By Christian Stellakis
Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.”
– E. B. White
Unless you are the Scrooge or Grumpy Cat, you more than likely love to laugh, but you probably aren’t terribly interested in the exacting details of why some things are funny while others are not. In fact, such an in-depth analysis would almost inevitably rob any humor out of the joke in the first place. Like the ingredients in Chicken McNuggets, humor just isn’t something that is meant to be closely examined.
It is rather ironic, than, that recently comedy has developed an unlikely pairing with one of the most heavily scrutinized industries in the world: the news media. TV shows such as The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report have taken news media by storm, attracting legions of young people with their satirical news presentations and quick wit. In the coveted 18-49 age demographic, Stewart and Colbert lead the way with 80 percent and 74 percent of their total viewer demographic, respectively. The verdict is conclusive: youths today flock to news sources that offer more than just the dry facts. Young people want to be entertained as well as informed, and it is because of this reality that people like Stewart and Colbert have found so much success.
The question then becomes: is the unlikely pairing of comedy and news a positive advancement for the media, or will it cause more harm than good?
The answer is somewhat of a mixed bag. The Daily Show, and other programs like it, have a relatively simple formula: they take the issues that so many people believe are serious and important, and they make fun of them (both the people and the issues). This approach works so well because it attracts people that want a break from the mainstream, and at times snore-inducing media, as well as individuals that have little interest in the news and instead tune in to laugh and see how ridiculously absurd the world can be. In this way, The Daily Show and the like help keep informed, at least marginally, those people that would otherwise be completely disengaged from the world of politics and current events. Nowadays, you don’t need to watch the news or read the paper every day to stay up-to-date on current events; binge-watching Comedy Central will serve you just fine. Comedy news programs provide a valuable service by breaking from the norm of news media and providing informative entertainment. And a better informed electorate is never a bad thing.
The trouble with comedy programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is not their presence but their over-utilization. When individuals rely on the comedy programs as their sole or primary source of news information, it can lead to difficulties. It is important to recognize that the ultimate purpose of shows like The Daily Show is entertainment. As Jon Stewart eagerly acknowledged in an interview with Chris Wallace, he is a comedian and entertainer first; the politics and the news are secondary. Since brevity is the soul of wit, it is somewhat dangerous to entrust one’s understanding of deeply complex, challenging issues to the explanations of a comedian. When clever one-liners and funny zingers replace articulate discussions and informed debates, neither the public nor the media are well-served.
Due to their popularity and perceived political acumen, some of these comedy news programs have used their platform for political activism. The titular host of Real Time with Bill Maher, for example, uses his position to promote extremely liberal opinions and analyses, all under the guise of political satire. Blatant political activism, in any form, rarely does more good than harm. By misinforming completely or presenting only one side of an issue, political activists in the news hold considerable power to sway opinion, especially among those individuals less politically informed.
Ironically, comedy in the media has some serious consequences, both positive and negative. The key is moderation, balancing the fun of the comedy shows with the raw information of hard news. Personally, I believe comedy news shows are excellent. They make me laugh and think, all while providing a distraction from the seriousness of certain issues. And while watching The Daily Show with my friends, I do my best to heed the words of E. B. White, even despite my modest interest in biology.
Christian is a Junior at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. As an honors student and member of the Dean’s List, Christian is pursuing a degree in Economics and Government. He was accepted into Hamilton after graduating Valedictorian of Chittenango High School, where he served as the Opinion Editor for the school newspaper. Christian is an avid member of the Hamilton College Debate Society and a frequent contributor to the political discourse at the college.