Send In The Clowns

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Comedians as a Source of Truth

There is lots written about the media and the nature of its influence on public discourse. Over time, I have also come to realize the limited picture we get when we simply follow what is conveyed over cable news. Fortunately, I was also lucky enough to travel, pickup a love of reading, and greatly diversify where I get my information and content.

In this time of increasing media monopolization and blatant dominance of money in the political process, it is critical to have various outlets and channels to reach out to and learn from. I have already listed a few in the past (see Becoming Sustainably Motivated), but I wanted to focus this time round on the importance of humor, satire, and comedy for criticizing the status quo and questioning the established narrative.

Birds of a Feather

Having been raised in Canada, I’ve consumed a lot of American culture! Indeed, most Canadians do, as we get exposed to copious amounts of movies and music, books, fashion, technology and television from our neighbors to the south. It’s pretty much a given. In addition, with the majority of Canada’s biggest cities within relative proximity to the US border, there is plenty of opportunity for frequent visits. As such, Canadians have been undeniably influenced by what we see and hear, and certainly share a lot of commonality with the USA.

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The longest international border in the world between two countries

Despite the political boundary, Canadians grow up with many of the same toys, sports, comic books, and celebrity crushes. It’s no wonder that we might also share similar accents or mannerisms. To the extent that when I travel to other countries, I’m often mistaken for an American. In Japan for instance, I’m told my accent doesn’t quite sound Canadian, but rather American. I hear the same thing when I go to the US. For some reason in American sitcoms (often with their fair share of Canadian writers), Canadians are represented with these strange accents who go on about being “soorry.” In reality however, most Canadians probably appear (and sound) indistinguishable from their American counterparts.

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Different Strokes

What does in fact differentiate most Canadians from our neighbors to the south, is our greater sense of socialism. Our values support a governing system in which our taxes contribute to free public health care and education. Yes, we do pay higher taxes in Canada (although this has been fluctuating depending on how you look at it). While paying taxes isn’t necessarily a Canadian’s favourite thing to do (we do often complain about it), it’s acknowledge as a required duty to maintain the established social framework. Indeed, the majority of Canadians are proud of our (universal) healthcare system. So there it is, we forfeit a percentage of our earning, but those funds help pay for a safer more supportive society. We’re cool with it.

Why it’s so shocking when we compare it to the state of affairs in the US! As a Canadian watching the US national debate over healthcare, many of us feel surprised and “soory” for our American neighbors. It seems pretty logical to us that this is something most people would want. Given that the US is also a democracy (and thereby reflect what the majority would want), it certainly does appear that there are other forces at work prohibiting this progressive adoption.

The Man with a Plan

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Click the image to read his recent message on the state of corporate media.

Feeling the Bern

During the 2016 US Presidential Campaign, the only candidate offering the kind of common sense changes that many Canadians would understand was Senator Bernie Sanders. Indeed, Bernie has been advocating for positive change for his entire political life. Even after the campaign, he still continues to travel around the US championing, “Medicare For All.” He comes across as a sincere public servant who genuinely has people’s best interest at heart. All the more upsetting that he didn’t get the opportunity to run directly against the current president. What was normal for us (north of the border), was deemed radicalized in the US.

For those of you who followed the long-running US Presidential campaign (it was hard not to), Sanders received very little coverage, and when he did, it was often in a negative light. At least from the mainstream media sources. Donald Trump, with all his controversy and theatrics, certainly received the lion’s share of the attention. Hillary Clinton earned a fraction, and Bernie was barely mentioned. This despite the huge crowds that Bernie was drawing, and all the galvanized hope for progressive change.

The crowd cheers as U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Fort Collins

It was during the campaign that it became clearer to me that the media truly does reflect a bias that can in turn manipulate public opinion. Not a radical point to be sure, and one that is often discussed across a broad social range (dissected in academia, or expressed with cynicism at the local pub). Censorship and influence are well worn topics when it comes to the media.

Manufacturing Consent

I had read as much during my years at school, as we covered these issues in my history, political science, and communications classes. I had even read Chomsky & Herman’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (an enlightening read to be sure). However, it wasn’t until the 2016 US Presidential campaign that it truly sunk in for me. Prior to that, it was something that had happened in the past or in far off places. Perhaps I had taken for granted that we had gotten past all that, particularly since the mass adoption of the internet. Well, I have since come to realize that the internet didn’t really destroy these manipulations but serve as another channel of operations.

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Bring in the Comedians

Thankfully, there remains a strong comedy culture in the US that is often nourished by the hypocrisy and injustice inherit in the country and around the world. When I’m feeling particularly dejected by some recent atrocity or government failure, I can somehow find solace in the words of comedians as they point out the nonsense.

Indeed, comedy seems to thrive in times of despair, and given Trumps win and the slew of unqualified appointments and policy changes that he has made that counter progress and climate action, it is a small wonder that comedians have a perpetually fresh supply of material to work with. That is, on top of the obvious failures of the current US President and administration when it comes to ethics, grammar, facts, and science.

Luckily we have an excellent assortment of sharp comedians who can both highlight these disparities and educate the audience in a fun and delightful way. Below I have compiled a brief list of some key players in the struggle against despair and irrationality in these trying times.

Michelle Wolf

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A relatively obscure comedian until last week, Ms. Wolf was the guest comedian at the White House Correspondence Dinner on April 29th. Although the current President (unlike his predecessors) chose once again not to attend, Ms. Wolf called truth to power and totally roasted the administration and major news purveyors.

The 2018 White House Correspondence Dinner

She has since been criticized for her “harsh” commentary, but it is by no means more cruel than anything the current US Administration has said, and on the contrary it is more based in fact that the official remarks often are.

Jon Stewart

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Host of The Daily Show for 16 years, Jon Stewart is a brilliant comedian who has a penchant for issuing scathing truthful commentary on current political issues. The man is highly intelligent, and he would leverage his wit to connect for his audience countless insights in a skillfully clever way. His show also became a platform for a cast of other equally relevant and sharp comedians. After he retired in 2016, hosting duties were taken over by the comedically astute Trevor Noah. Still he shows up on his protege’s shows, as in the clip below.

Jon Stewart To The Media: It’s Time To Get Your Groove Back

I felt the need to also include the following TED talk (below), as it demonstrates the power of comedy for criticizing the establishment and causing you to question your own worldview. As explained in the clip below, the speaker was raised the son of a terrorist, and would likely have followed suit had it not been for the exposure of such commentary as Jon Stewart’s.

Zak Ebrahim: How the Son of Terrorist Chose Peace

It is often stated that in a free society,  the media have the obligation to question the actions of those governing. It is not unpatriotic to criticize one’s country or beliefs, but rather love of country and society that should motivate you to think beyond the given narrative and consider what is truly best for you, your family, society, and country.

Stephen Colbert

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Stephen Colbert is truly awesome! Having also started out on the Daily Show, he then moved on to his own program, The Colbert Report where he aired on Comedy Central for nearly a decade until he took over The Late Show from David Letterman. On the Colbert Report he played a political pundit that was more conservative than the conservatives to highlight their own absurdities, contradictions, and hypocrisy. On the Late Show, he is able to pursue an even wider range of personalities as he can now be “himself.”

Donald Trump is like, really not smart

While The Colbert Report was on Comedy Central, and not necessarily constrained by the same norms as primetime tv, his transition to the mainstream did not seem to inhibit him all the much. On the contrary, he has brought some much needed relief, humor, and social critic to one of his country’s major television networks.

John Oliver

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Jon Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, is a gut-splitting British-American comedian who has a talent for highlighting the absurd and educating his audience in a very down-to-earth fun and entertaining way.

Trump vs. The World

His weekly round-up is a source of joy and learning, as he takes the time to deep dive into a number of topics that might otherwise have been overlooked in the headline grabbing media snippets that catch our limited attention

Doing Good Work

I am grateful for these characters and their entertaining presentations, as we near the halfway mark of the Trump presidency. Climate change and international political turmoil as a result of his (and his administration’s) actions continue to be a source of turmoil, instability, and concern but these brilliant comedians help remind me that this isn’t the norm. Wrong is wrong, regardless of all the noise that floats across online and in the media, and the comedians cut through a lot of it to help illustrate the point.

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