Some of television's best comedy is being presented from news desks.
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A Blessed Union?

Comedy and journalism tie the knot – and what it means for all of us

The marriage of comedy and journalism is relatively new. Hold your pitchforks: I don’t mean that satire is, by any means, a new concept. But the melding of the two worlds has confused and beleaguered journalists: the world of the flippant comedian, poking fun at anything and everything, and the world of the stone-faced, grim and objective (or so you are constantly told) journalist.

This unlikely union has managed to carve out a space right in the middle for itself, nestling somewhat comfortably within the confines of mainstream media. More and more, young people especially are looking to this middle ground for news.

Time and time again, we have heard of satirical political shows becoming the beacon of news for young people. A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center pointed out that 39 per cent of the Daily Show’s regular viewers were under 30. People under 30 make up only 23 per cent of the public.

Many news stories questioned where “young liberals” would get their news after Jon Stewart’s surprise retirement. The more important question is this: why are people looking to comedy shows for news?

This hybrid often falls under the category of satire, an ancient form of expression that seeks to speak truth to power. It pokes, prods and needles an authority figure, all the while aiming for laughs at the figurehead’s expense.

Sophia McClennen, a professor of Comparative Literature and International Affair at Penn State University, has written many books about satire. They include Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics with Remy Maisel, published in 2014.

“We don’t have any evidence of cave dwellings, or at least I don’t, but I’m sure there are cave paintings that are satirical,” says McClennen. “Because that’s what human beings do when someone who has power over them is acting like an idiot – that’s what human beings have always done.”

Laughs based in research

This kneejerk reaction to abuse of power is now anchored in investigative research. It has, somewhat unwillingly, becomes the palatable news source that young’uns have apparently been thirsting for.

Matt Riemann, a satirist and researcher on Late Night with Seth Meyers, believes this union can be approached in two ways. “You can hope that comedy changes something,” says Riemann. “Or you could have the more insular hope, or the more faithful one, where you think that you’ll puncture something contemporary that’s a problem or a malady or a dysfunction and bring attention to it.”

Ratings from shows like the Daily Show and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight prove that for some, comedy is making sense of the madness. Stewart’s farewell episode was watched by 3.5 million people. Oliver’s debut episode had 1.1 million viewers, and segments like the Miss America Pageant earned more than 18 million hits on YouTube.

Such detailed segments have some informative merit. A 2014 study by Bruce W. Hardy, a senior researcher at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, tested viewers of the Colbert Report segment on campaign financing against viewers of similar segments on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. The study found that viewers of the Colbert Report had a deeper understanding of the topic than those who followed more traditional news publications.

No cause for celebration yet, though. Political shows may give viewers a deeper understanding, but fail to provide them with all of the news of the day. The hosts don’t sit down and make jokes about everything in the news cycle. Instead they look at the most important stories and ask themselves: which one can we make the funniest jokes about?

Articles circled and crossed out in a newspaper.
Articles circled and crossed out in a newspaper.   Photo illustration by Dorsa Eslami

‘Boring’ news is ignored

Jon Stewart never covered the Minneapolis bridge collapse, nor has he talked at length about the Trans-Pacific Partnership – two issues that dominated the news cycle in their time. Those using Jon Stewart as their news source would then miss out on these topics.

In fact, he famously said on an episode that unless “TPP stands for Trump Presidential Project, I’m not that interested.”

It was too boring for him.

Ben Stubbs is a features journalist and journalism professor at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. He teaches a feature writing course in which he dedicates a whole week to satire. Stubbs believes satire is able to “say things that others aren’t brave enough, or don’t have the rope to be allowed to say.”

Stubbs argues that the lack of scope presented in comedy news shows isn’t exclusive to them. “If all you watch is Fox News, you’re getting a certain slant on things,” says Stubbs. “Yes, you get a narrower view by watching John Oliver, but it’s still a credible one.”

The question remains: how did comedy manage to weasel itself into the sphere of journalism? It comes back to the big O – objectivity.

John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and company all have one thing in common: they are first, and foremost, comedians. The research in their segments is necessary to be able to make fun of the people and issues they cover. The jokes are the butter they slather onto dry toast, and feed to millions. The draw is the butter, not the toast.

For journalists, whether you are an opinion writer or hard news reporter, you start with facts first. Comedians start with conclusions.

“The idea of traditional objective journalism is contorted to mean journalists never take sides, and that’s not what objectivity was meant to be,” says Kevin Lerner, Assistant Professor of Communications and Journalism at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. “Objectivity was meant to be going in with an open mind.”

Lerner believes that because traditional journalism holds back its conclusions, the relationship between comedy and news has had space to flourish and earn loyal viewership.

Comedy also makes the news easier to swallow: it masks the bitterness with a spoonful of sugar. It goes down easier. A satirist’s intent isn’t to be the people’s source of news.

The starting point

Emma Overton, an editor at the Beaverton, a prominent satire publication in Canada, hopes that people don’t stop at the jokes. The jokes, she says, are the starting point – the enticement people need to further pursue their curiosity.

She believes dwindling attention spans are the force leading viewers and readers to alternative voices for news. “It feels in some ways like people are less interested in reading long-form journalism or watching a full news broadcast,” says Overton. “We’re all very used to the instant gratification of something like Instagram or Twitter.”

Comedy provides gratification and lures its consumer onto the couch, keeping them rapt for hour-long shows. These shows are filled with research and information, trapping the viewer into learning about the news in a world where the news is often overwhelming. It cuts through the seriousness to invite in a wider viewership. And it does all of this with a joke and a smirk.

In an age of an ever-changing media landscape, journalists and publications are forced to adapt: be it to the rise of the Internet and alternative publications, or to shorter attention spans, or to learning how to make money in a world ruled by quick clicks on a device.

Through all of this, comedy slunk its way in, biding its time, to become a force in our media landscape. It provides the power of laughter to those who need it.

Turns out, a lot of people need a laugh right now.

Intentional or not, Oliver and his kin have become the pseudo-journalists that young people look to for the news. Still, Oliver said it best when asked by David Carr of the New York Times if he considered himself a journalist:

“We are making jokes about the news, and sometimes we need to research things deeply to understand them, but it’s always in service of a joke. If you make jokes about animals, that does not make you a zoologist. We certainly hold ourselves to a high standard and fact-check everything, but the correct term for what we do is ‘comedy’.”