By Emma Reilly
Elm Staff Writer
Political satire has become an integral part of late-night television over the past decade. But popular talk show hosts like Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert aren’t just making jokes — they’re making change.
According to Nielsen, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” drew in an average of 3.6 million viewers over the course of the 2019–2020 season. “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” acquired an average viewership of 1.55 million and 1.9 million respectively.
These numbers reflect the immense reach of these popular programs — and it isn’t just witty humor that millions of Americans are consuming. It’s legitimate news, nuanced political criticism, and a consumable call to action.
According to a 2006 study published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, “infotainment-oriented media extend[s] Americans’ traditional news … to include a greater number of sources for political information, and in some cases, political mobilization.”
By broadly covering political issues and platforms in an entertaining and accessible format, comedians guide viewers towards a broader understanding of politics.
“The programs [provide] manageable, congenial content that gets down enough important information without tipping into paralyzing overwhelm,” The Guardian’s Adrian Horn said.
Comedic late-night shows also invite viewers to criticize the political goings-on they are being informed about.
According to a 2017 study published by The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication, “satire questions the existing political or social order, usually by juxtaposing the existing imperfect reality with visions of what could or should be.”
By questioning current political situations and structures, as well as individual politicians’ actions, comedians make their viewers aware of political controversies, missteps, and shortcomings.
Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” exemplifies comedians’ use of satire to highlight the flaws of a certain ideologies.
The program was “a complex example of satirical irony [that] force[d] the audience to see the conservative arguments made by [Colbert’s] character as shortsighted and ill-informed at best, or hypocritical and malevolent at worst,” according to the Oxford study.
Late-night comedies inform audiences of political blunders and encourage them to question the political groups and figureheads involved.
“When you make jokes about politicians, there’s what they say and what they do,” Colbert said in an interview with The New York Times. “With a guy who points east with his words and west with his action, that’s where all the jokes live.”
Even more significantly, comedy supplements the shortcomings of traditional journalism.
According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Communication, “the satire genre … is not bound to norms of objectivity… [and] may, instead, be more effective in confronting people with … discrepanc[ies].”
Journalists typically adhere to strict ethical standards when reporting on political topics, and they aim to keep their reporting neutral.
According to the Journal of Communication study, “journalists and politicians … interact in mutually respected role-relationships, where one acknowledges the legitimacy of the other.”
Traditional media is restricted by a need to remain moderate, factual, and unbiased to preserve credibility and relationships with sources.
Meanwhile, comedians like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Seth Meyers have an increased level of freedom within their genre.
Satirical political comedy relies on outrageousness, contrast, and caricatures — so late-night programs can utilize exaggeration and bias to convey political fact with more flexibility.
Also, unlike journalists, comedians’ sources and reputations aren’t put at risk when they criticize politicians — they’re under no obligation to remain neutral or to convey information with moderation.
This does mean that traditional journalism is a better source for factual political news and that journalists are better equipped than comedians to lay out the unbiased truth.
However, satirical programs convey political idiosyncrasies more openly than traditional media because of comedy’s lack of defined standards. This freedom allows comedians to move beyond the strict conveyance of information — with satire, opinion can be used to connect with audiences more genuinely.
Comedians “perform a potent social function, from breaking taboos to holding those in power to account,” Quartz’s Mary O’Hara said.
Political satire doesn’t just entertain and inform; it inspires action.
“The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” encourages viewers to support and get involved with the political and social causes covered on the program. According to the show’s website, they have “partnered with organizations dedicated to civic engagement, voting rights, racial justice, and COVID relief.”
Late-night talk shows use satire to question political structures and ideologies and to demand that politicians take responsibility for their words and actions. Through genuineness and humor, they inform a widespread audience and encourage the public to get involved.
According to the Oxford study, “the underlying premise of a satirical text is often optimistic, as it suggests we (collectively) deserve better.”
Late-night comedians poke fun at political mishaps, and in doing so, inspire their audiences to pursue the better political future they deserve.
Featured Photo caption: Comedian and talk show host Stephen Colbert has been applauded by critics and audiences for his ability to call attention to serious social and political issues — while still making people laugh. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.