Thursday, September 15, 2016

When Comedy is King

Great post at Washington Monthly (Title) by Nancy LeTourneau with a shout out to Samantha Bee and quotes from notables Jonathan Chait and Josh Marshall.

When political comedy works so well. The greatest insights come from looking at the world through a slightly different lens or from a different angle to reveal a truth that was hiding in plain sight. There is an economy of language in comedy that makes us laugh when the truth suddenly hits us - Colbert's reference to "the White House stenographers" at the 2006 correspondents dinner, for example, a simple truth made funnier because he said it to their faces.

When political comedy does not work. Foxnews attempts at comedy shows like The 1/2 Hour News Hour have consistently failed to make people laugh.  As a propaganda machine, Fox starts the narrative with the conclusions that they wish to be true and seek the facts to support those conclusions, while ignoring other facts. Propaganda statements are not always false, but the framework of propaganda is essentially a lie because the goal is to affirm belief rather than seek the truth in context, that is, the truth in the sense of underlying meaning - reality. Successful comedy, on the other hand,  hits you with the truth in context in a way that makes you laugh. When Fox tries to be funny, they come perilously close to giving away the ruse, what they are really all about. Why can't they be funny? You have to be committed to the truth to be funny. When you are constantly looking for facts or lies or distortions to support your conclusions, and not really caring which, that means you are also avoiding unpleasant truths that go against your beliefs.

Comedy Central is the real anti-Fox in this world, not MSNBC, not the NYT. Fox hits viewers with with conclusions, immediately stoking anger and resentment or hate and fear. Comedy Central hits you with the context right away, which makes you laugh when you recognize it. In each case the quick hits are effective and keep the audience engaged. MSNBC slowly dissects the narrative and eventually explains the context. MSNBC maintains a contrived balance of guests, which is fine for those who stay with it, a lot of chaff comes with the wheat. The NYT employs the weakest model for political news reporting - when you rely on fact-checking for fair reporting, you have already missed the point - letting the context be defined by someone else who may be a propagandist.

Comedy succeeds by observations of real life with interpretations of just what is going on. The NYT fair and balanced he said/she said reporting standard lacks any frame of reference other than of two sides fighting each other, presumed to be equal in all ways as a starting point. The fact that young people have regarded Comedy Central as a primary source of news has often been reported as a disappointment, but this is good news because it means that young people seek the proper context for news that NYT fails to provide and understand where to find it.  Just watch comedian Jim Jefferies on Gun Control. for an example of context in comedy. His sketch is much more effective as an argument for gun control than an essay could be.

It's not just a coincidence that the Foxnews narrative leads to so many angry people. Propaganda is most successful when it taps into hate, fear, and prejudice. Strong negative emotions help push rational thinking aside. As for comedy, you can't be an angry citizen who sees yourself as a victim at the same moment you are a detached observer who can laugh at the confounding state of the universe.

In a real sense, Foxnews masquerades as news and, if the effects on society were not so dire because people take them seriously, would succeed as a parody of themselves. The most telling example of this type of self-parody was the Saturday Night Live sketch of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin with a lengthy (nearly) direct quote from the candidate. There is nothing comparable on the "other side." Comedy Central is the anti-Fox because they do the opposite by providing immediate context for the news.

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