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How today's comedians get their message about social problems spread all over the Internet

John Oliver, host of 'Last Week Tonight' on HBO, is one of today's comedians tackling weightier social issues.
John Oliver, host of 'Last Week Tonight' on HBO, is one of today's comedians tackling weightier social issues.
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At any point you're on Twitter or Facebook, there's a good chance you'll see a headline like "Jon Stewart Cuts Through the Hypocrisy of the RNC in Less Than 8 Minutes." Or it could be about Key and Peele, or Amy Schumer, or Larry Wilmore, or Stephen Colbert.

The list goes on, and it's indicative of a change in the comedy world — comedians are incorporating serious issues into their comedy. Like this John Oliver segment on the recent federal investigation of FIFA.

This trend prompted Megan Garber, a staff writer at the Atlantic, to take a closer look at what today's most popular comedians are doing in her recent article, "How Comedians Become Public Intellectuals."

We asked Garber about the different reasons today's comedians are tackling weightier subjects, as well as what she imagines the future of comedy might look like.

Interview Highlights:

One of the things that your article premises is that comedians are not doing stand-up anymore. I mean, they are doing stand-up, but they are going to something bigger. Are they filling a void, or are they creating a new role for themselves?

I think it's a little bit of both. I think that first of all, we want comedians on some level to be filling this role. If you look back, the comedy of the '90s was so granular and microcosmic in its orientations — Jerry Seinfeld complaining about airplane peanuts. Which was very funny, and that kind of observational humor is always going to have a role, but it didn't speak to cultural issues.

Right now, we do have a craving to talk about things that are relevant or even difficult to talk about without some kind of humor — racism, sexism, all these big things.  In that sense, it is a new thing and a new role. In another sense, it's sort of what they've always been doing in some ways, and it is taking over where academics and journalists used to be as well.

Are they filling a void, or are they in some ways seeking to counter increasingly partisan news outlets like MNSBC and Fox News?

I think there is a little bit of that countering out, but certainly a lot of the comedians are themselves partisan — they definitely have a point of view, they have a political place that they are coming from.

But because it can be so hard to talk about politics without things escalating so quickly, comedy gives us this opportunity to have these conversations, and because it's through the guise of laughter it's OK. The stakes are not as high, and things don't seem as fraught or as personal. They can exist within that field of laughter, which is kind of nice.

Well, this clip from "Inside Amy Schumer" is not inherently funny; it's uncomfortable and it's a little bit awkward. Here's Amy Schumer acting as the legal defense for Bill Cosby.

You've described her act as comedy with a message. What is Amy after right here?

I think she is forcing the issue. So much of the Cosby story and all of the revelations and allegations against him were about this uncomfortable space around what we allow ourselves to accept from our celebrities. I think she distilled everything down to that profound sense of awkwardness and she really wanted to make us squirm. I mean, I'm still actually cringing just thinking about hearing that. [laughs]

It's not funny, and it is not fun or entertaining, but it is important to talk about. She is trying to make us reckon with ourselves and make us see the narratives that exist in the culture that can go unquestioned. She's saying, "You know what though? Really think about what you're advocating for when you say it's OK to ignore Bill Cosby or let him get away with what he is trying to get away with."

You quote in your article journalist Mike Sacks, who says that comedy can change people's opinions. In many ways aren't people like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert preaching to the choir in a sense? And secondly, given the vast size of the United States, aren't the audiences for these shows relatively small? 

That is definitely true. They do not have a huge audience, and certainly they all come at the world from a generally similar point of view, but these shows don't just exist as TV shows, they don't just exist for their late night audiences — they're also getting distilled on the Internet.

For example, the day after a John Oliver segment airs, news organizations will embed that segment and post it on their websites. A lot of sites do this. So what happens is, those segments and those ideas basically get filtered out into a wider public and into more of a mass audience than they would otherwise reach as just TV shows.

Then the ideas get talked about, journalists talk about the arguments that were made, and then other journalists go back and say, "No, that's not true." [laughs] There's a democratic discussion right there. 

Do you think that this is in many ways the future of comedy, that comedians are going to become public intellectuals? And do you think that the backlash towards Trevor Noah, the new host of "The Daily Show," and what he has tweeted in the past is indicative of the larger change around comedy?

It's certainly indicative, but even the idea that the new host of "The Daily Show" would have this sort of moral guidance for the country is pretty profound — that's a pretty new thing. I do wonder if it will last for a very long time. I mean, comedy is always changing and it's always adopting new subject matters and new tones.

I'm not sure if this situation will stay the same for very long, largely because comedians will say that they don't want to have this role. I think a lot of them are adopting it, and gleefully so, but a lot of comedians — John Oliver, specifically — will also say, "You know, I'm just making jokes. I am not having responsibility over democratic discourse". 

If that were the case, John Oliver wouldn't talk about the infrastructure problems of the United States. He goes on some tangents about some very obscure topics. 

He definitely does. It's very nice if you can have it both ways — to sort of play that influential role but also say, "Well, I'm just making jokes." I think comedians have long tried to have it both ways in that sense.

But I do think a responsibility over democratic discourse is a big deal and I could see it wearing on comedians. They get sort of wrapped up in the partisanship of cultural conversations, and they might not want to have that role in democracy. I could see it switching back, but for right now it definitely does seem to be the trend. 

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