With the phrase “fake news” becoming so common in social and political vernacular that it has lost all meaning, the news sources that once held the title of “fake” have now, paradoxically, developed a reputation for some of the most insightful and honest reporting on television. This definition of “fake news” refers to satirical programs such as “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and its eventual offspring in “The Colbert Report,” “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver, and “Patriot Act” with Hasan Minhaj. These programs have clearly taken the late night, and even the streaming landscape, by storm, and developed a youth following that not only go look to the programs for entertainment but also to be informed with brutally honest commentary on current events.
The initial idea behind the earliest iteration of “The Daily Show,” first hosted by Craig Kilborn from 1996-98, was to simply parody news programs from the likes of CNN, MSNBC and especially FOX News. As the show developed, it grew into something else with host Jon Stewart at the helm. It held onto the comedic irreverence, while at the same time providing commentary on current affairs. The show’s early years are referenced with almost mythic significance due to a powerhouse crew of faux reporters with names like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Steve Carell. “The Daily Show” is where these now household names established themselves, with hilarious bits that not only skewered “legitimate” news organizations, but also the politicians they reported on.
There is an unwritten rule in the business of news satire of the denial of their own legitimacy. Jon Stewart always asserted that the goal of “The Daily Show” was just to entertain. John Oliver, when asked about the purpose of his show, “Last Week Tonight,” said in an interview with Daily Beast that it is, “not journalism, it’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second.” This tradition of denial in and of itself is a sort of rebuke of recognized news networks in that, if many Americans get their news from these satirical programs, what does that make the supposedly legitimate and professional sources? Considering that “Last Week Tonight” has earned multiple awards, including Peabodys and Emmys, the phrase concept of a “legitimate source” has proved itself to be a blurrier line than one might expect.
Although Jon Stewart finally left “The Daily Show” in 2015, and Stephen Colbert left the show’s network sibling, “The Colbert Report,” in 2014, the evolution of the genre has not ceased. John Oliver’s program has taken the format from a nightly to a weekly show, and moved to spending 20 to 30 minutes to explore one subject, establishing a base structure that would be adopted by similar programs to follow and earn it critical acclaim. Oliver also broadened the landscape of subjects covered to include subjects in the international realm, such as human rights in Tibet, Scottish independence referendum and the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union—the show has now spent three separate episodes discussing the latter topic. As a Vox article from last Sunday noted, no show that spends 12 minutes on capital punishment is “just comedy.”
The genre of news satire took a whole new leap in 2018 when Netflix released “Patriot Act” with Hasan Minhaj onto their streaming service. Minhaj, another “Daily Show” alum, established his own niche in the genre by basically taking John Oliver’s style of single-subject deep dives and turning it into TED Talks on steroids (or adderall, considering Minhaj primarily appeals to millenials). Minhaj is a talented host, and as NPR journalist Linda Holmes has noted, a talented “dunker,” meaning someone who is especially talented at landing short, stinging indictments on others. Minhaj doesn’t turn his program into a roast though, instead he chooses to focus on current events that are important and significant to him, be it through his personal interests or his identity as a Muslim Indian-American. While Minhaj’s cultural identity is in no way the primary source of his success (that would be his spot on delivery and oddly specific references to millennial culture), there is no other commentary through which viewers can both learn what a “lota” is (watch episode six) and the U.S. relationship with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia from the standpoint of a person who views that country’s people and culture as the reference point for his religious practices.
As one who grew up watching Jon Stewart regularly over dinner, I believe that these irreverent commentaries are far from irrelevant. The world of politics is a world that often times comes off as insincere and veiled from the public understanding, and perhaps the best approach to reaching into that realm and pulling out something honest requires a strong dose of absurdity. The reason these shows are so successful is that, in a time where nothing makes sense, they approach the world just nonsensically enough that they can discern it for us.