Investigative Comedy: Redefining News and How We Get It
The investigative comedy genre rose to prominence over the last two decades and now dominates the late night industry. “The Daily Show” brought political satire to mainstream American television at a time when sensationalized 24/7 cable news coverage and partisanship in the national government dominated political discourse. Jon Stewart, then a little-known comedian from New Jersey, brought younger and more informed audiences to his show through his style of comedy—one that spoke truth to power and called out hypocrisy when he saw it. The show entertained and taught viewers about the mainstream media, politics, and lesser-known issues that journalists failed to cover. Stewart also became part of the political conversation for much of his tenure: many election candidates stopped by to make their pitches and debate with him on the issues.
The origins of investigative comedy grew out of two parallel developments in television: broadcast news and late night, both of which have been airing since the 1950s. The inspiration for a political satire show came from Britain’s experimentation with the genre in the 1960s and 1990s, but U.S. audiences would not see a serious attempt at this kind of comedy until Chevy Chase’s “Weekend Update” in early seasons of Saturday Night Live.
Variations of his comedic style now dominate late night, as many “Daily Show” alumni including Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Hasan Minhaj, and John Oliver each host their own shows. As popular as investigative comedy has become, can these shows fundamentally change institutions of power for the better? Using five overarching principles of Stewart’s style in investigative comedy—Target the powerful, determine the larger narrative of the piece, highlight the process of what happens behind the scenes, call out the hypocrisy as host, and treat the subjects like idiots when out in the field—I analyze four significant moments in investigative comedy: Jon Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire (2005), John Oliver’s Net Neutrality pieces and the Federal Communications Commission's website crashes (2014, 2017), Hasan Minhaj’s Student Loan piece and the subsequent testimony (2019), and Jon Stewart and the 9/11 first responders’ legislative fight with Congress for the Victim Compensation Fund (2010, 2015, 2019). The first three cases find that the shows did enough to start a conversation about the issues raised in each episode, but they did not create change in policies that would remedy those issues because the shows are not in the position of power and accountability to do so. The fourth case is unique because the bill was passed, but only after most of the comedy was dropped for pure activism.
While investigative comedy is not a perfect genre, there are a few new routes that it can take: grassroots activism, more investigative “reporting,” more diverse topics, and a post-Trump comedy era all done by a more diverse group of late night hosts. Ultimately, the journalist still has the duty to keep institutions of power accountable, so the mainstream media needs to reform, first.