The Importance of Satire

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) site crashed on Monday amid a flood of requests from online users. The cause for commotion? A segment on John Oliver’s satirical news show “Last Week Tonight,” which on Sunday urged his viewers to complain to the FCC on behalf of net neutrality. At this point, it’s difficult to dismiss shows like this as light entertainment.

When I was a kid, my parents would almost ritualistically put me to bed and then watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart every night at 10. On nights when I couldn’t sleep I’d stay up and half-listen through the wall to muffled jokes about George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, no doubt confused as to why these things my mom complained about constantly were now making her laugh.

As a grade-schooler, I rarely had a sense of what the show was talking about, but could tell—from Stewart’s exaggerated yelling and my parents’ almost screeching laughter—that whatever it was was funny. As I got older I started watching “The Daily Show” with them every night, and it quickly became one of the primary ways I caught up on national news. Now, especially, I turn to satirical news shows like “Last Week Tonight” as a kind of buffer between myself and the unbelievable, often upsetting, goings on in the White House.

But as John Oliver proved for the umpteenth time on Sunday, this kind of satire is valuable for more than just entertainment—in some cases, it can provoke people’s attention to the point of incredible effect.

It can also serve as some of the most biting commentary, taking risks that newspaper opinion sections often will not. The Associated Press reported last week that Donald Trump is close to becoming the “most joked-about” president in late-night television in over 25 years, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. And it is clearly getting under the Trump’s skin; hardly anything can be said about him without a patronizing Tweet in response from the president’s official account.

Stewart, Oliver, Colbert and the rest of them have each denied that what they do is journalism. And I agree; they present news that has been reported by other people and make fun of it. But that doesn’t minimize the importance of what they do, nor the impact it has on the people who listen.

Above all, political satire makes people care. In my time as a consumer of news media I’ve undeniably been most loyal to these satirists, who take information that would normally be hard to swallow and transform it into something laughable. No one should read the New York Times and watch “The Daily Show” with the same aim, but satirical news coverage has proven—maybe especially in these last few months—to be capable of producing more than laughter. It can inspire real change, and we should be grateful for that right now.

Jenna Ramsey, Editor in Chief