Move over, professors and newscasters. A new class of public intellectual now leads America: comedians. At least that's what Megan Garber, writing in The Atlantic, recently declared.
“Comedians,” she explains, “are exploring and wrestling with important ideas. They're sharing their conclusions with the rest of us...acting not just as joke-tellers but as truth-tellers—as guides through our cultural debates.”
Steven Colbert, John Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel, Amy Schumer, and John Oliver are just some of the names young Americans revere and trust for current events and cultural commentary. But they're more interested in the laughs than in the truth.
These TV comedians are quite good at taking the grinding gears of Washington and the mud-slinging of campaign season and turning them into riotously funny routines. But, remarks Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig at The New Republic, “no longer must we sift through the challenging work of being serious thinkers.”
Instead, we tune in to our favorite comic commentator and cynically yuk it up over the latest headlines. It's a ritual Bruenig says only serves our intellectual laziness and our longing to be in-the-know—to see through what everyone else takes seriously. But as C. S. Lewis observed in “The Abolition of Man,” to see through everything is the same as being blind.
And therein lies the problem. Depending on comedians for our news may make us feel informed, but it's little more than an illusion. In one famous study, Pew Research revealed how woefully uninformed most Americans—especially the young—really are. Just 27 percent of those under 30, for example, knew which party was in control of Congress. And just 15 percent could name the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
And that’s not the extent of the problem. As Neil Postman pointed out 30 years ago in his remarkable book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” “being informed” can create the illusion that we are actually “doing something,” when in fact we aren’t.
Comedy, writes Bruenig, is first and foremost entertainment. And entertainers “rely on mass adulation to remain gainfully employed.” To do that, they've got to play to the prejudices of their audience, making comedy a great vehicle for cynicism, but a bad vehicle for provoking critical thought or action.
Secular bulldog Christopher Hitchens slammed comedian and fellow atheist Bill Maher for exactly this a few years back. When Maher cracked a joke about then-President George W. Bush's I.Q., his liberal audience roared. Hitchens surprised everyone when he replied, “This is now the joke stupid people laugh at,” he said. “No one here is smarter than the president.”
When confronted with an actual tough crowd, other TV comedians melt too. For example, Jerry Seinfeld explained last week that he doesn't perform on college campuses anymore because young people label just about every joke sexist, racist, or homophobic.
Ultimately, that's why comedy is a bad substitute for journalism. It rarely challenges audiences, and comedians are rarely willing to sacrifice their punchline to point a finger at their fans.
But good journalism—real journalism—doesn't stroke our prejudices or coddle us. It challenges us, teaches us, and asks something of us. In other words, it tells the truth. And the funny thing about the truth, as Christians have long known, is that it's not always funny. But it is always freeing.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
Publication date: June 12, 2015