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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The relationship between news and comedy


Screenshot of SNL Weekend Update. Uploaded from YouTube.

“The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “The Weekend Update by Saturday Night Live,” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers”: These are just a few of the most popular comedy news shows on television. These treasures do one job, and they do it well: conveying news to an audience is a comedic and entertaining fashion. The point here is not whether the significant part of these shows is the news end or the comedy end—but rather that comedy and news make such a fantastic performing duo that the combination has been used again and again to capture audience attention and rake in millions of dollars. But why does it work to mix a serious subject like the news with laughing? Will mixing news with jokes distort the facts and lead to a misinformed public? I have long operated under the following theory of humor developed by Peter McGraw, in which he postulates that humor “violates the way we think the world should work, and it does so in a way that’s not threatening.” In other words, things are funny when they are wrong, but not dangerous or disturbing. If we believe this theory about humor, then how can news be conveyed effectively in a humorous way—won’t it just be conveyed incorrectly? Well, no—because the average person understands when a joke is just a joke, even if they don’t understand why a joke is funny. It becomes even easier to recognize comedy when you are watching a show that is designed to be funny. We’ve all seen it before—the suited late night talk show host delivers a line, then looks at the camera and gives a sly grin. Once it is clear that the audience is in a comedy environment, it is easy to remember to take things with a large grain of salt— and filter the true from the funny.

There is no denying that comedy-news shows are popular (I doubt there was a name in my first sentence that you did not recognize), and they are popular because making serious news subjects into manageable, delightful humor is reassuring and fun. I would rather learn about terrible or tragic news in a humorous way (given that it is respectful to the subject matter/people involved) because we have enough bad news already in the world—so why not make it better to learn about? Funny news is popular for its entertainment value, and it slips in the current events at the same time. It is like eating brownies with spinach in them. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather eat my spinach in brownie form than just by itself.

Looking back at my first sentence, it is easy to notice a troubling pattern: Most late night talk show hosts, especially in the news-comedy sector, are men. There are a few standout women-led shows in the mix, like “The Amber Ruffin Show” and “Full Frontal with Samatha Bee,” but they lack the same large viewership as the men’s shows. It is unquestionable that networks should start creating more shows hosted by women.

In the meantime, we have the hosts that we have loved forever. Stephen Colbert will remain a familiar face, Jon Stewart will be missed, and “Saturday Night Live” will never lose the iconic reputation it maintains (at least not if I have a say in it).