May 2, 2014 ()
Why Comedians Make Great Journalists
The definition of the word ‘journalist’ has been steadily expanding since the dawn of the digital age, and with so many “non-traditional” journalists crowding the space, we might as well acknowledge perhaps the most important non-journalist journalists around: comedians.
As Shakespeare discovered long ago, audiences often like to think while they laugh, and information and comedy have a longstanding relationship together. But in an age where 24-hour news channels have become little more than hyper-polarizing screaming matches, the last basin of journalistic integrity on television is perhaps coming from the least expected source.
The earliest indication that comedians were becoming champions of journalistic integrity came in 2004, when John Stewart appeared on the CNN screaming match, Crossfire. Stewart so elegantly tore the show apart during his brief appearance that it was cancelled a few months later, with CNN’s then-president Jonathan Klein citing Stewart’s appearance as the reason. (The show was recently resurrected, at least until Stewart’s next appearance).
There was a time when folks like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert spent their half-hour cable programs discussed news items and how they were presented in traditional media, but in the last few years something changed. Instead of reporting on how others reported, comedians started doing some of the journalistic legwork themselves.
I’m not talking about a sit-down interview with an actor or politician or musician trying to sell their next album/movie/election, I’m talking about the real, on the ground, bold journalism that has evaporated from the very television news outlets comedians used to poke fun at.
To give you a practical sense of what I’m talking about, in 2012 Stephen Colbert investigated the influence of super-pacs on the presidential election by making his own, showing viewers the process and using his unique brand of back-handed genius to expose the practice for what it is, money meddling in politics.
(This mashup is particularly awesome because of how it ends, with Brian Williams plainly explaining the exact point Colbert’s on-air persona couldn’t: “It’s funny until you think about it. The fact of the matter is that Stephen Colbert has proved… how ridiculous this system has become.”)
Comedians don’t just make good journalists these days, they make great journalists, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, comedians can diffuse tense situations with humour, which they use to their advantage in serious interviews. Audiences also know where journalists stand, eliminating questions of authenticity or bias. Furthermore, Comedians have a certain way of disarming interview subjects, tricking them into dropping their guard and revealing information they may not have shared with traditional journalists.
I personally wasn’t sure whether I would really enjoy a talk show hosted by John Oliver, but his inaugural episode this past weekend has given me hope for the future of these great journalists. He’s already off to a great start, interviewing former NSA General Keith Alexander in a way that only a comedian could, positioning himself on the side of the interviewee while we laugh at home at the absurdity of the conversation.
Above all else, comedians make great journalists because the political landscape in the United States and elsewhere around the world has gotten so overwhelmingly ridiculous, that sometimes, all we can really do is laugh.