Fierce comics at the end of the world

August 7, 2014 Originally published on Huffington Post | San Francisco Chronicle | SFGate

Did you hear the one about Rusty Rockets – AKA Russell Brand – taking down Fox News’ ultra-doltish Sean Hannity, for the latter’s insufferable, bullying interview style and awesomely insulting treatment of particular guests who won’t say what he wants them to say – not to mention Hannity/Fox’s own corrosive, intellectually offensive comprehension of the issues of the day?

Did you see how Brand’s homespun video, part of the lanky British comic’s low-key “The Trews” YouTube series, went viral to the tune of 2.5 million hits (and counting) and not just because of the obvious moronics of its target, but also because Brand was somehow able, in a few short minutes, to meaningfully synopsize the current Gaza nightmare in ways no journalist or newspaper has yet quite had the nerve to do? Astonishing, really.


Russell Brand, getting more brilliant by the casual, offhand post. Click to watch him take down Hannity

How about John Oliver, former Daily Show correspondent and HBO’s new and ultra-likable, sardonic Brit with a thing for arcane data points and long diatribes about global economics, who recently slapped major media outlets (NYT, The Atlantic, all of BuzzFeed) upside the head for their increasingly shameless dependence on “native ads,” those sneaky, destructive articles that look, smell and read like actual journalism but are actually sponsored content – giant ads masquerading as articles – and fully 50 percent of readers can’t really tell the difference?

Oliver is fresh out of HBO’s gate with his new show, Last Week Tonight, but he’s already gaining fast traction for his affable-but-piercing tirades – all sorts of surprisingly gratifying rants that are, somehow, even lengthier and cover even more wonderfully arcane topics than Jon Stewart magically converts, four nights a week, into comic gold.

Oliver is merely the latest in what’s become a hugely impressive, heartening line of whip-smart satirists tackling complex political and socioeconomic topics, when no one else seems willing or able, not merely by making them entertaining and funny as hell, but also by doing the impossible: making them relevant and accessible.

And here’s the best part: they all seem to do it while largely not sucking up to any corporate parent, or by pretending to be beholden to decaying notions of “journalistic independence.” What a thing.

Don’t forget Bill Maher, who’s been doing his “McLaughlin Group on acid” round-table shtick – first on Politically Incorrect, then later on Real Time – for more than 20 years. Maher is, by far, the most smarmy and crass of the bunch. But, like Stewart, he’s also smart as hell, surprisingly insightful and wickedly funny; no one does a better job of skewering the absurdities of God and country with a sly grin and a rogue’s banter.

Funny thing is, Maher doesn’t even call himself a liberal. Or a libertarian. What he is, is hyper intelligent, informed, world wary, savvy to all shallow political gamesmanship. This is why most people – especially conservatives – think he must be a liberal. Because if there’s one thing Republicans hate, it’s a shrewd, biting intelligence that thinks major pharmcos are criminals, Christianity is a cruel joke and congress is full of intellectual cowards.

It’s a hell of a thing, this comic-as-truth-teller phenom, this trend of popular shows satirizing not only politics and the news, but how the news is covered, by what sort of blowhards and journalistic incompetents. Mark Twain would be proud.

Stephen Colbert, of course, made the right-wing blowhard persona into an art form, pitch perfect and savagely indistinguishable – save for the dazzling humor – from the bloviated spew of the king of all right-wing demagoguery, Bill “Papa Bear” O’Reilly.

It’s Stewart who almost singlehandedly reinvented the culturally astute, satiric news show and made into something absolutely vibrant and essential

But really, all true props for this phenomenon belong to Jon Stewart. It’s Stewart who almost singlehandedly reinvented the culturally astute, satiric news show and made into something absolutely vibrant and essential, the thing you simply must watch if you want to be truly informed in the relentlessly crammed Information Age.

It’s been 15 years since Stewart took over the Daily Show and immediately swapped out Craig Kilborn’s cute news parodies with a format few imagined would ever hook millions of apathetic Millennials – a razor-sharp, wildly entertaining, news-driven comedy show that, despite Stewart’s claims to the contrary, is actually more informative and engaging (and well researched) than nearly any straight news outlet you can name.

(BTW, I’m very much looking forward to the day a female joins this tragically all-male list. At the moment, my vote goes to Amy Schumer, genius-level funny with acting chops to match, in possession of a seriously fierce understanding of cultural trends and sexual politics. Her current sketch show doesn’t much tackle politics or media, but give her a few more seasons. She could be a fantastic hostess).


The master

Have you noticed something? How there exists no openly conservative, right-wing equivalent to any of these progressive, brainy comedy creations? How there is no show anywhere on the planet, including on Fox News, that features a dedicated right-winger slinging whip-smart blasts of irony to gleeful audiences with fearless abandon – someone willing, as Stewart et al most certainly are, to tackle all political ineptitude, left, right and center?

Why do you think? Why are Republicans, by and large, not the slightest bit funny beyond flagrant sexism, dick jokes and “You know you must be a redneck” inbred gags? Why do they largely avoid all satire, nuanced humor, self-deprecation and savage irony like a plague of scary locusts?

I think I just answered my own question. The conservative worldview is simply far too black/white, good/evil simplistic, polarizing, limited, antagonistic. It is generally anti-science, anti-nuance, anti-intelligence, anti higher-education, anti-humanitarian, and anti self-reflection. All of which makes true satire not merely anathema to the conservative mindset, but also completely incomprehensible. And largely terrifying. No wonder.

But I think there’s another reason these shows – and brilliant comics like Russell Brand (his Morning Joe appearance from June of last year remains essential viewing, btw) – are so successful at appealing to Generation Facebook (and at winning 18 Emmys, 2 Peabodys and a Grammy, as the Daily Show has done), and it was Oliver himself who pointed it out in the episode mentioned above.

Here’s why: Thanks to Fox News’ “truthiness,” “native ads” and grossly sponsored infotainment like BuzzFeed, major media is increasingly seen as duplicitous, untrustworthy, unable to deliver an honest story without bias or corporate corruption. It’s a Catch-22, really – no one wants to pay for real journalism anymore, so media is forced to whore out its newsroom to brands and sponsors, which results in even more mistrust and defection, as the sacred, long-standing wall separating the news division from marketing vanishes and corporations increasingly take over the medium and the message.

What’s a smart, jaded, intellectually curious Millennial (or aging liberal, or educated human) to do? Who can you trust to tell you the reasonably unvarnished truth, in a way that’s not only informative and accurate, but appeals to your bleak, sardonic, the zombies-are-coming world-wary fatalism?

That’s right: to the satirists. To the badass, fearless comics, the only people not driven by policy, corporate sponsor or political agenda, but simply by a desperate need to highlight the most barefaced ironies, joys and scandals of life so as to make you laugh. And think. And maybe, just maybe get a little more engaged.

Not a bad trend at all, really.

Mark Morford

About Mark Morford