Political Satire Needs to Provide Substance With Laughs

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By Henry Cohen, Contributing Writer

At a media-obsessed university like NYU, political satire both shapes and takes cues from students. Studies show that the majority of teens and young adults now rely on comedians for news. Late-night shows and YouTube vloggers present current events with jokes and opinions, making them easier to digest than when they are presented as straight news. There is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of format, but it is undoubtedly going to have an effect on how our generation understands the world we live in. Consequently, it is important that political satirists take their roles seriously as not just sources of entertainment, but as sources of information as well.

Comedians like Stephen Colbert and the cast of Saturday Night Live have always presented the public with material that is both informative and hilarious. Over time, however, the lines between journalism and comedy have been blurred to the point where snarky, lighthearted shows that parody the news have become more popular than the news itself. John Oliver’s show, Last Week Tonight, is a prime example of a popular news-based comedy show that many people watch in place of CNN or FOX. Comedians like Oliver are clearly aware of their influence on national discourse, while other comedians — Jimmy Fallon, for example — have already come under fire for failing to adequately use their platforms for political discussion when their audience needed a news source they trusted at a time of political fission.

In a political climate where rationality is worth next to nothing, there is a delicate balance between making light of real political issues and being boring. But that lack of rationality is why striking that balance is important, now more than ever. To treat the gravity of current events with too much lighthearted irreverence can be legitimately dangerous, even though it is vital that those who consume news through comedy are made to understand what is often too nebulous or complicated to instantly grasp. It’s one thing to make fun of Donald Trump’s obvious political gaffes or goofy physical appearance, but it’s another to humanize his racist and exclusionary rhetoric. A good political satirist is able to use comedy to highlight the important parts of the news by knowing what to mock and what to take seriously, and in so doing is able to convey a message that resonates.

This need for thoughtful comedy does not stop with the political satirists of today. As we become increasingly reliant on social media as a news source, it is the responsibility of rising satirists to continue raising the bar for trustworthy and humorous news coverage. Many NYU students are hoping to pursue careers in comedy, and many of them no doubt plan to use their platform to discuss politics. They need to understand that being a comedian now means something different than it used to. Satire can be a powerful tool when used intelligently and meaningfully, and the next four years will be a testament to whether or not comedians can keep up with the growth of their influence.

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