‘The Daily Show’ Effect: Why We Love (and Trust) Fake News

the daily show

“The Daily Show” and other fake news programs seem more real than real news these days. When did comedy become so serious?

These are interesting times we’re living in. The 24-hour news channels are inundating us with urgent breaking news stories. Sometimes, they do so accurately, but often times they’re just using urgency for the sake of ratings – which, I guess, are urgent in their own way.

Thank goodness we can find reprieve from the oh-so-serious news agencies with programs like “The Daily Show”, “The Colbert Report” and John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.” But why do these shows feel like a lot more than just satire?

Jon Stewart and his team (including Colbert and Oliver) cut through the bureaucratic bullshit, and expose the heart of issues many of us unfunny regular people feel intuitively while reading/watching the parade of “real” news stories that are so absurd. Three recent stellar examples of this include “The Daily Show” correspondent Jason Jones’ exposé on the issue surrounding NFL football team the Washington Redskins, and Stewart on both global warming and the real threat to Americans (which, no, is not Ebola).

The Redskins’ piece was reductive because it had to be, and hilarious because what Jones exposed is unbelievably true and awful and sad in every conceivable way. It made some Redskins fans look like completely insensitive jerks for wanting to keep the team’s offensive name. This is sad not just for the people it offends, but because it exposes how lonely and unfulfilled many people like these fans are without their sports teams – even if it means cheering on an offensive slur. One fan went so far as to question what he will be able to “leave his family” if the name of the team changes. It will make his excessive memorabilia collection moot for his children, he suggested. Never mind the ethnic slur the Native Americans have to explain to their children. It was so disturbing, we couldn’t help but laugh at it all.

When Stewart took on global warming recently, using a kindergarten-level demonstration for congressmen who simply don’t understand why melting ice caps mean rising sea levels, he broke through the layers of party-line denial with exacting lucidity. How can you argue with water flowing all over his desk? (And perhaps more pressing is the question of why so many conservative politicians continue to refuse to accept that these changes are occurring.) But when Stewart elucidated America on the real threat to our safety—which is not Ebola or ISIS, but heart disease—he made millions of viewers question why the ‘real’ news is so obnoxiously void of focus (on the real threats to our borders/arteries) and steadfast in its commitment to instilling unnecessary fear and panic. All. The. Time.

Over at HBO, Oliver has been taking things even further with “60 Minutes”-worthy investigative pieces on issues including the unbelievable legal practice of civil forfeiture, and shocking immigration issues for translators who’ve helped the U.S. armed forces in regions including Iraq and Afghanistan. His latest rant on sugar is melt-in-your-mouth worthy goodness pointing the finger not at Americans who lack self-restraint from junk food, but at the industry pushing this unhealthy ingredient at us in absurd ways (spoiler: the Clamato juice reference is laugh out loud hilarious).

Then there’s Russell Brand, an EcoSalon favorite. I’m currently halfway through his latest book, “Revolution”, which is part spiritual memoir, part call to overthrow the current system, and a totally candid glimpse of his commitment to expose corruption and usher in a radical new approach to, well, everything. Brand also hosts “The Trews”, his YouTube channel’s “true news” take on daily issues. The segments ring true with intelligible clarity, even despite his heavy British accent.

So why is it that comedians are moving front and center as trusted sources for serious issues? Comedy is so funny because it’s often so true; that’s been the case forever. George Carlin was a master of eye-opening observations that were capable of flipping the script on what we’ve been told by authorities and news agencies. Dave Chappelle, Louis CK, even Jerry Seinfeld all illuminate the dark corners of human nature that can no longer be unseen after they’ve been exposed. (What’s the deal with that?)

Technology is certainly a factor in why these programs are becoming so successful and going viral, but it feels like there’s something else making them feel so prescient right now. Every time Stephen Colbert makes a ludicrous statement in his conservative pundit character, he brilliantly exposes the reason why it’s so ludicrous in the first place. It’s almost like he’s giving us a tool to use when watching the “real” news – like a magic decoder ring (that actually works). Which, of course, we’ll actually need now that he’ll be leaving at the end of the year to take over the helm at “The Late Show,” not as his pseudo-pundit self, but as just another funny late night host. Is that a sign of the End Times?

Shortly after the news of Colbert leaving for CBS, it was revealed that Stewart turned down a job at “Meet the Press,” NBC’s Sunday news program that he could have taken to a whole new realm of news reporting. But he declined, even though he was reportedly offered as much money as he wanted, opting instead to stick with comedy, and for good reason. Comedy as the medium of choice offers the brilliant Stewart (and the rest) the safety of not being taken too seriously, even when they’re tackling sobering issues. It’s immunity from the strange unsmiling delivery of mainstream news, and they can take it in any direction to get a point across, shining a light onto the glaring cracks and holes in our news and political systems. And most times, they do a better job with comedy as a tool than most “objective” news agencies do, save for a very few.

So what’s next? Can we nudge these comedians into politics, for real? Can we get them work for the actual news industries? If Stewart won’t take a position like “Meet the Press”, is there any hope that our news system will change? In Brand’s case, he says he’s giving up on acting and comedy and focusing on making the world a better place, presumably through his books, “The Trews”, and as he said at his recent visit to #OccupyWallStreet, contributing funding to organizations that are doing good for the planet. That’s certainly a beautiful start, but if we’re to willfully evolve away from the precipitous mainstream news and rigidity of our capitalism-influenced politics, we need radical changes, judicious news reporting, and most definitely, a few good laughs.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.