Late-Night’s New Battle: Will John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Others Usurp TV News?

Analysis: A new cadre of talk-show hosts say they just want to make you laugh, but to do so, they are tapping the techniques of the newsroom

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One of the nation’s most intriguing TV journalists is meticulous in his preparation. Every video clip that appears on his show is fact-checked.  An attorney is often called upon to vet the contents of his reports. When some of his digging uncovered things related to the National Security Agency, he had staffers on his show give the agency a call to get its side of the story.

The reporter’s name? John Oliver.

Oliver wouldn’t nominate himself for a Pulitzer Prize (though he has won a Peabody Award), and takes great pains to explain that he’s just trying to make people laugh. “We are on the same day, and the comparison ends there,” he said of “60 Minutes,” the venerable CBS newsmagazine to which many equate his HBO program, “Last Week Tonight.” Yet Oliver is only one of a cadre of talk-show comedians pushing the genre into new territory. To be sure, many modern talk shows spoof and lampoon the news.  Now, a few are tapping research and field reporting to prove truths that run counter to conventional wisdom  – and breaking stories of their own.

“There is dissatisfaction with mainstream news media. More people don’t trust media than do,” said Julia Fox, an associate professor at Indiana University’s Media School who studies the way people interpret TV news and humor. “I think they have struck that chord, and now you’ve got these interesting spin-offs.”

At “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver takes an audience looking to laugh through detailed dissertations on Scottish independence, mandatory jail sentencing and chicken farming.  On “Full Frontal,” a new program that just launched on Time Warner’s TBS, host Samantha Bee has likely introduced thousands of people to Kansas legislator Mitch Holmes, who has advocated conservative dress codes for women. This week, Bee launched a two-part field piece that took her and a crew to Jordan to examine attitudes about Syrian refugees. On Netflix, Chelsea Handler is investigating topics including drug use and racism.

“We comedians hate it when we make a serious point, and somebody says, ‘You’re a comedian,” said Bill Maher, the talk-show host who has dissected headlines for decades on his “Politically Incorrect” and, now, on HBO’s “Real Time,” during his most recent broadcast. “Yes, we are comedians, and we can also make good points.”

There’s more to come. CNN will in April launch a new primetime series hosted by W. Kamau Bell, the comedian who led a late-night program on both FX and FXX.

Dismissing these efforts as something largely embraced by people with upstart programs eager to make a splash is easy, but some veterans are also trying their hand at this nascent genre. Conan O’Brien, the host who has the longest on-air tenure of anyone currently working in late-night, has begun traveling to places like Cuba and Armenia for specials that hinge more on his ability to assimilate into a new culture than his success in chatting up Eva Longoria or Megan Mullally. Jimmy Kimmel recently dispatched a crew to a New Hampshire polling site, where they asked voters questions with false premises such as what they thought about Hillary Clinton’s placing actor Sean Penn on the Supreme Court. Kimmel has also fooled news outlets with video purporting to show a crazy YouTube accident that ended up being staged, but was picked up by local news broadcasts around the nation.  Larry Wilmore, the Comedy Central host, early in his tenure traveled to Baltimore while that city was in the midst of racial unrest to talk to African-American gang members.

Even “Saturday Night Live” is getting in on the act: For the past two weeks, its “Weekend Update” segment has opened with coverage of Presidential debates that ended just hours before the NBC institution went on the air.

Part of what drives this move is a desire to push boundaries. Why keep telling jokey monologues and glad-handing guests with a movie about to come out?  “I can’t do that convincingly,” said Samantha Bee of interviewing guests who are on the show to hawk a coming project. Instead, she said recently during a talk with reporters, she is eager to examine under-covered topics through her own lens.

The comic voices rise as trust in established media institutions remains low. A June, 2015, Gallup poll found Americans’ confidence in TV news and newspapers was below the historical average for each. That doesn’t mean the nation isn’t interested in learning more.  Viewership of both the broadcast-network evening newscasts grew in 2014, according to Pew Research Center, while the audience for local evening-news broadcasts rose 3%. The primetime audience for cable news and daily and Sunday circulation for newspapers, meanwhile, fell in that year.  In an era, when most breaking news is commoditized by pass-along on social media, the findings suggest viewers are hungrier for analysis (evening-news broadcasts) as well as reporting that drills deeper on a particular topic or region (local news).

As that trend continues, U.S. consumers are getting more information passed along to them through non-traditional means. Whether they see a story on Twitter or get an in-depth exclusive from David Muir, Lester Holt or Scott Pelley, the details are all considered to be of equal value, said Fox, the media-studies professor. The rising generation “didn’t grow up with Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather,” she said. Whether they hear about a topic on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” or NBC’s “Nightly News,” any data can be worth their interest. “It’s a very different media environment, and to them, it’s all information,” she said.

Some of the hosts may demur. They just want to make people laugh. But their behind-the-scenes behavior is the stuff of movies about newsrooms. “Last Week Tonight” traveled to Russia to interview Edward Snowden, the former U.S. government contractor who revealed examples of global surveillance programs being run by the NSA. The tapes were divided among staffers in case someone was stopped by officials, Oliver said recently.

The research can be fairly intense. After the Snowden interview, “Last Week Tonight” producers contacted the NSA about what Snowden said to make sure they understood the issue properly, Oliver recounted during a recent meeting with reporters.  He prefers that the staff take as much as several weeks on the subjects presented by his program so they can make sure they understand the issue.  Staffers go so far as to examine the claims made in clips from mainstream news broadcasts the program uses each week. “Funny has to come later,” Oliver said. “If elements of a story collapse, it takes all the jokes down with it. It’s a layering process. You’ve got to get the facts and story first.”

Are people getting their news from his show? If they are, said Oliver,  “it’s a by-product,” and certainly not his program’s purpose.

Such talk could sound a little disingenuous. Whether or not the hosts simply want chuckles or attention, they appear to be doing much more. Denying it makes any of the comics sound like they are riffing on the preamble to Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,”  which itself generated controversy after its U.S. release in 1885: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

Satire “is an important kind of information,” said Fox, the professor. “It isn’t just silly comedy.”