Comedy as the new journalism

Photo Credits: ABOCON [CC BY-SA 2.0] / FLICKR

ABOCON [CC BY-SA 2.0] / FLICKR
ABOCON [CC BY-SA 2.0] / FLICKR
headshot_ssReflections after 10 weeks writing on comedy

After 10 weeks writing about comedy, I’m starting to think I could write at least 10 more, as the topic seems to broaden and become more complicated the more I explore it. I’ve come to see comedy as one of the most relevant forms of journalism today.

I have only scratched the surface of what seems to be an entire world of comics who are cumulatively an amalgam of all the comedy that has come before them. When I wrote about free speech and its intersection with comedy, I realized how many subversive comics had to come before people like Louis CK to make what he does acceptable. When I wrote about minorities in comedy, I began to appreciate the history of those comics overcoming obstacles and stereotypes and gaining popularity outside their communities — something I am optimistic about now as I look at big-name stars like Aziz Ansari, Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph and Leslie Jones.

With time and research, these histories could inform a more expansive analysis of comedy and its larger social and cultural implications. Without these histories, I realize now, the comedy I enjoy today wouldn’t be possible. This brings me to the idea of comedy as journalism.

Because comedy is a collection of history and because it, like all art, is a commentary on the state of the human experience, I think comedy is a highly relevant journalistic medium. In a conventional sense, people like John Oliver do the work of journalists through humor, making current events accessible to the public. In a Time article about Oliver’s rejection of a monicker of journalism for his work on “Last Week Tonight,” author James Poniewozik insists Oliver is, indeed, a journalist. Although Oliver himself disagrees, basing his firmness on the fact that his primary concern is being funny, this concern does not reject the possibility of journalism, but rather encourages it. As a genre that is meant to appeal to everyone, there is nothing better for journalism to be than funny.

Comedians often take on the responsibility of journalists. Stephen Colbert, for example, who I discussed in my article about comedy and the election, holds great power in his ability to talk about politics to the masses. As a consequence, he has a responsibility to positively affect how citizens vote and how legislators legislate. Like a journalist, during the election season, Colbert has the obligation to participate and engage voters.

Finally, comedians, if successful, must be relevant and interesting to the public. Like journalists, they must know their audiences. A example close to my heart is 30 Rock, the NBC sitcom starring Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. 30 Rock knew its audience. It has somehow followed me from middle school into college, managing to remain interesting and funny despite its repetitiveness and constant aging process.

Humorous texts, perhaps because of their oddities and inconsistencies, can stick with us more than others. They play at our intimate thoughts, taboos and likes, and ingratiate themselves in our psyches. Scholar John Gillon, in his paper “Why 30 Rock is not Funny (It’s Metafunny)” argues that 30 Rock is a very self-reflexive text, noting incongruity as its comedic form. He believes 30 Rock is funny because it creates patterns to be broken, which, when not broken, allow the show to be funny without really doing anything at all. Perhaps 30 Rock’s reflexivity, based in incongruity, is what makes it resonate so much with me. It feels more than fictional because it acknowledges itself as a show within a show.

I hope that by now it is clear that comedy, in many forms, is a powerful tool. It speaks about politics, freedom of speech, feminism, race, mental illness and humanity because it reflects the opinions and experiences of the speaker. In doing so, comedy becomes a device through which journalism is borne. Comedy creates an atmosphere in which the comic can speak about relevant issues to an interested public in an interesting way. John Oliver believes that good research is the key to a good joke. Like journalism, comedy cannot succeed if based upon lies. Although it may not be fact-based, great comedy often relies upon some universal truths, exposing the senselessness of other opinions on the issue at hand.

Comedy can balance being researched journalism and a human medium. It is perhaps the most effective form of journalism because it connects with the audience in an intimate way, making its subject matter accessible, making us laugh. If you disagree with the notion that comedy has larger implications, laughter may still be enough.

Written by: Stella Sappington — sasappington@ucdavis.edu

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