Satire and Politics in the Classroom

July 20, 2017

More than entertainment: Political satire an increasingly common news source

It’s not often that political science undergraduate students attend a class given by a panel of six writers, editors and actors from a top Canadian comedy show and website. But, in a packed classroom at the Bahen Centre recently, the team behind The Beaverton, a weekly satirical news show and website founded by U of T English graduate Laurent Noonan, revealed the inner machinations of producing political satire and its role in a world where young people are increasingly getting their political information from satirical media outlets.

They were invited by political science PhD candidate Erica Petkov, who has created the department’s newest course, Humour and Politics which examines how humour and politics intersect and the increasing influence of satirists on the policy process in many countries. In touch with The Beaverton’s Alex Huntley during the course of her PhD research, Petkov thought there could be no better way for her students to learn about political satire than directly from its very creators and practitioners.

Emma Overton, The Beaverton’s Montreal Editor, who spoke at the event said that “a course on political satire opens up discussion on some great questions like: what is the difference between satire and fake news? What is the purpose of satire?” So many people, especially young people, get their news from humorous or satirical news sources. “So many people, especially young people, get their news from humorous or satirical news sources these days. It’s important to examine the reasons for this and the effects it has on society. There are multiple examples of satire throughout history worth studying that have changed the public’s relationship to media, art and pop culture. Satire at its best is an incredible device for both igniting curiosity as well as illuminating truth. The more people appreciate that, the better.”

For Petkov, Humour and Politics is the first syllabus she has designed and taught and she was delighted how quickly the course filled up. “It’s becoming more widely recognised that political satire is not merely entertainment but that it’s an increasingly common way for people to get their news. A large number of millennials say that the only news they get is from shows such as The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. The realization that political satire does in fact have serious political implications can be seen in many examples over the past several years where it can actually spur people to political action, both here in North America and around the world.”

Jasper Nolos, a student who attended the class and is an ‘avid consumer of political satire’ can’t think of a better way to spend the summer than learning how to think more critically about what political satirists are really saying and how it might contribute to political discourse. “There seems to be an alarming sense of ‘change’ in politics, with a lot of criticism that the absurd is becoming the norm,” said Nolos. “I’ve found it interesting that the role of traditional news media in this political climate has taken a back seat to being the ‘beacons of objective truth’ to political satire; especially in that the political commentary provided by satire has been tantamount to keeping the absurdity of certain and many events on the political stage forefront in our minds, maintaining an urgency for viewers and consumers to continue to question what’s happening politically and not just accept things as being ‘the usual’”. Fellow student Keesha Singh says taking the class is one of the best decisions she has made. “The course has allowed me to look at politics through a more analytical, critical lens.”

Post PhD, Petkov is hoping to pursue an academic career and teach this course into the future. “Most of the research in this area is American so hopefully I can add value by shedding more light on the Canadian context which is hard to separate from the American one because we are so much in their cultural shadow.”

She hopes the course helps her students garner a deeper appreciation and understanding of the world of political comedy and its ever-growing significance. “What does the increasing prominence of satire say about our society? What does it say about our trust in politicians and the media and what is it reflective of in more traditional political science terms? Is it making people more cynical? It is making people withdraw from politics or is it spurring them to be more engaged? The syllabus is pretty rigorous and the questions we’ll address are many. Obviously I want them to enjoy the course and have fun but it is a serious topic.”

Photo: Erica Petkov

The original version of this article appeared in The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts & Science website.