The socio-political atmosphere we live in is wrought with division, polarity, distrust of the media and politicians, distrust of corporations, alternative facts and a lot of misinformation. News outlets like The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune and The Huffington Post have argued that satire is dead.
This sentiment implies that the absurdity of our current political and social climate has become so confused that people have difficulty deciphering reality from satire. According to ABC News, media outlets like The Onion—which publishes satirical faux news articles with absurd headlines—often gets mistaken for a viable news source.
Relaying important facts in an accessible way is something that many mainstream news outlets often fail to do. Luckily, America has an unlikely savior: comedy.
Jon Stewart, host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central from 1999-2015, says hosts like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and himself are able to provide unbiased and factual information because their intent is not to push an ideologically-backed agenda but to target and expose the absurdities of politics, entertainment, society and organizations around the world. Stewart was even named by Time magazine “The Most Trusted Man in America” in 2009.
Comedy informing the public and exposing truths is nothing new.
A Politifact study in January 2015 showed that statements made by pundits or hosts of the mainstream media news outlets varied across the board on a scale of how true the statements were. Fox News ranked lower than CNN and MSNBC with more than 60 percent of claims made on air being “mostly false or worse.” The statistics suggest that although one entity’s job is to provide objective facts while the other is meant to entertain, the information from real news and journalism organizations is somehow less factual than the jokes.
My argument is not that shows like these should replace, or be held to a higher standard than mainstream media, but they are important to our democracy. Sophia McClennen, a professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Penn State, said in a 2012 interview with phys.org, “I think what’s happening is younger viewers are tuning into the Colbert Report, and then after the show they are going out and actively looking into the issues.”
British comedian and filmmaker Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy series which premiered this summer on Showtime, strives to answer the question, “Who is America?” Using mock interviews and elaborate character disguises, Cohen goes undercover to expose the reality of what real Americans believe and what they will do or say when they think they are among friends. Cohen uses his multiple characters to convince celebrities, politicians, activists and CEOs to show their true colors and what is the underbelly of American ideals.
Another late night host, John Oliver, provides insight into the real issues plaguing America today. One of the greatest moments on the show was an episode earlier this year in which Oliver describes the strong opposition Vice President Mike Pence has expressed towards members of the LGBTQ society, going as far as funding organizations that support conversion therapy, also known as shock therapy.
At the end of the show, Oliver announces the publication of a new children’s book spoofing the one Mike Pence’s daughter had written about the Vice President’s bunny, Marlon Bundo, which John Oliver admits “is an objectively good name for a bunny.”
Informed comedy achieves factors of both entertainment and journalism. Satire is a poignant way of approaching taboo subjects. When people view something and can laugh at it, it also asks viewers to critically analyze the information. In this way, comedy shows that can balance these two factors open the stage for further discussion surrounding important issues.