“I’m not a journalist at all, obviously. Obviously I’m a comedian,” John Oliver said.
While Oliver’s claim on “CBS This Morning” may appear transparent, the line drawn between comedians and political commentators remains a blur even though it should not be.
Ever since Jon Stewart took over “The Daily Show” in 1998, the late night comedy scene has revolved around politics, launching several successful spin-off series like “The Colbert Report,” “Last Week Tonight” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”
While these shows were created with a political influence in mind, more traditional shows like “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “Conan” have slowly gravitated towards public affairs as well.
Recently, Kimmel has taken a hard stance on issues like gun control, marijuana legalization and U.S. tax reform, as opposed to the politically neutral humor his audience is accustomed too.
The sudden change calls into question, what is the purpose of political comedy? For the hosts of late night, it is simply to make the audience laugh.
“Here’s the difference between you and I, I’m a comedian first,” Stewart said on Fox News before he retired. “My comedy is informed by an ideological background, there’s no question about that. The thing that you will never understand is that Hollywood, yeah, they’re liberal, but that’s not their primary motivating force.”
While Stewart may prioritize humor over political rhetoric, it fails to acknowledge the impact this rhetoric holds over his viewers. Comedy does not defang political influence. On the contrary, it actually makes their argument stronger.
The standards set for a journalist are vastly different than those of a comedian, as seen in Jim Jefferies stand-up on gun control.
During his Netflix special “Bare,” Jefferies went on a 14 minute rant about owners against gun control and their ridiculous arguments. The portion of his special made its way onto YouTube, where the clip went viral, amassing over 6 million views, even being cited by actual news outlets like Huffington Post and The New Yorker.
The video was considered to be the holy grail of evidence in favor of gun control, if not for a singular problem. He made some of it up.
“If you have a gun in your house, you’re 80 percent more likely to use that gun on yourself, than on somebody else,” Jefferies said.
He later admitted to coming up with the statistic on the spot in a later comedy special, which was immediately forgiven because it was said in a joke.
The public retraction received minimal impact, as the video is still heavily circulated on social media today. The attention even earned Jefferies his own late night political talk show on Comedy Central.
The public reception to Jefferies argument proved that not only are people willing to take stand up seriously in political discourse, but also that audiences are more willing to forgive comedians when they are wrong.
Fabricating data would be catastrophic to a journalist’s reputation, as opposed to being laughed off in a joke.
The intent of the late night comedian may be solely to entertain the audience, but when a performance is informed by a political ideology, it also needs to be accurate.
While audiences may be entertained, they clearly also take these arguments to heart given “The John Oliver effect,” a trend where viewers of “Last Week Tonight” take political action after Oliver discusses it on his show.
Comedy can be a valuable tool for dispersing ideology to a wider audience, but it can also be hypnotically manipulative.
If late night comedian continues to gain the validity it has within in the public eye, it also needs to uphold the standards of professionalism.
Without honesty, it may all just be a bad joke.
By JOHN EICHER
Featured photo: Stephen Colbert and John Oliver are two of the most popular political commentators working today (Ew image)