Stephen Colbert once said the following: “I’m not here to affect you politically or socially. I’m here to make you laugh. I use the news as the palette for my jokes.” Considering the necessity of taking an entirely new approach to the way we think about politics in the age of Trump, comedians now have to take responsibility for their role in influencing the electorate.
Because our political system is deviating more and more from historical norms, political comedy has become relentlessly personal. Attacks on every aspect of a leader’s character, appearance, and behavior are all fair game, adding to the rising levels of incivility to the already antagonistic sentiments between parties. All too often, policy has taken a backseat to the absurd ramblings of legislators rather than the effects their decisions have on their constituents. Two very distinct approaches to political comedy have emerged as a result of Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency: the slash-and-burn method, currently popular in Colbert’s show, and the strategy of sensibility and research, which comedians like John Oliver favor.
The very fine line that divides these two kinds of comedians is becoming increasingly important to note. For instance, John Oliver specializes in research-heavy segments that are able to analyze nuance in every issue he explores in his weekly twenty-minute pieces. He often opts to cover topics that have continual relevance regardless of the most recent Trump scandal (making the show’s title Last Week Tonight a little ironic), diving into topics that are always affecting people’s lives regardless of the current administration’s choices. However, when he does turn his attention to mainstream politics, he does so with full force, as demonstrated by his Donald Drumpf segment that took the internet by storm, breaking HBO records with 85 million total views. On the other hand, Colbert, who, with more airtime to fill that Oliver by virtue of his nightly program, relies on Trump’s most recent Twitter controversies for the bulk of his material. He even acknowledges his reliance on Trump for content, once joking during a monologue, “I’ve got to say, Donald Trump has done a lot for me in the first 100 days. Thank you for your service, Mr. President.” He taps into the day’s media cycle, filled with Trump’s unusual statements, latest surprise unscripted tangents, and social media updates and unabashedly takes every cheap shot he can—all in the name of comedy.
In a political climate that already discourages bipartisan cooperation on the issues that matter to Americans, media that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs is usually a much more attractive option than venues that present differing views. Therefore, comedians like Colbert and Oliver can make the news infinitely more accessible and less intimidating for many people, which can be incredibly beneficial for getting timely updates on foreign and domestic policy. However, relying on outlets like late-night talk shows that are so limited in breadth such as in Colbert’s show, often portray only one very narrow point of view and fails to recognize the layers of impact each policy choice will have. Instead, they paint an image of absolute wrongs and rights and omit critical viewpoints, leaving room for a reversal of opinions when it’s convenient, such as in the coverage of the Comey from his being a “Hillary hater” to Trump’s worst nightmare.
The late-night comedy scene is dominated by liberal-leaning programs that are collectively launching unfettered attacks on the current President—and that’s okay, to an extent. With a Republican-controlled government in power, a healthy stream of dissent from the media can act as a power check and stimulate civil debate between a wide array of people on both sides of the aisle. Despite comedy’s potential to fill this role, there have been few attempts to foster some kind of common ground between the most extreme members of today’s political parties, especially when it comes to the media.
When there actually is a concerted effort to bridge this gap, such as this conversation between Daily Show host Trevor Noah and conservative TV personality Tomi Lahren, both sides’ arguments are heard and considered with at least an outward appearance of respect. In the aforementioned interview, Noah and Lahren had very little in common, but their conversation remained cordial, albeit strained at times. Because of this unusual crossing of the aisle, typically liberal-leaning viewers were exposed to more conservative opinions and vice versa. Colbert has experimented with similar interviews as well, such as this one, but conducts them with less of an endeavor for civility.
The election of Trump illustrated the extreme polarization and dissatisfaction of the American people; according to this Gallup poll (conducted only weeks after the election), three in four Americans agree that the country is more divided than ever. The way in which news is delivered today is eliminating the middle ground and facts delivered in an apolitical way, which is only worsening the divide. Politicians are no longer leading the way toward a unified and civil society; they’re are breaking the system even more. Our saving grace might be political comedy because it has the unique ability to draw people into a conversation that confronts this divide.
It’s time for comedians to recognize their role in educating the future electorate—especially young people. News, of which comedy is now an integral part, should prioritize research, depth, and accuracy, presenting opposing viewpoints and stimulating debate. Right now, mainstream political comedy is in danger of closing itself and its viewers off from the full spectrum of ideas, issues, and challenges that must be recognized in order civility and good policy to take their rightful positions as the driving forces of democracy.
Comedy could be the olive branch that extends across the aisle, but first, comedians have to broaden their reach, both in topic and in audience. They should spend more time covering stories that aren’t sensational but that actually have the potential to affect the mindsets of voters. Coverage needs to include the entire story, not just soundbites that are particularly easy to joke about. Most importantly, comedians have to be able to acknowledge both the faults and successes of the leaders they admire and don’t.
Political comedy has an untapped influence in the new realm of politics come from the Trump administration, and comedians are the messengers the people to whom American public really listen. Colbert was wrong when he said that his business was comedy first and politics second. Now more than ever, the personal is political, and the two have collided in such a dramatic way that it will likely be a long time before they’re distinguishable again.