They conduct interviews with high-profile figures, expose corruption in big business and keep you up to date with the latest political news. And, somehow, they manage to make you laugh. They are actors. Uh, I mean, they’re journalists. Well… they’re a bit of both, aren’t they?
I’m talking about the personalities behind comedy news programs like “The Daily Show”, “Last Week Tonight”, “The Patriot Act”, “The Tonight Show”, and many more. These shows belong to a genre that uniquely blends elements of journalism with those of comedy to deliver the news with a touch of humor. While political satire can be found in various forms of comedy, it is these television programs that most closely overlap the realm of traditional newscasting in their content, format, and style. As a result, their writers and animators ended up with job descriptions somewhere between “comedian” and “journalist”.
Many of us have come to Emerson to participate in its prestigious journalism and comedy programs. Therefore, each of us could easily find ourselves in this particular position during our career. But how do you do it responsibly? As a journalism major with a minor in comedy writing and performance, I found myself intrigued by this question and spoke to professionals and professors at Emerson for answers.
In the past, those involved in creating such comedy news shows have dismissed the idea that this is even a question. Most notably, Jon Stewart, former host of “The Daily Show”, was known to reinforce in interviews that he was a comedian, not a journalist.
Nevertheless, studies suggest that his role was much more ambiguous than that. A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center found that “about one in 10 (12%) Americans regularly receive news from comedy shows such as ‘The Daily Show,’ ‘Saturday Night Live,’ or ‘The Tonight Show. with Jay Leno”. Up 9% in January, it is now tied with public radio and national newspapers.
Other studies have shown that viewers watch these shows with the express intention of learning the news, and that “The Colbert Report” was actually more successful in educating its viewers about super political action committees before the news. 2012 presidential election than many other types. news media. Many Americans receive both news and comedy from these programs.
One such person is Matt McMahan, associate director of the Center for Comedic Arts at Emerson College. He has published research on a variety of topics in comedy, exploring the medium from both theoretical and historical perspectives.
“I remember [Stewart] being pressured hard to admit that people of my generation were hearing from us about him,” McMahan said. “And he categorically denied that. He was like, ‘people come to me for the comedy, they don’t come to me for the news.’ But I was watching him say that, and I was like, ‘I don’t know, John, I go to you for news.
Jeff Maurer, a former “Last Week Tonight” writer, has often considered these hybrid responsibilities during his six years working on the show.
“That’s always the question, isn’t it?” Are you comedy or are you news? Here’s my answer to that: We’re on TV. That’s the only part I knew for sure,” Maurer said. “It’s media. Is it a comedy or a short story? I do not know. Maybe it’s not important, but because it’s on TV and because people watch it and because people are influenced by it, I always thought it was important to be honest.
In the end, Maurer is right. The writers and hosts of these shows may not be entirely journalists or comedians, but the one thing they are for sure is influential. Therefore, they must use their platforms responsibly.
But what does this responsibility mean? Often in the realm of mainstream media, this means maintaining neutrality about the events they report. But things get dicey when you add comedy to the mix, because comedy is an inherently subjective art form. Telling a joke is convincing an audience to see a certain event from your point of view. This is especially true in stand-up comedy, which many current comedy shows draw heavily on.
There are those, including Jon Stewart, who will say that this is what distinguishes comedy news programs from genuine reporting. And there is validity to that. This pillar of journalism allows the public to believe that journalists are honest and not just trying to persuade them to follow a political agenda.
But this equation between objectivity and accountability in journalism is increasingly being questioned by professionals and the public alike. Objectivity is becoming difficult to define and recognize, even in mainstream media. We all know what objectivity means in theory, but one could debate for hours what it actually means in practice. Moreover, despite their efforts to appear neutral, mainstream news outlets are increasingly being accused by the general public of being politically biased to better market themselves to a specific audience.
This has given rise to media that by nature reject objectivity as synonymous with journalistic responsibility. Many “alternative” media distinguish themselves from mainstream media by wearing their perspectives on their sleeves and still produce compelling journalism. Humorous news outlets find themselves in this kind of journalism in which some audiences favorite comedy news programs expressly for their biases, says McMahan.
“I think the reason I respect people like Jon Stewart and other comedians who present short stories is that they put their biases first. They didn’t hide the fact that they were biased because it was part and parcel of their comedic voice,” McMahan said. “There was no obscuring of perspective, which other news networks kind of hid their perspective. I thought comedians were just more trustworthy because they were more honest about their position.
How do you balance all of these factors?
Maurer suggests finding the right ratio of short stories and comedy in any given play. You need to deliver information critically and earnestly while carefully balancing the laughs that make that information digestible. Maurer suggests a 70 to 30 ratio of comedy to short stories that can be reversed depending on the topic you’re writing about.
“I wouldn’t recommend getting the blend any more in either direction than 70-30 because if it goes too far it could be fluffy. And then it’s like ‘What? This is not the show I watch. Or it could be too serious, and then it’s like, ‘Well, why don’t I watch 60 minutes if you’re not going to tell jokes?’”
When you include serious, important and factual information, Maurer says to make sure you include everything of this one. This is the best way to ensure that while you present the news in a humorous light, you don’t force your audience to adopt a particular perspective. In fact, fleshing out all aspects of an issue can be an opportunity to flex your comedic muscles if you do it creatively.
Jon Rineman, a professor at Emerson College and former writer of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” puts the focus on the audience. While that means giving them the most accurate version of the day’s events, it also means providing the entertainment they come to your show for.
“What goes through my mind was always ‘what are the audience going to like the most? “, Rineman said. “I was lucky because Jimmy put me in the position where I was leading the monologue. He trusted me and he kind of let me decide what he would rehearse in front of the rehearsal audience. I will be honest with you. I always put the audience first, then I put Jimmy second.
This makes late-night shows like Fallon’s particularly comforting to watch, especially when the news is grim. Comedy offers the unique opportunity to let these shows lift your spirits in a way that mainstream news programs don’t. Rineman remembers leaning on this emotional element when writing for Jay Leno about particularly tragic events of the day.
“You kind of have to lean into it and show your teeth a little bit,” Rineman said. “If there was a tragedy, let’s just say there was just a beloved celebrity who passed away and shocked everyone or there was another mass shooting or a terrible natural disaster, I think that’s where you kind of have to seriously, very briefly acknowledge it. High. And then you kind of say, ‘Hey, we’re just going to try to make you feel better.'”
Ultimately, this unique ability to appeal to both the hearts and minds of audiences is what keeps these shows popular. Connecting with both in an intelligent and responsible way is often the key to creating positive change.