Jon Stewart, perhaps unknowingly, started a revolution with his takeover of “The Daily Show” in 1999. Fifteen years later, Stewart’s popularity, and that of his protégés like Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, outshines that of mainstream cable news networks among millennials. By combining political satire, news coverage, comedy, and the occasional serious monologue in the wake of catastrophe or tragedy, these men have challenged the traditional definition of journalism and what it means to be a journalist.
A 2012 Pew Research Center poll showed that 80 percent of “Colbert Report” viewers are between 18 and 49 years old. As for “The Daily Show”, 75 percent of viewers are between 18 and 49 years old. In stark contrast, “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News possesses overwhelmingly older viewership: 24 percent are between 50 and 64 and 40 percent are 65 and older. Well over half of those tuning into (61 percent) CNN are between 30 and 60 years old.
Professor Dannagal Young of the University of Delaware specializes in the study of the “content, audience, and effects of political humor.” She has researched the psychology of humor and published widely on the subject. Young believes that the statistics above reveal a frustration with traditional sources of news among young people today.
“Among millennials, authenticity is valued above all,” Young said. “In the world of slick, hyper-produced talking points and sound bites, content is produced to chase ratings and profit and authenticity is scarce. So, millennials look for someone to take them beyond the B.S., someone who treats them with respect and implicitly says, ‘You and I both know these messages are spin, this story is designed to appeal to a ‘target demographic.’ Let’s talk about what’s real, shall we?’”
Stephen Colbert shares Young’s sentiments about his role. In an interview with NPR upon ending “The Colbert Report”, he said, “We’re injecting ourselves into the news and illustrating what was ridiculous rather than talking about what’s ridiculous. And at our show’s best, that’s what we do.”
Undeniably, millennials enjoy what these shows do. A 2009 Rasmussen poll revealed that 40 percent of young Americans think that programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” “have been making traditional news sources obsolete.” But Young doesn’t believe that viewers of such shows consume news from these kinds of programs alone.
“I think that young people think that comedy shows are making traditional news obsolete, but in reality, they are not actually getting news primarily from comedy programming. Consumers of those programs are more likely to be consuming other forms of news that non-viewers of Stewart and Colbert,” she said. “This makes sense because you need information to understand the shows in the first place. That being said, the importance of ‘evolving’ notions of journalism is key for this group.”
Despite Bill O’Reilly’s claim that the viewership of The Daily Show is comprised mostly of “stoned slackers,” those who have studied political satire, like Young and Washington Post writer Amber Day, assert that those tuning in are astute and educated. Day reported that studies have found that viewers of “The Daily Show” are much more knowledgeable about current affairs than the average TV viewer.
With a predominantly young, knowledgeable audience, these comedians have a position of power and influence. Day writes that it is a “short-sighted” question to ask if they have the ability to sway a single election; rather, we should be focusing on how they influence people over the course of years, and what kinds of movements they inspire.
“The more interesting question one could ask about a piece of satire—or any form of political speech—is how it impacts us as citizens over time,” Day writes. “On that count, parody news is accomplishing plenty, and John Oliver’s program is a particularly successful one.”
Oliver focuses on issues that are not necessarily at the forefront of the news cycle—examples include net neutrality and Indian elections—and, according to Day, is “moving a step closer to activism” by “offering instructions to his audience on what they can do to take action.” On one occasion, Oliver asked his audience to donate to the Society of Women Engineers, on another, he urged his audience to attempt to crash the FCC website.
These comedians have made clear that in order to disrupt, to call attention to flaws in government, to hopefully inspire some kind of positive change within American society, one must remain an outsider to the glamorous world of Washington and its politics. In a December 2014 NPR interview with Terry Gross, Oliver remarked that comedians should not mingle among those they often target on national television. He said that comedians are “supposed to be” outsiders looking into the world that they mock.
“I don’t want to be at parties in D.C. with politicians,” he told Gross. “The comedians shouldn’t be there. If you feel comfortable in a room like that, there’s a big problem. That’s what’s so concerning about when you see journalists so comfortable around politicians. That’s a red flag. There should be a kind of awkward tension whenever a journalist walks into a room that politicians are in cause you should have done things that have annoyed them in the past.”
Young similarly believes that it is the duty of those in the entertainment world to remain neutral and, perhaps, somewhat friendless in the world of politics.
“It is the duty of journalists to be disconnected from the politicians they cover, but this is rarely the case in our current system. For a satirist to do his or her job well, he or she must be outside the system—and fearless. If you’re in entertainment to make friends, being a real satirist is probably not the best job for you,” Young explained.
Still, there exists a tension between “being an outsider” and possessing the amount of influence among young people that these kinds of shows seem to have. Stewart and Colbert gathered nearly a quarter of a million people to Washington D.C. in 2010 for A Rally to Restore Sanity / Keep Fear Alive. Colbert convinced viewers to donate large sums to his Super Pac “in order to actively support his critique of American campaign finance law,” according to Day. Oliver has taken his platform to a new level of activism by offering solutions to the issues he presents. Elias Isquith of Salon wrote an article in November of 2013 titled, “Sorry, Jon Stewart: You’re not ‘just a comedian.’” Isquith complains of Stewart’s repeated assertion that he is merely a comedian, not a pundit or hopeful politician. Stewart has remained coy about his personal political opinions, never overtly claiming allegiance with either side of the spectrum—though, of course, his show is undeniably liberally biased.
“Whenever Stewart’s political leanings become the focus of news, the pundit / comedian tries to hid behind a veil of supposed frivolity,” Isquith writes. “He protests that he’s ‘just’ a comedian, and mocks the idea of anyone taking him or “The Daily Show” too seriously. True, it goes too far to say that Jon Stewart’s barbs have an appreciable impact on public opinion polling. But it’s not unreasonable to say that Jon Stewart is a player in the political opinion arena, one with more influence than most, and that what he and his staff decide to cover on “The Daily Show” both reflects and shapes the political conversation of the moment.”
It seems a struggle for those writing and criticizing politics to remain separate from them. But Stewart, Colbert, and Oliver have strived to alienate themselves from the very system that they want to alter and improve. These men have reigned in a new era of journalism that does not rely upon minute-to-minute coverage of a given event, partisans screaming at one another, or a 24-hour news cycle. Comedy has evolved into a legitimate form of storytelling that has the power to illuminate hypocrisy, disorganization, and corruption in our society and political system and thus shake the status quo.