Satirical news programs and talk shows combine journalism and comedy to produce an effective platform for discussion, but the question still remains about whether or not providing information for entertainment has the desired effect of advocacy and action.

Jokes help to change hearts and minds. They release a lighthearted tension that allows people to process information that can sometimes be troubling, which is often the job of talk shows and satirical news programs. Millions of people around the world tune into these programs to receive news and hear the honest opinions of the hosts. The hosts combine forces with journalists to research the next big topics for their daily or weekly stories. Comedy can be easier to process for people than a discussion of hard topics often brought up on these shows without the same lighthearted air.  

However, laughter can have its limits. Laughter does not demand action, laughter demands attention. While attention needs to be paid to issues raised on these shows, the response to these actions is not always proportionate to the work put in to produce these programs. Attention is the first step, but often action does not go beyond attention and subsequently laughter. While millions tune into these programs weekly, often times they are entertained and enlightened. That is not a bad thing, but entertainment does not often lead to action either. If the hope of these hosts is an inspiration, there is. However, people are not convinced that comedy is the best way to advocate or educate.

Laughter

The questions surrounding these shows and why they are put together are how people consume information and why. Laughter can be medicine, a belief that was held during Biblical times and still is today. Not every comic or joke is going to infect a person because it involves knowing how to read a room of people, a general population.

For the hosts of these shows, they have to read the world. Part of the job must, therefore, come with controversy and often the hosts must push right into it. While some of the issues brought up are basic, most of them are not. There are complications with every topic and not everyone will be pleased. Increasing entertainment is crucial and this is where laughter comes in to help. Covering topics such as Climate Change, Indian Politics, Trump’s UK trip, and thousands of others need laughter to bridge the gap.

Put on a Show

Though hots can sometimes put on a performance. A recent change in the tactics of John Oliver proves just that. In the past, he had no problem calling out Donald Trump, Big Pharma, and others for disturbing the peace of the citizens of the United States, amongst others. His segments occasionally turned into performances, where he once made a series of commercials with the “Catheter Cowboy” which explained simple concepts to the President. Though this is not the only thing he did, last year he beat a defamation lawsuit against major coal companies, notably Murray Energies’ Robert Murray.

However, this year he takes a back seat on political issues and discusses lesser known, but problematic topics such as World Wrestling Entertainment, Mobile Homes, Public and Online Shaming, Robocalls, and Death Investigations. While he does still dive into the world of politics, covering hot button issues such as the Green New Deal and the Equality Act, he is not nearly as showy or outspoken as he was in his past episodes.

Two less combative hosts are Hasan Minhaj, host of the new Netflix show, Patriot Act, and Trevor Noah, who now hosts the Daily Show post-Jon Stewart. These two seem to have a less performance oriented focus and more of a discussion focus. Every show, Noah sits down for an interview with politicians, activists, writers, journalists, documentarists, and others. Per Daily Show tradition, a list of correspondents is also on hand such as Dulce Sloan, Jaboukie Young-White, Roy Wood Jr., Michael Kosta, Desi Lydic, and Ronny Chieng.

This is where the bridge between journalism and comedy begins to merge, as Oliver, Noah, and Minhaj were all previously correspondents or common contributors on The Daily Show. Journalism works extraordinarily well to disseminate information and create a conversation about many hot buttons and lesser-known issues around the world. With the introduction of comedy into a forum that previously thought of as a more serious and less satirical, this creates concerns about where the future of journalism is headed and how an industry once so professional can merge with an upbeat form of entertainment.

Laughter, Tension, Change

Calls to action are not outside of the realm of journalism. Sometimes, the facts point to a change that needs to happen to fix a crisis. Good journalism makes people question things, provides a new perspective, and rarely ever leaves people uninformed. Excellent journalism inspires. When Hannah Gadsby did her Netflix special Nanette, she highlights a problem with comedy and divulges the techniques used by comedians to create laughter.

There is tension and then a punchline, something to allow laughter. At a point in her show, Gadsby stops providing a punchline and allows the audience to deal with the fact that she is a lesbian woman from Tasmania and a rape and assault survivor who lives in a world where none of these should happen and they happened because of who she is. She provides no punchline and the effect was what some describe as “breaking comedy.”

A large part of the argument against using laughter removes tension and perhaps removes responsibility, for both the hosts and the audience. Gadsby remarked that she needed to deal with what happened to her rather than using jokes as a way around her pain because a joke does not need to tell the whole story to be effective.

While these talks shows and satirical news programs offer a different form of comedy than what Gadsby offers, the tension relieved by laughter is still the same.

Journalism does not exist to relieve tension. Comedy does. Does the coexistence of the two cancel each other out to produce an effective forum for discussion? Perhaps the answer is that millions of people around the world are tuning in to be informed. Being informed may not be enough, but it starts a process of changing hearts and minds.

Margaret Valenti

Margaret Valenti is the Editor of Generation Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today.