps the world depicted by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Saturday Night Live is a “comedic Crapsack World.” If a public figure is not the butt of the jokes in a Saturday Night Live sketch, then either he is an innocent bystander (the reporter asking generic questions in a presidential-press-conference sketch) or he strikes the pose of the last sane man in an insane world (Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis in the 1988 debate sketch, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy”).
There are some folks on the left who see the Stewart-Colbert-SNL worldview as a threat, or at least competition, to the liberal worldview.
In a 2006 op-ed in the Boston Globe, Michael Kalin argued that Stewart’s constant mockery of the political world persuaded young people that no one in his right mind would seek to participate in it, much less see it as a way to make the world a better place.
Stewart’s daily dose of political parody characterized by asinine alliteration leads to a “’holier than art thou” attitude toward our national leaders. People who possess the wit, intelligence, and self-awareness of viewers of The Daily Show would never choose to enter the political fray full of “buffoons and idiots.” Content to remain perched atop their Olympian ivory towers, these bright leaders head straight for the private sector.
He was echoing an earlier complaint from Jedidiah Purdy, who is now an assistant professor at law at Duke University and an affiliated scholar at the liberal Center for American Progress. In 1999, Purdy wrote a book entitled For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today. As the New York Times’s Christopher Lehmann-Haupt summarizes his argument,
The ironic man, whom Purdy personifies as the sitcom character Jerry Seinfeld, “irony incarnate,” is an outright menace.
With his “style of speech and behavior that avoids all appearance of naïveté — of naïve devotion, belief, or hope,” the individual armored in the irony so prevalent among young people today has withdrawn from the political arena just when it needs him most.
Of course, to be a political true believer, you need a certain amount of naïveté, or at least an ability to overlook the practice of politics throughout human history, with its self-interested deals, special favors for donors, rank hypocrisy, megalomania, banging the interns, and so on.