Latenight's riotous laughs can also change public discourse

As recent events involving lewd photos being Tweeted and elected officials being shamed have reminded us, it’s never a good idea to get on the wrong side of comedians.

“I think politicians are scared of us,” says Bill Maher. “One thing a politician doesn’t want to be is a latenight joke. That’s a morbid death knell more than anything I can think of. Look at (Donald) Trump. He was riding high, and then he was a joke. That happened in the space of a week.”

And it happened partly because programs such as “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report” and Maher’s own “Real Time” slice up high-profile miscreants like a sushi chef.

Yet while they make us laugh, do they make us think? Better yet, do they make us act? Do those shows and others like them touch the American body politic, or just its funny bone?

“I think politicians do pay attention to what we do,” Maher says. “They know voters, especially younger voters, don’t always pay attention to the traditional means of information. This isn’t 1968. They aren’t forming their opinions based on a New York Times editorial.”

Robert Reich, who served as secretary of labor during the Clinton administration and now teaches at UC Berkeley, has been a guest on all three of the aforementioned shows. He says, in a broader sense, such shows serve an important societal purpose.

“Their humor acts like a national disinfectant, helping to kill off public hypocrisy, pomposity, narcissism and greed,” he says.

Yet how that is done is the fascinating part. After all, “The Daily Show” and “Colbert” are both on basic cabler Comedy Central, while Maher’s show is on HBO. Therefore, they reach an ardent but limited audience.

But among that audience are media types who reach an even wider following in the general public.

“What Jon Stewart has to say while arguing about (rapper) Common with Bill O’Reilly is not just seen by Jon Stewart’s audience,” says Robert J. Thompson, a professor at Syracuse U. and the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. “It’s replayed and talked about on the morning shows the next day, and it then becomes part of the political discussion.

“The ratings might not look that high. But their influence is considerably greater.”

And sometimes, says television critic David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun, that might not be such a good thing.

“A lot of media critics consider Jon Stewart to be the media critic, the uber media critic, the guru of media critics,” he says. “Whatever Jon Stewart says must be true. He’s a brilliant guy, a hilarious guy. But sometimes he’s very wrong in his media criticism. And when he’s wrong, he says something like, ‘What do I know? I’m just a comedian.’ He has this dodge where he doesn’t have to be held responsible for what he says.”

Zurawik also feels that many in the media feel intimidated by Stewart, and it affects how they do their jobs. “Media critics don’t want to be mocked by him,” he says.

Still, with Stewart, Colbert and Maher, it isn’t all skewers and barbs. Most of the time, but not always.

“For instance, when Jon Stewart went after Congress over the Sept. 11 first responders issue,” Thompson says. “That got the attention of certain people and it caused them to alter their rhetoric and eventually their decisions.”

No matter what topics are discussed or what impact the commentary has on actual people and events, the essence of these shows is still humor.

“I never do standup and talk about a subject unless there’s a joke to pay it off,” Maher says. “If you stop entertaining them, then nobody would watch.”

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