News and Comedy: That’s a Laugh
First, the late-night comedy writers invaded the Newseum in Washington, courtesy of the Writers Guild of America East. Then, Jason Jones of the Daily Show infiltrated the New York Times. Around the same time, Stephen Colbert shows up as guest editor of Newsweek. Of course, comics have been appearing at news industry functions — Colbert’s past appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner comes to mind — for a long time. But finally, the mythical line has been crossed and the hilarious critics of the news are taking their rightful place in the actual news media!
After all, a lot of young people get most of their news from Comedy Central anyway, so why not marry the two? It’s a win-win — real-world exposure for the cable comics and a shot in the arm for the ailing news industry, right?
Believe me, I would have thought so. I’ve been a member of the news media for decades, and I love those guys on late night. I use the devastating critiques of the news media by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in the journalism classes I teach, and they’re real crowd pleasers — the hippest guys ever allowed on the bus.
But, the reality is it’s not good, just not good at all — and mostly for the news media.
I attended the Newseum event, “A Potentially Regrettable Evening with Comedy Writers,” which featured a series of fierce stand-up routines by J.R. Havlan (The Daily Show With Jon Stewart), Bill Scheft (Late Show With David Letterman), Anthony Jeselnick (Late Night With Jimmy Fallon), Matt Goldich (Best Week Ever), Tim Carvell (The Daily Show With Jon Stewart), Opus Moreschi (The Colbert Report), Tom Ruprecht (Late Show With David Letterman), and Allison Abner (The West Wing).
Anthony Jeselnick particularly rocked the packed house on the Newseum’s terrace level with its picture windows facing Pennsylvania Avenue. The event was so hip that I almost forgot I was wearing my best corridors-of-power sensible heels and pearls and sitting high atop the city overlooking the majestic Capitol dome.
But then, the comics overstayed their welcome by agreeing — against their better judgment, I’m sure — to symbolically don their own version of Washington costumery. They sat on a panel at a dais and analyzed what they do and how it relates to news.
The earnest Washington audience — lobbyists, policy types, writers, etc. — picked up on the conventional wisdom that the comics have become the go-to source for America’s news. They kept asking about it in different ways for an hour. The comics took the questions seriously at first, but then they grew more and more uncomfortable with what was starting to sound like a growing social responsibility.
As the crowd marveled at the comics’ ability to skewer the very people those in the audience spent their days courting or covering, the comics essentially said, while shrugging their collective shoulders: “Hey, we’re just doing our jobs. We’re just trying to make people laugh. Sure, we try to be accurate and not make up facts, but that’s as far as it goes. We don’t want people to use us for their main source of news.”
Then it hit me that the people in the audience thought the comics led a glamorous life and the people wanted the comics to bring that glamor to news. But the comics made it clear they work hard at their jobs, similar to journalists perhaps, but they’re not journalists. Their job title is “comic” and they report to their offices early each day with enough on their plates for chrissakes, and that usually entails keeping up with what journalists are reporting.
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