Comedic shows broaden reach of journalism

Are comedy and journalism mutually exclusive? In today’s society, where many people get much of their news through the likes of comedians such as John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher and Trevor Noah, such a question seems more pertinent than ever. Are such viewers flocking to these larger-than-life characters to catch up on the news or for just for a hearty chuckle?

Perhaps it’s for both reasons. Current sources of news range from CNN to Buzzfeed. In the same way, comedians can offer a unique take on news by presenting an entertaining spin on more serious topics.

However, John Oliver does not agree. In a recent interview with NPR, the British comedian maintained that his show is not journalism, stating rather that “it is a comedy show” and “everything [they] do is in pursuit of comedy.”

While Oliver may disagree, late-night comedians have become a primary source of up-to-date information on current events for many viewers. As journalism continues to broaden and evolve as a genre, a comedic edge or goal should not disqualify a program from being considered journalistic. I believe journalism is expanding beyond the constraints of strictly objective reporting, and that this process will continue as news outlets diversify their reporting techniques.

By maintaining at least some degree of seriousness througout the program, comedy shows can serve as instruments for delivering news just as much as more traditional news broadcasts. Even though Oliver’s show is primarily aimed at comedy, his news segments are hardly one-dimensional. Well-researched and relevant, his segments make compelling points that provide his viewers with information about domistic and international events. Regardless of the way Oliver views his own show, “Last Week Tonight” may be more journalistic than he admits.

The same can be said, to varying degrees, about other comedy-news shows such as “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.” Maher’s show in particular deserves special attention for what it accomplishes.

After beginning the show with a monologue, Maher introduces a panel of prominent intellectuals, journalists and politicians, and facilitates a discussion of current political and social issues. Maher is a comedian at heart, and he never fails to push the envelope with his wisecracks. However, what is particularly impressive is the level of intellectual rigor and the diverse opinions that are expressed through a show that is clearly designed primarily as entertainment.

The same argument for Maher’s show can be applied to programs such as Stephen Colbert’s and Trevor Noah’s (though, in my opinion, Noah is less effective than his predecessor, Jon Stewart). Major media, whether it be the evening news or talk shows, has been geared at particular audiences for some time. The days of a select few media outlets dominating news output are long gone.

Accordingly, I argue that journalism should now include all venues through which people access news. By this definition, it is clear that comedic journalism should be considered “real journalism,” despite the approach. The style of news on shows like Oliver’s is simply geared more towards audiences who appreciate comedy, as other shows are geared towards people with different tastes.

The case for Bill Maher and his HBO show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” is a bit different. Again, the man is undoubtedly a comedian at heart, but that does not mean that he isn’t passionate about what’s going on in the world. In fact it is precisely the opposite. Maher is known for his progressive views and his edgy comedy. If you regularly watch his show, which primarily focuses on politics, you know he loves nothing more than dishing out zingers and making fun of Republicans, none more so than Donald Trump and Chris Christie. Though Maher is a stand-up comedian by training, no one should count him out as an intellectual who stands up for what he believes in and defends his views with passion and intelligence. His show regularly hosts prominent journalists, politicians, actors, athletes and public intellectuals. If Maher can hang with the likes of famous politicians and journalists in conversation and arguments, isn’t he more than simply a comedian?

The landscape of journalism is shifting under our feet, and reaching new audiences through new outlets. Each of these outlets brings their own focus and perspective on the events of the world, so why should we consider shows that have a strong element of comedy, or are even based on comedy, as different? I firmly maintain that “Real Time with Bill Maher” is a more rigorously intellectual and journalistic show than Buzzfeed is an online news outlet, no matter how many outlandish jokes Maher makes.

Owen Sandercox ’19 (sander2@stolaf.edu) is from Sandy Hook, Conn. He majors in economics and statistics.

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