In college, I un-ironically wore one of those fake “Stewart/Colbert 2008” shirts that were printed long before Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain had ever considered entering the actual presidential race. I thought it was funny and viable. After all, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert were two of the funniest men on television and, thanks to their deeply entrenched writer’s rooms and research departments, they were also incredibly knowledgeable about the day-to-day happenings in Washington, D.C. And since a 2004 survey touted by CNN and lampooned by Fox News claimed that Daily Show viewers were better informed than broadcast or cable television news viewers, I figured, “Why the hell now?”
Flash forward 15 years to the presidency of Donald Trump, a legacy real estate businessman and reality television star whose idiotic bluster seeps out of the White House on a daily — nay, hourly — basis.
I’m not saying that the political prestige achieved and enjoyed by Stewart and Colbert necessarily paved the way for Trump. Nor am I suggesting that, had either Comedy Central host actually run for president and won, their presidency would have been precisely like the one America is enduring now.
What I am saying is, the lines between politics and entertainment have been blurry for some time, so trying to point the finger at our contemporaries and assign blame is a moot point. But when it comes to the business of journalism, which has been a fiery garbage heap for decades, I fear that the influence of politics-as-entertainment has taken (and still is taking) a heavy toll. Mass layoffs are a commonality throughout the news media industry now and private equity keeps buying up and shaking down those media companies that remain, while Stewart and Colbert’s literal and figurative successors in entertainment endeavor to do more journalistic (or journalism adjacent) projects for laughs, tears and other forms of emotional catharsis.
Don’t get me wrong. As a fan of the type of programming Stewart and Colbert pioneered in the 2000s, I enjoy the heavily researched deep dives of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, the comedic rants of Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, the pop culture knowledge drops of Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act and the local forays of Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas. But when, for instance, Minhaj reveals that his show is “going to have an internal investigative reporting team” in order to “start breaking long-lead investigative reports that we’re providing all the footage and sources for,” I can’t help but do a double take.
I’m not concerned because Patriot Act is hiring investigate reporters, editors and producers to populate its writer’s room and research team. In fact, this is a wonderful thing to hear — especially for me and other freelancing members of the journalism community at large who have suffered the consequences of media buyouts and mass layoffs firsthand. It’s always great to see journalists getting jobs, especially if it’s a gig that will get their work even more exposure. (For example, about a month after he was let go from BuzzFeed in January, Chris McDaniel was hired by Last Week Tonight for a news producer role.)
What actually concerns me is how audiences and network (and streaming) executives will interpret these creative/business decisions at popular news-focused comedy programs like Last Week Tonight and Patriot Act. Remember that Stewart and Colbert were never journalists or politicians. They never set out to become either and never really claimed to be one or the other, but that didn’t stop idiots like me from buy t-shirts with their fake campaign logo printed on them and not-so-secretly wishing that their running for office would become a reality. So what’s to stop their audiences, or the executives who see dollar signs in their ratings and streams, from putting more emphasis on their being journalists when, in reality, they’re nothing of the sort?
I’m going to be completely honest and admit that yes, this concerns me because, as a professional journalist, I’d rather see myself and others who specifically work as journalists get the jobs that put them down in the trenches of whatever particular beat it is that they specialize in. I’d also rather see them getting all (or most) of the credit for their hard work, as opposed to a funny or camera-friendly entertainer who condenses months’ (if not years’) worth of reporting into social media-savvy chunks.
But I also worry that, as the entertainment and journalism divide becomes further blurred with shows like Patriot Act or actor Chris Evans’s recently teased website A Starting Point, audiences, executives and businesses alike will gradually value journalists and journalism even less than they evidently do now. I mean, it’s not like the majority of people value the few local news institutions that remain. Most local or regionally-focused outlets, be they print or digital, have been razed to the ground. Instead, as Luke O’Neil reminds his Welcome to Hell World newsletter readers, these sources of relevant local information and investigation have been largely replaced by national outlets and programs — be they news, comedy or both — or the unmitigated annals of Facebook, Twitter and social media at large.
This isn’t a simple “stay in your lane” complaint. It’s just… I don’t know. The world itself is pretty weird right now, and the worlds of comedy and journalism are getting even weirder by the minute. I’m all for folks like Minhaj and Evans using their big media profiles to highlight important issues, but I fear that too much else is lost in that process.
Well, that was a bummer that only barely had a bit to do with stand-up comedy, so here’s something inane and cringe-worthy that made me laugh really hard this week. Comedian Michael J. Wolf took footage from Casey James Salengo’s 2017 appearance on Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents and edited out all of the applause and general audience noises. It’s a solid minute’s worth of uncomfortable silence and it is glorious.
Don’t forget, I actually want you to respond. Send me whatever questions, comments are snide remarks that you may have about my thoughts on stand-up comedy, or comedy-related matters I didn’t cover, but are nonetheless on your mind. To get in touch, simply email me and we’ll go from there.