The political world within cable news has long been dominated by the red-faced pundits of channels like CNN and Fox News, often conducting themselves under politically biased journalistic values and offering vitriol-infused rants or shouting matches between guests. A couple of the few refreshing voices for the past 15 years have been Jon Stewart, with his nightly take on things in The Daily Show, and Stephen Colbert in his eventual spin-off, The Colbert Report. However, the recent announcement of Colbert’s show ending and his step down to host CBS’s Late Show has led many to question what news source could now mix together comedy and politics. The answer, it seems, has risen with John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.
Both Stewart and Colbert have been criticized in the past for attempting to portray the news through comedy, as many other political news sources viewed their shows as satirical jokes that didn’t follow typical standards set for the news. The success of their shows, however, attests to the necessity of their existence, and Oliver follows in the same path. Last Week Tonight blends comedy into its reports, but is more focused on actually criticizing political figures and events. While many feel that the comedic aspect is unnecessary, it is exactly this facet that continues to draw in viewers.
When a key issue in every election is youth voter turnout, discussing political issues in a manner that is accessible to an 18-24-year-old demographic is essential, and is exactly what makes these shows important. While over half of Fox News viewers are 68 years or older, these comedic, political shows continue to draw in between 39 and 43 percent of their views from the 18-29 age demographic, and Oliver’s show will most likely follow suit.
In order to get young people to vote, you have to get them interested and, more importantly, informed. Adding entertainment into the mix just makes things even better. One way Last Week Tonight has succeeded in this is through the Internet. His unique brand of intelligent comedy is easily shareable given how often he’s able to bring up well-thought points while still garnering laughs and summing up the ridiculousness of political situations in a quick-witted retort. In an era of social media obsession, these smart yet witty sound bites make for a quick glimpse of the news and rapidly travel across social networking sites. For a demographic that is especially uninterested in political matters, drawing in viewers through comedy seems to be a highly effective way to get them to focus on the news.
While Oliver makes jokes throughout his segments, his moments of seriousness offer insight into the show’s reality of being well-researched and informed. The show draws out laughs, but his speeches often point out how frustrating many of his topics are. This transition between humor and seriousness more effectively drives home the feelings of anger and frustration that arise; as a result, these feelings successfully stay with viewers after the show.
While many were quick to write off Stewart and Colbert as purely comedic, groups like the Pew Research Center have found that viewers of these comedic, political shows tend to actually be more informed and knowledgeable than audiences of other shows. While Stewart and Colbert maintained that they were first and foremost comedians on Comedy Central, Oliver’s time slot with HBO seems reflective of his push toward information over jokes. Seeing how viewers of the former shows were more often highly knowledgeable, Oliver’s show may progress past this and succeed in even further educating a mass audience.
At a time of rapid technological evolution, the ability to adapt is essential. Fox News’ demographics are a clear sign of the oncoming death rattle of that brand of cable news channel. In juxtaposition, these hybrid political-comedy shows thrive within younger demographics, educating the new generation of voters and highlighting the show’s importance within the political landscape. While other channels are set in their pre-established ways, shows like Last Week Tonight will continue to thrive and keep viewers educated and entertained. Humor, it seems, may be the needed solution to American political disengagement.