Satire as Public Service – How Laughter Outplayed Yawns


News satire has been gaining momentum, especially among the younger generation which does not trust either politicians or the media. Satire shows have managed to grasp their attention and are creating informed citizens ready to take action.

Studies have shown that Millennials distrust of institutions and authority in general, more than the previous generation, stems from issues such as abuse of power, police brutality or the financial crisis. These, however, are not seen as individual corruption, but as systemic failure, which makes us think that more than a generational issue this is a circumstantial one. But Millennials seem to have the cards in their hands and they remain optimistic and eager to play a role in transforming the future. Refusing to be passive recipients, the digital natives can easily connect with others and create their own networks, and with that comes empowerment.

This craving for engagement is also another factor that can explain the popularity of shows of political and news satire. A study from 2012 has showed not only that Americans under 40 get more of their news from satire than any one other source but also that among the younger ones satire news was also more trusted than traditional news. Traditional media outlets are generally restricted to fill time and produce profits, often resulting in cutting down information to its basic form, dramatically emphasizing some political events, and underplaying those which are considered boring, which makes some important decisions fly under the radar.  Since the media deregulation between the 80s and 90s, there has been a pressure on the news industry to cut costs and maximize profits, resulting in a reduction of investigation reporting and limiting hard news to fragmented information, often out of context.

Simultaneously, there has been a focus on hyper-personalized, dramatic events, and soft news, that do not challenge the existing social order in any depth. Even regarding politics, there is a focus on the personality of the politician instead of substantial issues. On top of it all, politicians too have learnt how to use the media in their favor, with an ever increasing role of handlers and spin machines in the construction of the political issues and their image on the news. Debates are arranged prior to airing and tend to focus on buzzwords which serve to polarize viewers into for/against in matters that are in fact complex and multifaceted, and this goes largely unchallenged by journalists.

Now, with the breakdown of traditional media, the internet and cable television have served as a platform to experiment with new formats and concepts, which allied with journalism devolution have given comedians and satirists a chance to create an innovative response to the state of the news industry. Political satire bases its choices on comedic value, which, instead of deviating from essential information, accentuates and exaggerates it. What comedians do is to take a topic, break it down to parts and put them back together in a way that is intelligible and relatable for most people. Politics are too often seen as an unapproachable topic, disconnected from our own personal reality, and what satire shows are doing is bringing politics closer to the people, where they should be in the first place. Situations like the one portrayed in the movie Man of the Year, in which a satirist gets elected as president, do not seem so farfetched anymore. Comedian made activist Russell Brand is a perfect example. Now author of the book Revolution, he is calling out people for a massive peaceful revolution and, like him or not, he is gathering a quite impressive crowd of supporters.

However, treating politics in the context of entertainment has been criticized by trivialization of important topics, further fostering more cynicism about political institutions and processes, while inciting people to make decisions based on their emotions rather than hard facts. But there is almost a paternalistic tone in these critiques, since they not only tend to see viewers as mere unprotected receivers of information, but they also forget to mention that politicians are the ones feeding emotions to the masses, using concepts such as “hope”, “fear” or “patriotism”  to appeal to potential voters.

There is no doubt that the media has substantial influence building our frame of reality, but this nothing new and it does not happen only with satire. In fact, the information that we get through traditional news sources is already selected and prepared for consumption:

“When interest groups and campaigns actively construct reality, those things that we would like to think are true or fixed—dare I say, facts—are still run through a meat grinder. Political players select and frame issues and events, and journalists—bound by their own professional and systemic constraints (objectivity, the nonstop news cycle, etc.)—produce a second reconstruction of those issues and events. Then, upon reaching its destination (a.k.a. the good citizen), this information gets mashed through a cognitive funhouse fueled by self-serving and ego-protective biases like selective attention and selective perception.”


Political satire is far from being devastating for political discourse, as it actually encourages debate while offering new ways for people to connect with politics. A Columbia study has shown that, when compared to non-viewers, satire viewers exhibit healthy democratic characteristics, voting, discussing and participating more actively in politics, and feel more confident while doing it. They are also more prone to use the context given by satire to further explore and look for more information, including traditional media sources, encouraging debate and critical thinking.

English comedian John Oliver has been riding the satire wave, especially since he got his own show “Last Week Tonight”. The show differs from other satire shows, such as “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” for three big reasons. The first is that John Oliver is not as dependent on fresh news as a source as many of the others. He addresses a variety of topics that sometimes do not even get mentioned in traditional media, and when he does use traditional media as a source, it is used only as an entry point to explore a much larger concept. Secondly, contrary to his peers, Oliver does not always rely on punny concepts, and actually refuses to linger on the laughs of the crowd, which he often interrupts to make sure that he finishes his story, placing education over entertainment. Thirdly, and most importantly, the comedian not only exposes injustices and harmful behaviors, but he goes beyond that, inviting his crowd to think and act differently. His segments are much more than sketches, they are a call-for-action.

Active youth participation in the social and political life is creating new spaces in the civic sphere for dialogue, showing that Millennials are not as apathetic as initially thought. The fact that comedians are the ones doing public service is a rather frightening scenario, but they have opened the door for much more. Perhaps it is time to move from traditional media formats, because in blurring the lines between politics and entertainment, comedians have actually managed to grasp people’s attention to important topics, which is much more than traditional media is doing nowadays. Politics does not always have to be funny, but there is nothing wrong in making it appealing to the masses; after all, politics is made of people.


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