Satirical media becomes America’s news normal
News media appeals to our need for certainty and factual information; satirical news often speaks to hard issues in an accessible and intriguing way, appealing not only to our need for facts, but also our emotions and sense of humor. ‘News comedy’ is the kind of term that seems like a complete paradox when someone first hears it. ‘News’ is seen as that old bastion of boredom where language is used to recount facts about far off places and people that have no direct impact on our lives. Comedy is built around the idea of eliciting incredulous laughter by presenting seemingly unreal situations. By its very definition, comedy’s objective is to entertain as opposed to inform.It twists the truth to suit a narrative purpose. And yet, in today’s America, these two ideas make for strangely compatible bedfellows. Some of the most watched shows today — like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the now concluded Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and the newer Daily Show with Trevor Noah — are built around this news comedy format.
The assumption has always been that these shows are about entertainment, and that their stars aren’t anchors so much as comedians. They can offer a humorous take on a conversation, but can they actually steer the conversation? Oliver, after six months of staying away from Donald Trump, dedicated an entire twenty minutes to lampooning Trump and his ludicrous policy positions in an episode of Last Week Tonight. The interesting part is that for the first time this campaign season, the attacks on Trump seemed to stick. One of the gags involved rebranding Donald Trump as Donald Drumpf, the original last name of his German ancestors. To date, Last Week Tonight has sold more than 35,000 ‘Make Donald Drumpf Again’ hats, and their ‘Drumpfinator’ Chrome extension has been downloaded more than 433,000 times. In this case, Oliver didn’t just offer a take on the Trump conversation; he changed it. Out of everyone in the world, including rival political campaigners and ‘serious’ news anchors, the one person that was able to hit the Republican presidential frontrunner was a comedian.
This anecdote makes for an interesting commentary on the relationship between modern media and society. When it comes to the news, we’ve come to trust guys like Oliver and Stewart, whose stated objective is to entertain, much more than traditional outlets whose stated objective is to inform.
One of the biggest reasons is that these shows tend to be less stiff and self conscious, and thus offer more incisive coverage of the news. This might be in the pursuit of humor or it might be because they aren’t as obligated to appear unbiased as traditional broadcasts. Stewart, for example, was always very open about the liberal bent of his show. By being open about his political leanings, no one could accuse him of favoritism when he eviscerated conservatives by asking tougher questions than most other television anchors could afford to. What’s more, if he ever went too far, he could laugh it all off as a joke. This format led to some hilarious and surprisingly illuminating interviews, such as one where he destroyed Jim Cramer for misrepresenting the collapse of 2008, and another in which he gets Bill Kristol to back-pedal on nearly every outrageous thing he has said in his own publications. Using humor as the velvet around the dagger, Stewart and his peers confront people head on to get to the facts behind the fiction.
Even more interesting though, is that these kinds of satirical news shows have actually been found to report the facts more thoroughly than traditional media. Ten years ago, when the satirical news idea was relatively nascent, surveys found that Daily Show viewers had higher knowledge levels of national and international affairs than even readers of prestigious publications like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Major media houses such as CNN and Fox News were much further down the list. This implies that these satirical news shows, whose stated objective is to entertain as opposed to inform, are actually better even at informing the public than traditional media.
Finally, unique as it may seem, the use of satire to humanize the news isn’t without precedent in America. A hundred years ago, Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde entertained and informed the American people by brazenly poking fun at the government in ways that more mainstream media simply couldn’t afford to. Humor, just like it does now, sweetened the bitter facts and made them easier to swallow.
Where is news comedy going next? Who knows. Are Stewart or any of his contemporaries akin to a modern Twain? While it is a stretch to make that comparison, there is the fact that both of them have filled the same need for American society. We’ll probably be better equipped to answer that question a couple of decades from now. In the meantime, sit back, relax, and with news comedy, enjoy the most entertaining and most informative source of news out there.
Perhaps one of the biggest cultural observations that separates these two media genres is the idea of irreverence. News media can be too caught up in being fair and balanced and honorable, and satirical news media has the exact opposite approach; comedians have the freedom to speak in colloquialisms, to appeal to not only the facts but to our emotions as readers and as citizens. In this way, satirical news media is more rhetorically active than news media; while hard news largely appeals to our sense of logic, satirical news can tackle difficult topics without holding any punches, and they can utilize both factual information as well as emotional appeals to our sense of irony and humor. This makes satirical news less austere and more approachable.