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The Political Power of Laughter

Published 10 Dec 2018
Ciara Morris

The contemporary political phenomenon of American late night television news parody represents a resistance to the power of the political elite, specifically President Donald Trump. Since the line between truth and lies; real and fake; news and parody have been blurred, the likes of Stephen Colbert from The Late Show, see themselves in a unique position to harness the heart of a nation against its own political administration. But how did this happen and what are the limits of news parody as a form of modern political activism in a post-network age?

Through the accessible and popular mediums of television and the internet, news parody has been highly successful in infiltrating the everyday lives of Americans. There are a few catalysts for this; the rise of irony as a mainstream form of communication in popular culture; budget cuts in journalism and the destruction of traditional news business models leaving newsrooms denuded of talent; and the absence of ‘truth’ in the mainstream news broadcasting the baby boomers were once used to.

News parody plays a constructive role as a platform for public discourse and political engagement, as well as a much sexier deconstructive role as an artifice of the news and an investigator of truth. American journalist, Bill Moyers once said “you simply can’t understand American politics in the new millennium without The Daily Show”. Jon Stewart, comedian and former host of The Daily Show, has been ranked amongst the most trusted ‘journalists’ in America.

According to a recent George Mason University study, Trump was the subject of more than 1000 late night jokes in his first 100 days of office. Since the election, Stephen Colbert’s strong anti-Trump sentiment has seen his numbers grow, to the point of surpassing the popular but less political Jimmy Fallon from The Tonight Show. Samantha Bee, from Full Frontal, who has also been blatantly protesting the Trump administration, saw her social content shares grow a massive 55% since the election and her viewership in adults aged 18-49 grow 37% between 2016’s last two quarters.

Although news parody is growing in popularity, it can and often does exist within a vacuum, serving to humorously reconvert the converted. The rise of social media as a legitimate and increasingly popular news source means more people receive news in an echo chamber of like minded online connections. It is no coincidence that as America has become consistently politically polarised, so too have its late night shows. Hosts are riding the wave of popular partisanship, influencing the way people view and react to politics. So can the likes of Stephen Colbert successfully rile up a real resistance against Trump? Or is it just liberal entertainment, a faux political call to action with no real consequences?

An important factor to consider in all of this is Trump’s reaction. Democracy surely requires discourse, dialogue, debate and deliberation that respects difference of opinion. However, the belittling of truth is a frightening reality that adds nothing to a democracy. Trump’s consistent deflection of the media, news parody and longstanding journalistic broadcast speaks volumes. One theory is, Trump could in fact be using the deafening news parody against him as conservative propaganda. With his fake news rhetoric, Trump is ensuring that Republicans see the news of ABC, CBS, CNN or NBC (anything other than FOX basically), in the same way they see the news parodies broadcast on these channels, as liberal bullying. In this way they are inclined to believe only what Trump and his administration deem to be the ‘truth’. It is interesting that an overload of the news parody liberals love so much could in fact be making Americans more likely to buy in to the idea of ‘fake news’ these shows are so against.

However on the other hand, the very reality of Trump’s aggression towards news parody proves Stephen Colbert does have some level of power to deconstruct perceptions of truth and influence politics. He has started the discussion and Trump has risen to the bait. One wouldn’t be surprised to find out, the likes of Stephen Colbert would be receiving a thank you card from the Democrats after their recent midterm win, even if just for their solidarity.

Ciara Morris is in her fourth year of a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the University of Sydney. After majoring in Government & International Relations and Chinese Studies, she is now writing a thesis on Australia’s diplomatic approach to China. Having spent her high school years volunteering with UN Youth Australia, Ciara has always been passionate about foreign cultures and international affairs. Ciara is currently a National Executive Director of the Australia-China Youth Association, and has been on exchange to Peking University, Beijing and Fudan University, Shanghai. Ciara is interested in Australia’s place in the world and our relationship with neighbouring countries in the Indo-Pacific, including China, as a re-emerging global power.

Ciara is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.