Late Night – A Melody Between Politics and Comedy

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“New TV Setup” by craig1black is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Elizabeth Alton

Late night TV has been a very American establishment since the 50s. Along with the norm of newspaper and coffee in the morning, there’s TV and dinner at night. There’s the Johnny Carson dynasty and shows like John Oliver and Trevor Noah which draw in thousands of people every time they air. Many of these shows specialize in satirical news, using humorous monologues to make the news more digestible for viewers. Satirical news engages certain people that may be less likely to be before, and it provides an entrance into news for those that would be otherwise uninterested. Satirical news is a great way to start staying informed, and a segway into the sometimes dense world of politics. 

In November of last year, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight released an episode about SLAPP suits. After a story Oliver did about coal mining, Bob Murry (the owner of a private coal mining factory) sued the show for slander. Oliver’s segment details the two years in court Last Week Tonight spent with Murray, the origin of SLAPP suits in the US, and ended with a broadway style musical number, complete with dancers, the streets of Times Square, and a quartet in squirrel costumes. The episode, while entertaining, also left readers with an important message about the loopholes in our legal systems, and the importance of free speech. The episode would go on to win an Emmy for Last Week Tonight

Oliver advertises his show as “not journalism, it’s comedy — it’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second,” but it’s also far more than that. 

A term, The John Oliver Effect, has been dubbed to describe the impact of Oliver’s work on his viewers. One more notable example is an episode that led to Oliver’s views bombarding the FCC with 45,000 emails in an effort to save net neutrality. And it’s not just Oliver’s show, you can see remnants of this format, with hints of satirical news, across the TV landscape from Seth Meyers’ A Closer Look segment, to Hasan Minhaj’s The Patriots Act, and Trevor Noah’s Daily Show.

Especially in younger generations, the utilization of political satire often increases participation in politics. 

Dr. Amy Bree Becker, a professor at Loyola University, found that opposed to shows like MSNBC and Fox News, interviews with politicians on more comedy-centered shows increase the likelihood that younger generations will remember facts about that politician or key issues, as well as the chances they will take part in a protest, march or demonstration, sign an email petition, or sign a written petition about a political or social issue. 

  Piper Karnilaw ‘22 enjoys watching political comedy including “John Oliver, SNL sometimes, sometimes I’ll watch videos of Ben Shapiro or Steven Crowder. Sometimes I’ll even watch All Gas No Breaks.” 

Karnilaw said of political comedy, “I definitely think it educates people because they don’t really know they’re listening to the news. Or with young kids like us, it makes the news easier to listen to because it’s less dark, and it makes it more fun to listen to. It gives us more of a reason to want to pay attention to politics.”

We all have a certain amount of cognitive resources. So everytime we learn something, we have to weigh the pros and cons of using those resources on set information. Most of our motivations for learning include self-interest and the idea that said information will be relevant to the person, or helpful in making a decision. That said, when people view politics as a social activity, or enjoyable, they may be more likely to want to use their time engaging in it.

In our new media environment, the opposite of news isn’t entertainment. Finding politics enjoyable gets people more involved, and it doesn’t necessarily come with a deficit. Pew surveys found that regular viewers of The Daily Show and Colbert Report were among the most informed when compared to viewers of MSNBC and Fox News with the only group being more informed than them was those who read major newspaper websites.

That said, there are some concerns inherent within political comedy. One common question may be where is the line? In political comedy, there seems to be a tricky balance between political correctness and also something that may be untasteful. 

Catherine Auerbach ‘22 said “there has to be a certain level of how far a comedian can take to where it will still be funny and appealing and not just offensive.” She also acknowledged the other elements that can factor into one’s approval of political comedy, saying “I give some bias as someone who’s very left leaning. I might think something that’s made about Trump supporters that may be a little bit demeaning is funny, but someone who is more far to the right than me might think it’s offensive. I think there’s always going to be someone offended.”

The fact of the matter is, political comedy is super subjective in terms of viewers’ favor, but it can still be super useful in engaging people, especially young people, in the news. Find a medium that makes you excited about civic engagement and utilize it so you can be as informed of a citizen as possible.