Why Poking Fun At The News Doesn't Hit As Hard Now
Poking fun at the news of the day goes back to at least the original celebrity roast comics, Mark Twain and Will Rogers. “The only difference between death and taxes,” cracked Rogers, “is that death doesn't get worse every time Congress meets.”*
*(Repeated with slight modifications by Carson, 1967; Leno, 1997, 2003, 2008; Fallon, 2019)
But pretending to report the news as comedy? That’s a more recent phenomenon, and one that has followed a strangely influential trajectory over the past forty years or so. While shows like the BBC’s That Was The Week That Was were prodding the Prime Minister in the 1960s, comedy news really caught fire when Saturday Night Live began to parody TV news excesses on Weekend Update.
The Onion picked up the baton, mimicking journalism so well that it was often mistaken for actual news. Despite its series of best-selling books and award-winning satire, seemingly smart people have consistently mistaken The Onion’s humorous headlines for the real thing.
Yes, China’s state newspaper, People’s Daily Online, really did pick up an Onion story proclaiming North Korea’s Kim Jung-un as “The Sexiest Man Alive.” As in, repeated the story as actual, honest-to-goodness news. But it’s not just foreigners who don’t understand Americans’ subversive sense of humor. Even the venerable New York Times reported a fake Onion story about Barack Obama being featured in teen fan mag Tiger Beat. (NYT ended up apologizing for the goof.)
The Onion actually causes confusion on both sides of the comedy news street. In the mid-2000s, a popular subreddit called r/NotTheOnion launched as a repository for bizarre or seemingly satirical headlines that were, sadly, all too real.
"What If We Pretend We Are Them?"
From mocking the news to being mistaken for the news, the next step in the ascension of comedy news was The Daily Show, which set out to mimic the proliferation of cable news outlets.
“What if we pretend we are them? And the more serious we act, the absolutely more ridiculous we can be? We can satirize the news industry along with the news,” remembers co-creator Madeleine Smithberg of the show’s original incarnation. (Bonus points if you watched during the Craig Kilbourn days.)
The formula really took hold when Jon Stewart took over as host. The show leaned into its role as Big Media Funhouse Mirror and then a silly thing happened:
Comedy news actually became the news.
Or at least that’s the way many of us treated the ridiculous reports coming out of Comedy Central. In a world where cable and network news increasingly seemed to be trumpeting someone’s agenda, The Daily Show presented itself as a fiercely antagonistic bullhorn that voiced our collective outrage at both big media and big government.
By 2014, a full 12% of Americans named The Daily Show as the place where they got their news, according to the Pew Research Center. Twelve percent may not seem like an overwhelming number until you consider that put The Daily Show right there with actual national news sources like USA Today (12%) and The Huffington Post (13%).
Were we really trusting a comedian to deliver journalism? Heck yes, we were. Back in the Daily Show’s heyday, Americans named comedian Stewart #4 on their list of “most admired journalists.” As our nation’s source of relevant information on daily events, Stewart was practically tied with Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Anderson Cooper, and pre-memory-lapse Brian Williams.
Stewart wasn’t all that comfortable with the mantle -- he always reminded people he was a comedian, not a journalist. But his coverage of stories ranging from the 2000 election to the Iraq War to care for 9/11 first responders made many Americans feel like Stewart was the only one giving us the straight dope.
Preaching to the choir
But just as comedy news found itself more influential than comedy probably should be, another funny thing happened: It suddenly and assuredly lost its bite. When was the last time you saw a news story about a comedian being America's source for news? (Hint: It was likely before Stewart left cable TV to take care of wayward farm animals.) What happened? Let’s look at three factors:
1. Jon Stewart left.
One problem with being a ginormous success is that it creates a virtually impossible situation for whoever follows. Amirite, Trevor Noah? For the most part, critics are kind to Stewart’s Daily Show successor, especially after Noah developed his own voice. But there’s little question that the show’s influence has taken a hit with Noah at the helm.
Comedy Central had to know it was in for a ratings smack after Stewart’s departure. But Noah’s Daily Show dropped a whopping 40% from Stewart’s days, a steep decline even if you factor in the general drop in cable viewership. Comedy Central claimed all was cool since Noah appeals more to millennials, but he was down 40% among the 18- to 34-year-olds as well. Cut your audience in half and you cut your influence as well.
But Jon Stewart is back, you say? Well, sort of. The problem with The Problem With Jon Stewart is two-fold: 1) It’s on Apple+, a streamer that trails Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime among online subscribers; and 2) The show only airs twice a month. Sure, that gives Stewart more time to dive deep into timely topics, but it blunts his ability to react to current events as they happen. Expect some Stewart clips on your social timelines, but not like ten years ago.
2. Trump happened.
This isn’t a conservative/liberal thing -- this is about Trump changing the comedy game. How does a fake news show survive in the era of everything being labeled fake news?
During Trump’s presidency, the consistent tweets and impromptu news conferences meant the news cycle could (and did!) shift in a matter of minutes. “We’ve had to learn to just embrace that instead of running from it,” says Noah. “We know full well at 5 p.m. we’ll have to throw away half the show. We embrace the chaos.”
A common complaint among comedians was that Trump’s administration was so unpredictable and outside of what we consider to be “governing as usual” that exaggerating his Presidency for the purposes of satire was nearly impossible. Comic exaggeration about Trump policies also seemed … plausible? “People say it writes itself — the worst kind of comedy,” says John Oliver of HBO’s Last Week Tonight. “As a human being and a comedian, I cannot wait for this to be over.”
3. Comedy news broke into a million pieces.
But Trump is gone (is he gone?) -- so shouldn’t comedy news be on the rebound?
To be clear, there’s more comedy news than ever, largely due to last decade’s Daily Show success. The Stewart version of the show basically exploded into a number of smaller asteroids, including Noah’s Daily Show continuation, Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, and Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal. Former Daily Show correspondent Michael Che brought some of that show’s sensibility to SNL’s Weekend Update.
Then add Seth Meyers's “Closer Look” segments, Colbert’s overtly political Late Show, and Stewart’s The Problem With. Greg Gutfeld’s Gutfeld! is outperforming most of the late-night crowd with its conservative take on funny news.
And that isn’t counting all the comedy news shows that premiered after Stewart left but haven’t survived (many featuring Daily Show alums): The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, The Opposition With Jordan Klepper, Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, and The Break With Michelle Wolf.
Can you see the problem here? At Stewart’s peak, the only comedy TV news competing for our attention was SNL and the Colbert Report (which was basically an extension of the Daily Show).
Now, comedy news has splintered -- perhaps as funny as ever (though that’s debatable), but undeniably less impactful since no one show has captured the zeitgeist.
And while the progressive Stewart often took aim at liberal icons like Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, comedy news now is guilty of the same sins as the cable news networks that The Daily Show was satirizing, presenting a view that only reinforces the political views of its chosen audience.
Somehow, we have created comedy echo chambers.
“We do have an understanding that we are preaching to the choir,” admits Samantha Bee. “We are speaking to our audience, a very specific audience and an audience that we love. And we don't sit around and imagine that our stories are going to change the minds of people who are very resistant to watching the show or hearing what our perspective would be.”
We’re not going to proclaim that comedy news is dead. There will be another Onion or Daily Show at some point, a comedy news vehicle that makes us look at the news in a fresh way. But could it hurry up and get here already?
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Top image: Viacom CBS