Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The Daily Show. The Colbert Report. The Nightly Show.
Aside from all of these being late-night shows that specialise in political comedy, what do they have in common?
Well, for one thing, these shows seem to report news better than news channels themselves.
Before you dismiss my statement as an over-inflated opinion, let’s take a look at the statistics and the research, shall we? Interestingly, a 2008 study called “Political comedy shows and knowledge about primary campaigns: the moderating effects of age and education” says that during the 2004 U.S. election period, exposure to late-night political comedy, especially among younger and educated viewers, resulted in significant knowledge gain about candidates and issues.
In fact, let’s go a step further: according to a 2013 study (“What about those interviews? The Impact of Exposure to Political Comedy and Cable News on Factual Recall and Anticipated Political Expression”), individuals who watch political comedy are more likely to remember political information rather than those watching a similar interview on a traditional news channel.
Why though? Why is it that, at least on the surface, comedians seem to be doing a better job than shows dedicated to delivering news?
In a previous interview on Reddit, Larry Wilmore, the host of The Nightly Show, believes that the younger generation is turning to comedy programs instead of the news because “a lot of it has to do with authenticity. I think sometimes they feel like they don’t know if they can trust the actual news anymore”.
This may be fuelled by the way that news networks are not always seen as providing fair and balanced news coverage. For example, FOX is known for its anti-Muslim inflammatory rhetoric, while MSNBC’s Morning Joe hosts were recently caught on tape agreeing to Donald Trump’s request to “take it easy on him” with questions and to avoid discussing deportation. It’s events such as these that cause viewers to question the objectivity of news channels.
On the other hand, comedians have greater freedom, as they are not bound to the limitations of a news channel. They are free to make light of every political event and decision. For example, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver has “full creative freedom” and has criticised countless corporations in the past, such as FIFA.
Political comedy shows aren’t limited to just poking fun at politicians. As expected of any self-respecting news channel, they also carry out investigative journalism. Let’s take Last Week Tonight with John Oliver as an example. There are several great investigative segments, but I’ll settle with the televangelists segment, which aired on August 16, 2015.
Oliver’s show created a legitimate church, titled “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption”, asking viewers for “seed” (i.e. monetary donations) simply to demonstrate how easy it was to set up a religious organization in the U.S., and then be entitled to broad tax exemptions and little to no scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service. These actions mimicked those of pastors that prey on their vulnerable followers, asking for donations as a form of “seed faith”. While followers may believe that they are following their scripture, some organizations exploit these beliefs, promising untold riches, magical cures, and even removing credit card debt, when in reality, this is an extra source of revenue for themselves.
Following unsavoury donations (such as semen), Oliver chose to close down the church. While all of the proceeds (described by Oliver as “thousands of envelopes with thousands of dollars”) went to Doctors Without Borders, it goes to show that there are several unregulated and rarely audited predatory churches that prey on the vulnerable masses for their own monetary gain.
Was this just one lucky segment by one show? No, there are several more examples. The Colbert Report launched a political action committee titled “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” that raised over $1 million, releasing ad campaigns in the U.S. (including a very anti–Mitt Romney ad) and even funded Colbert’s plan (legally) to run for “President of the United States of South Carolina”. The purpose of the segment was to demonstrate the fact that corporations have the right to spend unlimited amounts in political ads to support or slander candidates running in elections—and boy, did they demonstrate that clearly.
Now, I’m not saying that news channels are utterly worthless. I still turn to BBC and Al Jazeera when I need to hear the latest on an unfolding event—I won’t be waiting for a comedian to water it down.
But at the same time, just to make sure that I’m getting the entire picture, I’ll also be taking my news with a strong dose of comedy, thank you very much.