Laughing Through The Pain

By Nora Shepard

Political comedians like Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert have flourished in the Trump era. The witty writing coupled with the comedians’ impeccable execution have led to their recent monumental success. Audiences are turning to late night television for a recap of the day’s events, and they are up for the challenge, especially because politically vocal comedians have seen their ratings soar. These shows make us laugh, sure, but it would be a mistake to label them as pure comedy. In fact, despite the fact that they insist they are not reporters, those like John Oliver have seamlessly adopted the role of investigative journalist.

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Comedy has a funny way of connecting with people on a deeper level. When done well, it captures someone’s attention — and keeps it. Comedy coupled with well-researched facts turns a topical joke into a timeless one. When a joke is not backed by fact, it disintegrates from memory. John Oliver’s Sunday night special on HBO and Seth Meyer’s signature segment “A Closer Look” are both excellent examples of how comedy and research can be the unexpectedly perfect couple. In “A Closer Look,” Meyers analyzes the day, breaking down a complicated current event into biteable pieces. Oliver always tackles a monumental issue — two weeks ago, he discussed net neutrality. The comedians have their own unique way of making a topic relatable. Rather than try to mitigate the controversy associated with these topics, they lean into it, making it essential to the comedic aspect.

“Investigative journalism” is when reporters examine a single topic of interest, and Oliver and Meyers do exactly this. Oliver has become known for a particularly extreme attention to detail, exposing minute, obscure details of complex issues; he often goes so far as to send his team to investigate topics at their source. In his most recent episode about dialysis treatment, Oliver’s team visited treatment centers around New York to learn about whether the distributors were misleading their patients — Oliver may call this comedy, but it sounds very much like 90% objective journalism, sprinkled with jokes in-between.

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What does it mean to our country that our comedians, once only sources of cheap laughs, are now adopting the role of critical journalists?

Traditional reporting is being challenged by these comedians, no doubt. During the Watergate scandal, it was newspapers, not comedians, who exposed and brought down Nixon for his crimes. During the Trump era, however, it’s the Hosts of the Late Night round table who are holding our president accountable for his conduct. This new climate is not necessarily a good thing. We don’t hold comedians to the same standard that we expect journalists to adhere to. We don’t require transparency, we don’t ask to see their sources, and we don’t expect objectivity. If something is later found to be false, they have their comedic label to fall back on as a crutch because they aren’t technically journalists. On the other hand, not being expected to adhere to neutrality can be a positive. Traditional journalists are wary of expressing any opinion in an effort to seem neutral — this has led journalists to paint undeserved credibility across extremist, fringe opinions in an effort to seem unbiased. Comedians, on the other hand, build stronger arguments by confidently articulating their fact-based opinions and calling the other side out for its B.S.

Their increased ratings indicate that, at the very least, we’re listening to what they’re saying. There aren’t any studies yet about where people are getting their news in the months since this past election, but we’ve observed an increased trend since 2004 in people getting their news from late night show hosts. We trust them to tell us the truth, even though they are not officially trained in the field. While it feels slightly disingenuous and perhaps irresponsible for those like Oliver not to admit that they are acting the role, it also feels like it’s providing a service by providing us with a fresh, engaging take on the news.

There’s not exactly a blueprint for this sort of thing, but we can look toward history for examples of how this sort of shift has affected other eras. During the fall of Soviet Russia, for example, it was writers, journalists, and artists who led the revolution. Alexis de Tocqueville said that these people “help to create that general awareness of dissatisfaction, that solidified public opinion, which…creates effective demand for revolutionary change.” During this time, comedians flourished, like Yakov Smirnoff, whose career skyrocketed during the hard times of the Cold War. Comedians remind us to laugh during the dark times, with Smirnoff saying, “I was the aspirin for the headache Americans got from the Russians.” Comedians, free from the pressures of journalism, take on the role of informing, calming, and uniting the masses when the government becomes increasingly controlling. People are drawn to late night television because of its informative candor, and perhaps increasing expectations would limit their ability to be frank. But what does it mean that our comedians are more effectively covering the news than journalists? Should we demand more of our comedians…or of our journalists? Or, is this a sign that our own government is heading down a path that history has clearly shown leads toward tyrants and totalitarianism?

Nora Shepard is the content manager at NewFounders, a coalition of leaders seeking to use innonvation to reconnect people and politics.