The Growing Influence of Comedy and Satire

How mainstream comedy and satire outlets are harming news

3 AUGUST 2017,
Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart during an episode of The Daily Show
Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart during an episode of The Daily Show

Recently, Oliver Stones was a guest on Stephen Colbert’s talk-show to promote his new and controversial four hour documentary with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. From the beginning of the interview, Colbert needled Stones about his companionship with Putin, inviting the audience to condescendingly laugh before Stones had any chance to inform the audience and Colbert of his documentary. Consistently interrupted with sarcastic dismissals and audience jeers, Stones was visibly uncomfortable: sweating and hunkered into his lush leather seat. Ultimately, there was no reason for Stones to appear on the show. It only stunted his publicity and diffused the importance of his work. In positive light, he exposed the clear arrogance and absurd power comedy and satirist news platforms have gained over the years.

The fact that the audience humiliated a scholar—with an insightful project concerning world politics—to harmonize with the embarrassing disparagement of a comedic entertainer, reveals that a shift in information distribution has occurred…and not for the better.

More and more you hear people, especially of those in their mid-twenties to thirties, obtaining their news from comedy, satirical, and talk-show outfits. Some even go to the extent of preferring these mediums over traditional news platforms. The appeal is understandable: they make complicated information and analysis palatable, entertaining, and clear. They are always liberal leaning—if not explicitly, then implicitly through ironic caricatures of right leaning politicians. Generally, the actual reports and information spread in these platforms will lack substance and invite uneducated insight into the story. While they are good at informing the public, the arrogance and method of delivery distort reality.

In a recent study conducted by Comedy Central, a popular USA cable station, found that nearly 50% of all ‘millennials’ still garner most of their news from these programs. Over the last decade, there has been a significant increase in programs that primarily serve the news. Most are spin-offs of previous, more established programs. They are personalities that fare well in the ratings and have developed supporters.

There is certainly nothing new about satirical news and comedic news personalities. From Mark Twain to Jonathan Swift, from Voltaire to Jan Austin, many authors and writers have made it their life’s earning on criticizing and patronizing the government. But, while their work had been of great entertainment and value in the past, in recent times the public’s increasing distrust of serious news outlets has made the satirist and comedian a dominating force in information distribution.

So why and how have comedians been gaining this trust? Comedy breaks down the barriers of distrust and separation. A talented comedian can immediately manipulate their audience to the degree that only tales of sadness and pain can engineer. Laughter is a gesture of community and friendship. When you make someone laugh, you endear them to you. In the rhetoric of comedy one can subtly or overtly persuade an audience to accept and embrace one’s viewpoint, as long as it doesn’t radically oppose or insult their own. This is especially pertinent with politics, in which the significant portion of the public remains uninformed. Often, the public does not remain uninformed by fault. Most individuals have countless other tasks and jobs to perform, and the amount of time needed to seriously learn politics would make it impossible to do their work properly.

Most must rely on new outlets to adequately inform them of economy, politics, and other stories happening in the world and their community. Especially, in a democratic society, this is imperative if that government body has any possibility of functioning efficiently.

However, with this comes power. It is no secret that news outlets have their own agendas. While the purpose is to remain objective, the reality is that news sources curtail their reports to perpetuate a narrative that aligns to their beliefs.

This is no different with comedy and satire. In fact, it is even more explicit. While they encourage more people to remain interested in politics, they also continually threaten to manipulate the public by charisma and aesthetic appeal. These personalities are folks who may be very clever and have spent a great deal of time obtaining a more refined knowledge of politics. But in the end, they aren’t experts. Relying on their views are as dangerous as relying on your neighbour who spends all day researching blogs on the internet.

Knowledge comes from a pursuit of understanding. The immediacy of opinions and beliefs about complicated political realities cannot be condensed to a thirty second tirade delivered by an arrogant personality with a good sense of humor. While it is entertaining and good for updating you on the mainstream themes of the daily news, it cannot be relied upon as a quality source of information. It is there for enjoyment not for indoctrination.