Why So Serious? Time for Satire to Replace the News

If viewers have stopped taking their newscasts seriously, why not laugh all the way to the bank?

Moses P. Siluk

As usual, you – the readers – have a built-in advantage over me. When – and I’m not adding an “if” here, because it’s happening right now – you read these words, election day will have already receded into the past, and you know by now who carried the day and who had to be carried away. Following an election campaign in which all parties promised their voters a “change,” I do find some consolation – being as yet an ignoramus in the land of false hopes – in the French epigram that tells us: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la mme chose,” usually translated as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

It is worthwhile here to give credit where it’s due. The epigram was coined about 166 years ago, in 1849, by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, the editor of Le Figaro, in a satirical monthly he founded, Les Gupes – The Wasps – which reminds us that while satire intends to make us laugh, it does so mainly to disarm our outrage when we feel its keen sting.

Why do I carry on about satire here, when this has been an election week and this is the first post-election weekend, and the matters we went to the polls to vote on are supposedly dead serious? Wasn’t our vote supposed to have, potentially, enough weight to swing the results one way or the other, with each side confident that their way means life, while their opponents spell death?

Mainly because for some time now, it seems that our daily agenda of “things that do matter,” and the tenor of the arguments about them, is being set more by satirical shows than by newscasts. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the live election-day newscasts of all three news channels (10, 11, 22), which were advertised outright as being co-anchored by a “serious” newsperson (Tamar Ish Shalom on 10, Yaakov Eylon on 11, Yonit Levy on 22) and their satirical in-house sidekicks (Lior Schleien of “Gav HaUma” on 10, Ilan Peled and Yael Poliakov on 11, and Eyal Kitzis and his “Wonderful Country” team on 22).

Fun, news and money

This development is a new one: Never before have we accepted with such equanimity the fact that “real” news about the present and future of our life, well-being and death is being divulged and mocked in almost the same breath. This is not the result of a conspiracy by the powers that be to disarm us with laughter in order to make us accept the bitter truths of reality. It is merely a result of cold calculation: Satirical programs on all channels get high ratings. The ratings are what matters, as they decide the price of commercial time slots. If satire shows get higher ratings than newscasts, why not combine the two and laugh all the way to the bank? Let’s tell them that the price of a chocolate-flavored yogurt in Berlin is cheaper than in Israel (news), and in the same breath poke fun at those who are ready to relocate based solely on that (satire), and in between sell a time slot to the producers of such a yogurt (commercial). We kill three birds with one stone, and we make fun, news and money while we are at it.

When one tries to understand how this happened – and not only here and now; think of Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert – the reason is the demise of what was once the mainstay of news broadcasts since their beginning: seriousness. Newscasts insist they are meaningful, impartial, trustworthy – in a word, “serious” – while their viewers encounter a reality that on every side strikes them as meaningless. At the same time, the viewers are told by politicians on all sides that the newscasts are surreptitiously taking sides, while purporting not to. All this has led to an erosion of trust in the news anchor. In other words, viewers have stopped taking their newscasts seriously.

At a time when the shifting sands of opinion create an atmosphere in which nothing is as it seems, with war becoming peace in a minute, and doom being imminent and yet nothing dramatic happens, the chief asset of satirical TV programs is that they at least do not take themselves seriously. The people who write, edit, produce and perform them – an incredibly vast, varied and multi-talented cast – have only one agenda: not to be serious about anything, least of all themselves. They will do anything for a laugh. And they will laugh about anything, even things that are no laughing matter (and that includes life, death, religion and anything that can make anyone angry).

To mention just two examples: “Wonderful Country,” the veteran weekly satire show, produces skits and songs, and has launched quite a few comic characters who subsequently got another lease on life in ad campaigns. Yet its main arena is a newscast studio, with Eyal Kitzis as a seemingly straight anchor, and Alma Zak his female co-anchor, who reads wildly grotesque “news” items that sound eerily like the real thing.

There is also “Gav HaUma” – literally, “The Back of the Nation,” a takeoff on its original title, “The State of the Nation,” the change necessitated by the show’s abrupt move from channel 2 to 10. It is hosted by Lior Schleien, who chairs a panel of comics – wits Orna Banai, Einav Galili and Guri Alfi. In the leadup to the elections, each week the program hosted a politician who traded quips with the panel, trying to outwit them. The point was to show viewers that the politician is ready to take it on the chin, but not lose in tongue -in-cheek. That allows all sides to be much blunter, in a way, more “serious.” More hidden agendas are brought into the open, and yet at the same time all sides behave like they do not really mean to sting so deep and stir such pain and anger. For a moment, the would-be villains pose as clowns, endearing themselves to us. Not for nothing was much of the recent electoral campaign conducted by viral quasi-comical video clips online. All behave like they are there for fun and laughs, and forget that “one may smile, and smile and be a villain.”

So, seriously, about the elections: Did you have any fun? If you did, good for you. And if you did not? Aw, come on, don’t take yourself so seriously.