Pointing out flaws in logic, character or good sense and exposing power and hypocrisy have been time-honored traditions of language, writing and satirical comedy.
Sarcasm, wit and making a sharper point about a person, topic or event make good satire. Using humor to drive a message home or to simply have fun with a topic are ways of coping with dreadful decisions made in society. Satire can also lighten the mood or educate about issues.
“The Daily Show” and its spin-offs like “The Colbert Report” and “Last Week Tonight” have taken satire into the modern era of social criticism. From Jon Stewart’s critical and left-leaning analysis of politics and society over the 15 years Stewart was on “The Daily Show,” to Stephen Colbert’s faux right-wing punditry taken to the next level and John Oliver’s approach to taking on liberal and conservative biases, it seems all have had one goal in mind: to point out the failings of social and political narratives by using comedy and satire in our freedom of speech society.
“The Colbert Report” was Colbert’s personal project and ended when he decided to step in as the host of “The Late Show” after David Letterman retired. Colbert’s intelligent comedy generated its satire to challenge authority figures who ignored facts for false certainty.
“The Word” was also one of Colbert’s greatest satire segments, starting with the word “truthiness” in the Report’s first episode in 2005. Truthiness came to define the show for the next nine years and Colbert described it as a certainty that avoids the truth.
Trevor Noah is the new anchor of “The Daily Show” and steps into the spotlight as his own man and not in the shadow of Stewart. Noah brings with him the energy that propelled him in South Africa, the drive to make people laugh at and tear apart the sexist, racist, prejudicial and abusive narratives in our society.
“The Daily Show” has been the most famous for left leaning and narrative changing comedy. The goal of the show from when Stewart stepped in was to use laughter and sharp points to continue on a cherished aspect of our democracy, the freedom of speech and expression to challenge the authority and hypocrisy of those in power.
“Last Week Tonight” has a new tone on HBO, which has been described as a singular drive to wade into the issues and take on both left and right narratives. Oliver’s comedic approach to satire is to take no prisoners. Sometimes seen as falling flat during segments by critics, Oliver doesn’t aim so much for cheap laughs as he does to inform viewers on an issue through satire.
Oliver does one thing that many others in satire haven’t — create a call to action. Oliver’s comedy is meant to bring about change by overcoming people’s apathy about the system. For example, after an airing of “Last Week Tonight” where Oliver covered all of the bases about net neutrality, from Facebook and internet brands partnering with activists to protect net neutrality, to equating the cable companies’ move to establish a two-tiered system with a mob shakedown, Oliver called on his viewers to complain to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The traffic from Oliver’s call to action crashed the FCC’s website. An unintended consequence, but a point not missed by the FCC.
Satire has many tools at its disposal, but none has been proven more powerful than a call to action.
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