By Alex Altman
More Americans are turning to an unlikely source for news: late night comedy.
During the 2016 presidential election, more people got their news from late night comedy than print versions of national newspapers, according to journalism.org. Among 18-29 year olds, late night comedy was more informative than network nightly news.
IT ALL STARTED
With distrust in the mainstream media at an all-time high, the Cronkites, Sawyers and Brokaws of the world are being replaced by the Colberts, Olivers and Bees in the pantheon of trusted news orators.
It’s a trend that started in 1999 when Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show. Stewart has since retired, but his legacy of exposing the hypocrisy and absurdity of Washington with humor, sarcasm and dry wit still percolates.
Every week, millions get their news from comics like Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and John Oliver — not coincidentally, all former correspondents of The Daily Show. Though each of their shows is formatted differently, they’re all predicated on a satirical skewering of recent events — especially those in the political realm.
Since the election, some shows have made political news an even bigger focus. This has proven to be ratings gold. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was reeling until Colbert made bashing President Donald Trump a staple of his opening monologues.
Now, Colbert’s ratings are through the roof. The day ex-FBI Director James Comey called out Trump in front of the Senate Intel Committee, Colbert finished first in the 56 local markets metered by Nielsen Media Research.
Colbert isn’t alone. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee has also enjoyed the “Trump Bump,” while Seth Meyers’ “A Closer Look” segments, which often focus on shenanigans in Washington, regularly draw around 2 million hits on YouTube.
While timing has certainly played a role in the rise of late night comedy, its ascension can’t simply be attributed to the decline of the mainstream media. For all of its punchy one-liners, an under-appreciated aspect of late night comedy is its penchant for delivering high-quality investigative reports, and bringing clarity to otherwise complex issues.
Whether it’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver traveling to Russia to interview the exiled Edward Snowden about America’s shadowy surveillance program, or Bee deep-diving into the global refugee crisis, late night shows are consistently thorough in their investigations while bringing attention to issues that would otherwise slip through the cracks.
There are a lot of silly things going on in the world right now, but the rising credibility of late night comedy as a legitimate news source is not one of them.