We’re currently in an age spoiled by political comedy shows. With the advent of Trump’s administration, existing talk shows have pivoted to have a political bend. New shows materialized out of the ether to give “voices to the voiceless,” and none dare bat an eye at the blatant self-righteousness if it all. Everyone is trying to say the same thing (“Trump bad,” essentially) so loudly that the entertainment aspect of their jobs tends to fall by the wayside. It’s too tempting an opportunity to have a modicum of restraint, and most politically-leaning TV outlets have given up the pretense altogether.
In a simpler time, Jon Stewart came up with the brilliant realization that people (especially young adults) would be more inclined to learn and care about politics if the news was packaged in a humorous light. As it turns out, he was right: politics are inherently hilarious and The Daily Show became a huge success, with many claiming it to be their sole source of news and Stewart the most trusted man in the media. Yet for years, either for a lack of talent, interest, or otherwise, no one even tried to challenge Stewart’s position–with one exception.
In 2005, Stephen Colbert, one of Stewart’s correspondents, was given his very own show. With Stewart producing and Colbert at the helm, The Colbert Report was born. The premise was simple: having Jon Stewart berate Fox News directly and indirectly week to week was all very well, but the treatment, by design, could only go skin deep. The Report distinguished itself by taking the concept of making the news funny and pivoting slightly to be about making Fox News funny, which turned out to make all the difference.
Colbert used tactics like manipulation, over-corporatization, pandering, and fear-mongering to skew the right wing agenda. Never breaking character, Colbert’s delivery dripped with sarcasm and solidified his smarmy facade in television history. What I loved about The Colbert Report when it was on and even more so now in retrospect was its unending commitment to the act it presented.
Almost every political news show, comical or otherwise, will inevitably turn to the audience for an “I know we’ve all had fun, but now it’s time to get serious…” moment, and you can practically hear the Full House music play as the pundit’s voice lowers and my eyes glaze over in abject boredom. The Report trusted its audience enough to know where the show’s real values stood, so when a scandal or an oil spill blew up the liberal media with chastisements and finger-wagging, Colbert didn’t need to do his set and then remind everyone at the end that he was just being facetious. Instead he kicked his feet back and leaned harder into the joke, because a victory for the right would be a victory for “Colbert” as well.
Essentially, Colbert respected his audience in a way that not even The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight could replicate, with both examples trying to tout themselves as journalists and comedians instead of finding a way to fuse the two the way Colbert did. Last Week Tonight particularly gets on my nerves for its schizophrenic tone and total lack of self-awareness, with jokes being peppered throughout a harrowing story about chicken farmers or the refugee crisis with the grace and subtlety of chasing medicine with Pop Rocks.
But the worst offense modern comedic political shows have committed is by far their anger. The biggest problem with the 24 hour news cycle is that every breaking story has always been treated like Armageddon in order to spur up enough ire to keep watching. Ratings come before quality, and I find it difficult to stay interested in someone yelling at me week in and week out when I could just as easily go online and read the news without the annoying middleman. I considered myself a fan of The Daily Show back in its heyday, but I always found it perplexing why Jon Stewart had to stop dead in his tracks every once in a while to give a poe-faced lecture about whatever topic happened to be trending at the time. Now, I long eternal for those days past.
I genuinely don’t know how John Oliver manages to get so worked up week-to-week about everything he talks about, but at this point it might as well be white noise, especially since a lot of the comedy comes from insults about people’s appearances which always strikes me as cheap. Even network programs like Late Night with Seth Meyers and, coincidentally, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert which tend to be less intense still have their own unique problems to contend with. Seth Meyers particularly is so against Trump that you could practically see the foam forming in his mouth when he talks about how Hillary led the election polls by 90%, a liberal estimate that ended up lulling the populace into a stupor of breezy contentment by the time the election proper rolled around. Meyers’s brand of commentating has become the left’s equivalent of Fox News, so unabashedly biased that facts will sometimes be bent in service of humiliating a man who looks like an overweight chimp rolling around in Cheeto dust.
We don’t need condescending reminders that the current political climate should be taken seriously, nor hand-holding exposes and half-assed jokes at the expense of some wrinkly old white men. What we need is a format conducive to the ridiculousness of our era, something that embraces the current administration with faux appreciation so that the audience can extract the news on their own without it being force-fed in between pot-shots and delusional statistics. Stephen Colbert’s lost his teeth, and while his new show may be experiencing an unprecedented high, it’s no wonder his best segments involved bringing his old character back from the grave.
Trump is a lightning rod of hysteria and hatred on both sides of the aisle, his ascension to the presidency a reminder that the American people are too wearied by the media to care about or believe what they have to say. They’ve cried wolf for too long, making everything out to be the end of the world so that a genuine threat could easily slip through the cracks. Instead of learning from their mistakes, almost every political show has adopted the exact same format of “news but with jokes” with no variation whatsoever. We need The Colbert Report to remind us what creativity is worth when everyone simultaneously rises up in one voice, shouting over each other to say the same thing.