The Truth of Comedy
Last Updated on
A Brilliant Mechanism
There is plenty written about the media and the nature of its influence on public discourse. This is not quite one of those posts. Rather, this is an account of my personal journey through contemporary content consumption and what I eventually realized. I came to understand what a severely limited picture we get if we simply ingest what is fed to us over cable news. There is so much more out there for the willing, and it really doesn’t take that much effort to expand your scope and sources. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to travel, pickup a love of reading, and have a pretty diversified means of obtaining information and viewing content.
In this time of increasing media monopolization and the blatant dominance of money in the political process, it is essential to have various outlets and channels to learn from. I’ve already listed a few solid sources in the past (see Becoming Sustainably Motivated). This time round, I wanted to focus on the importance of humor, satire, and comedy for criticizing the status quo and questioning the established narrative. Satire is great for lightening up the weight of a frustrating news cycle, as well as helping to sharpen your own critical thinking. Below, I’ve shared some of my own media pilgrimage, and how I came to better appreciate the role of comedians in the political discourse.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ignored by the Media
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.
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 Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman’s, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (a pretty enlightening read).
While Chomsky continues to be a source of inspiration, it wasn’t until the 2016 US Presidential campaign that the message of a biased and constructed media truly sink 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.
Send in the Clowns
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.
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.
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.
Stewart’s 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 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.
Formerly of SNL (Saturday Night Live) fame, Seth Meyers now does his thing on a solo show, Late Night with Seth Meyers. Of particular worth is his segment, “A Closer Look,” in which he dedicates 7-10 minutes on a particular topic. Often these are the many falsehoods and blatant absurdity revolving around the current US President.
Trump Speaks Out After Cohen Sentencing
Seth is scathing! Although not often laugh-out-loud funny, he is quite adept at bringing out a smile, even in the most frustrating of circumstances. I mean, he covers items and issues that are enough to upset any sane person, but you’re not left feeling overly angry. Rather, you’re just shocked and the incredibility of it all, and are reminded that it’s okay to laugh. This craziness playing out in politics right now is definitely not normal.
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
Comfort From Comedy
I’m grateful for these comedic characters and their often poignant and entertaining delivery. As we near the halfway mark of the Trump presidency, their ability to lighten grim news is certainly welcome.
Unfortunately, the news has become increasing bleak. Climate change is already upon us, and is further exasperated by the Trump administration. The environmental deregulation and promotion of fossil fuels is the exact opposite of what needs doing.
Plus, all the constant international political turmoil generated by this present White House administration continues to be a source of anxiety, instability, and concern for many of us who choose to follow the news and remain informed.
Thankfully, these brilliant comedians help remind me that all this craziness isn’t the norm. Wrong is wrong, regardless of all the noise that floats across online and in the media. Comedians, and their potent satirical skills, can cut through a lot of the nonsense and help highlight the absurdity for what it is. I’m certainly grateful to have them around!