Jean Barker

The rise of “Investigative Comedy”

2015-05-29 07:57

Jean Barker

Serious investigative journalism is dead or dying in the USA. Only publicly funded radio really bothers with it anymore.

Big news networks are the intellectual prisoners of their advertisers, and big corporations are the true criminals of our times.

Internet journalists don’t have the time to investigate. They barely have time to run a spell check. When you’re in it for the clicks, it’s a volume game. Bitching about the quality of online journalism is like complaining about the quality of a McDonalds chicken nugget. You’re too cheap to pay more people better to get the good stuff, so it’s your fault you’re eating it. I’m as guilty as you are here.

Even Vice, who at least leave their desks to do their jobs, and are making better money since they did TV deals, trade more in shock, schlock and sex than in analysis (still, I thank God they exist).

TV News outlets like Al Jazeera and the BBC make some attempts to put in the hard work, but they’re conservative, and have limited reach in the USA - Al Jazeera won’t get viewership from the prejudiced majority because they’re Arabic, and the BBC is just too British and balanced.

Americans demand their news be served with an unhealthy dose of hysteria, and in the case of Fox News, America’s most popular “news” network, this overdramatic, overly-partisan approach results in 60% lies. And it’s not just a GOP thing - pro-democrat MSNBC / NBC wasn’t far behind at last count with 44% lies, while world leader CNN came out as the least of liars, with 80 percent of their facts deemed “at least half true”.

So where can you get the truth, from the lips of a professional speaker who can help make sense of the facts and who will run their own investigations?

'Trust me, I'm a comedian'

An ex who was a comedian used to say this to me to make me laugh. His words have now become faintly prophetic - he was one of the more trustworthy men I’ve ever dated.  

But he’s more so prophetic because these days, if I want to know what’s really going on in the USA today, it’s to comedians that I turn for the answers.

I rely on Jon Stewart (and in the near future, South Africa’s Trevor Noah) and the Daily Show crew, and Larry Wilmore and the Nightly Show crew, to tell me what’s up day-to-day with America internationally and at home. Yes, Comedy Central relies on advertisers, so there’s no cursing, and they tend not to attack retail giants too heavily, but it seems their advertisers don’t mind humor regarding the legalisation of political bribery in the form of the Citizens United verdict. After all, it’s only a joke.

And then there’s John Oliver and Bill Maher, both of whom can do pretty much whatever they want, as long as they make people keep watching. HBO gives them a full week to prepare their shows, and advertisers don’t exist to interfere.

If I want to know about The Gap’s ongoing use of child labor in third world countries, or how big farming corporations exploit chicken farmers and force them to abuse their livestock and how the government does nothing to stop them, or just how hard it is not to buy something made by the Koch brothers, I watch John Oliver.  I know his team will have fact checked beyond the last few weeks of news.

If I am willing to sift through some blatant anti-Muslim and anti-Catholic sentiment, and happy to watch guests being interrupted all the time, to find moments of clarity and truth, I turn to Bill Maher for my weekly wake-up. Bill Maher - who was once fired from ABC for calling American long-range bombing in the Middle East cowardly compared to 911 - may not be perfect, but he’s certainly more courageous than those who would shut him down for voicing his opinions.

Laughing gas

Comedians are like the court jesters of the middle ages, or the praise singers of South Africa. They’re (mostly) getting away with poking the bear because they’re entertaining people.

Of course, watching investigative comedy shows (in case you are wondering, I did make up this term) is not just about a search for truth. There are other ways to get the information these comedians bring me. I could search through noble yet obscure websites, or do my own research, or comb wikileaks...

But why bother, when laughter makes discovering awful truths almost something to look forward to at the end of a long day on set. The comedians are the laughing gas before the dentist’s drill of reality. They make it possible for us all to learn things we would otherwise find unbearable.

Based on the growth in demand for these kinds of news shows, I can tell for sure that I’m not alone in loving them. Based on the controversy around Trevor Noah’s hiring, I can also tell that investigative comedy news is also no longer seen as “just a joke”.

- Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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