In a post-fact age, comedy lends itself to the hard news narrative
By Justin Sweitzer
We live in an age where we gravitate toward information that confirms our own biases.
We all do it. Whether it’s by closing ourselves off in our living room to watch the latest O’Reilly Factor broadcast or by only visiting liberal news sites, we all find solace in information that reflects our worldviews. The easy access to information that aligns with our beliefs makes it all the more important to seek news sources that challenge our own views.
In 2017, that’s an idea that’s hard to come by, especially since humans aren’t logical creatures, but emotional ones. That leaves us with few tools to work with in combatting our intake of biased information, and the one that’s most powerful may also be the most humorous—satire.
In a time when the country seems more ideologically divided than ever, few look to ruffle their own feathers and upset themselves by calling their own views into question.
Instead, after a long day we like to find relief inside our ideological bubbles, from the comfort of our own couch while we tune in to The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live. And that’s where satire assumes its important role as the brutally honest cultural critic that it is and enters its way into public discourse.
While often appearing like nothing more than a humorous interpretation, satire exaggerates reality to mock critical aspects of the topic at hand, serving as humanity’s largest social critic.
SNL has proven itself masterful at this since the beginning of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, caricaturing political figures to point out flaws in their actions and arguments. President Donald Trump was characterized as a pompous billionaire with flawed reasoning and faulty arguments, Hillary Clinton was portrayed in a manner that underscored her inability to connect with everyday people. Also on SNL, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is depicted in skits as the Grim Reaper, enunciating the alt-right views of the former Breitbart News executive chairman who has also been accused of holding anti-semitic views.
The Onion also makes use of similar tactics, writing obviously-false stories to highlight qualities that they think are both humorous and worthy of inspection.
The questions raised by these kinds of satire forces readers, viewers and listeners to grapple with questions they avoid in their regular media consumption.
In a TED talk from 2011 entitled “Comedy Is Translation,” writer Chris Bliss discussed how comedy built from truth is most effective at transforming our views about current events.
Bliss used parodical actress Tina Fey’s impersonation of former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin to demonstrate how “devastating” truths and facts can be when used as comedic material.
“Fey demonstrated far more effectively than any political pundit the candidate’s fundamental lack of seriousness, cementing an impression that the majority of the American public still holds today,” Bliss said. “The key detail of this is that Fey’s scripts weren’t written by her and they weren’t written by the SNL writers. They were lifted verbatim from Palin’s own remarks. That’s honesty and integrity and it’s also why Fey’s performances left such a lasting impression.”
It’s that honesty and integrity that Bliss refers to that is exposed through the use of satire. By fueling comedy with truth, facts get relayed in a way that is almost inescapable, and extremely crucial, in today’s media setting.
Bliss said comedy and satire “takes the base metal of our conventional wisdom and transforms it through ridicule into a different way of seeing.” Any tool that is able to expand our views in the current media atmosphere is a valuable one, and no tool is showing it’s worth right now more than satire.