The Brave New World of Muckraking Comedy

By Carl Unegbu and Ron Simon

These crazy times have demanded a new brand of comedy. With the news more insane than any joke a comedian can devise, this new comedy has partnered with journalism. Once facts were facts and jokes were jokes. But the two have merged with comedians now wanting to change hearts and minds and not just release a guffaw. This is comedy with a Pulitzer purpose, as the New York Times recently noticed. Funny is no longer funny, as Sid Caesar would say. Funny now investigates and persuades, with the hopes of knowing laughter too.

Comedy interacts with Journalism. Murrow meets Mirth. It has been developing over twenty years, but has reached its apex with Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. We like to call this new humor, muckraking comedy. Back at the turn of the twentieth century citizens were prompted to act because of so-called muckraking reporters, who scoured the filth to discover the truth for its readers. Our leading comedians now get dirty with the transgressions of politics and culture to bring some type of cleansing illumination to its audience. Laughter is the first step of the way to action and enlightenment. You might remember Upton Sinclair from school; his novels prompted legislation in Congress. Now you can see an electronic version of The Jungle nightly with such comedy muckrakers Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert.

Political Jokes Then and Now

Yes, there have political jokesters like Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. But they just wanted to release tension and basically affirm the status quo. Take this classic joke by Hope in the sixties: “President Kennedy is just winding up a nonpolitical tour of the 11 states he lost in the last election. He wanted to see how they’re getting along without federal aid.” Kennedy could be any politician. Funny to all sides, but ultimately harmless.

Oliver wants more. He posits: “Is anything about Trump funny anymore? I don’t know. Somehow the world’s most objectively laughable human has become a comedy graveyard where laughter goes to die.” Oliver recognizes that good old-fashioned inclusive humor is now hopelessly dead. The comic arrows must now be laced with some sort of poison. The world and its leaders are muck and your mission after the laughter is to change it.

Creating Muckraking Comedy

Well, this new muckraking comedy has transformed the process of creating jokes. If you are going to attack, you have to ensure that your jokes are as accurate and factual as anything in the New York Times. Comedy staffs now feature journalists and fact-checkers, reviewing every word to affirm it is true and factual, as well as funny. Lawyers also assiduously review punch lines to ascertain any possibility of defamation. The danger of muckraking comedy is that your targets will always be out to get you. Not to outwit you, just sue you.

Most people credit Jon Stewart as the trailblazer of this phenomenon in comedy thanks to his revolutionizing Comedy Central’ s The Daily Show. However, this new genre seems to have attained maturity at the hands of John Oliver in the weekly production of his own show HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Taking advantage of the weekly intervals between his shows and the absence of in-studio guests, Oliver, an alum of Daily Show and a protégé of Jon Stewart, is able to do a deep dive into an individual issue each week. Investigative reporting with savage laughs.

Oliver Takes on the Coal Industry

In this award-winning report on the coal industry, Oliver follows the journalistic principles of the muckrakers of old. He begins generally with the Trump Administration’s relationship with the coal industry. He then specially zeroes in on the safety practices of Murray Energy and the fatal collapse of the company’s mine in Utah in 2007. The piece was a smart indictment of the coal industry, worthy of Upton Sinclair, but with a large talking squirrel. His satire led to a defamation lawsuit by the company’s boss Robert Murray, which was ultimately dismissed by the court. Think how much research and comedy writing went into this piece, seamlessly intermingled.

We plan to explore ramifications of this radical muckraking comedy in future blogs. But first we want to understand the roots of the phenomenon. We had a conversation with one of its unsung heroes, Daniel Radosh. Radosh was a journalist for such publications as Spy before he became a writer for the Daily Show hosted by Jon Stewart and then Trevor Noah. Here he explains how journalism is injected into the satire, as well as the comedic differences between Stewart and Noah.

Now journalists play a very crucial role, something that Radosh considers a big legacy of Jon Stewart’s writing staff. As he puts it, “The Daily Show’s DNA” is becoming widely adopted as research and fact checking become commonplace in satirical writers’ rooms, the definition of muckraking comedy.

*This article was originally published in Medium, under Paley Matters. The co-author Ron Simon is curator of television and radio at The Paley Center for Media. Simon has been an associate adjunct professor at Columbia University and New York University, as well as a former chair of the Peabody Awards jury.

*For more interesting information about humor at large, visit Feedspot for the Top 100 Humor Blogs on the web. (https://blog.feedspot.com/humor_blogs/)

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. Please keep reading!

Suing JOHN OLIVER For Defamation: A Good Use Of Time?

Speaking of occupational hazards, comedians cannot help but irritate people and they do it aplenty. And, for what it is worth, they do get sued by those they piss off. This time John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, has been sued for defamation by Robert Murray, founder and CEO of coal company Murray Energy Corporation, over statements that Oliver made on his show in mid-June.

So, there we go yet again, along the beaten path, one might say, as another lawsuit is filed against a comedian over what he said on a comedy show. While it may be tempting for those with money and other resources to step out there and try to teach a comedian a lesson, one has to wonder whether such a move is a good use of time in a place like America.

But first, here’s what happened:

On the aforementioned episode of his show, Oliver had a segment in which he knocked the Trump Administration’s efforts to revive the coal industry and portrayed CEO Murray as a guy who had fought against coal safety regulations. He referenced the collapse of one of Murray’s mines in Utah in 2007, in which nine miners were killed plus how Murray falsely claimed that an earthquake was to blame for the disaster even though, as Oliver said, a government report indicated otherwise.

In response, a few days later, Murray sued John Oliver along with the show’s producer Charles Wilson; HBO and parent company Time Warner on the claim that the segment was “false, injurious and defamatory” and that it was based on the show’s biases against the coal industry and the Trump Administration’s coal policies. To support his suit, filed in [coal country ] West Virginia, Murray, whose company is based in Ohio, claimed that the show’s producers were fully aware that a report by a government agency [Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration] supported his own version of the events and yet persisted in running the segment that “intentionally, falsely and outrageously” asserted that Murray’s claim was false.

So, that’s Murray’s defamation case against Oliver. But what are his genuine chances of winning? Well, for starters, defamation involves a false statement of fact that results in injury to somebody’s reputation or standing in the community. Now in defending this case, Oliver appears to have two grounds upon which he can push back against Murray. In other words, he can actually get two bites at the apple.

First, since we are dealing with an alleged false statement of fact, it follows that “truth” is a recognized defense to any defamation claim. And, given the circumstances of this case, one can predict that Oliver will try to play the truth card. Prior to the show episode in question, Murray’s side had served a “cease-and-desist” notice on Oliver’s people demanding that they not run the offending segment. Yet, during the show, Oliver positively scoffed at Murray’s notice, saying, “I know that you’re probably going to sue me, but you know what? I stand by everything I said.” Hmm! Well, so there you have it: Oliver clearly anticipated this lawsuit as well as his likely use of truth as a shield against liability. Translation: “The truth shall set you free…”, as the saying goes.

Then again, what if for some reason the truth defense doesn’t fly. Does it mean Oliver is toast? Not so fast! Now since we’re living in America, he could then move the ball into First Amendment territory, where our nation’s high court has long since held that debate on matters of public policy must be “uninhibited, robust and wide open”. Under the law here, for Murray to win, he has to show that Oliver knowingly made a false statement of fact or that he was reckless as to whether or not the statement was true. This is the so-called “actual malice” standard, which applies to public figures. Now, Murray may not be a public official, but it is hard for him not to be classified as a “public figure” considering a number of factors ranging from his prominent role in the mine collapse controversy and the references to him during official hearings on the matter to his position as the CEO of what is regarded by many as the biggest privately-owned coal company in America. (He would at least qualify as a “limited public figure” and that’s good enough for this purpose.) Besides, this is a debate about an important matter of public policy and concern, namely, mine safety. So yeah, in this lawsuit Murray probably will be deemed a public figure subject to the actual malice test. And there lies a big problem for him because this test  typically is a high hurdle for anyone to clear and, as experience has shown, the analysis here is exactly where these sorts of cases usually meet their Waterloo.

And this is so notwithstanding Murray’s allegation that the show’s producers in pushing their biased version of events were aware of other reports which indicated that an earthquake was responsible for the mine collapse. The thing here is, if Oliver relied on a government report in forming his opinion on the matter, as he claimed, then he cannot be said to have acted with malice, a la reckless disregard of the truth. As a participant in a public policy debate, he was entitled to hold and advance his own opinion, however offensive it may be.

Yet, if all else fails (which is unlikely anyway), Oliver can always say he was just making a joke as (you guessed it!) a comedian. Here, as long as a comedian is understood by his listeners to be making a joke, it makes it that much harder for a defendant like Murray to claim that the listeners are taking the funnyman’s cracks as true statements of fact, especially when we’re dealing with a famous comedian.

Oh, by the way, speaking of making a joke as a comedian, Oliver could also simply decide to play his entire defense backwards from the way it has been presented above. So, he could, for instance, straight up claim that the whole thing was all a joke for the amusement of his listeners. And if that doesn’t cut it, he can then start taking his two bites at the apple as described above, namely, that the offending statements are ‘true” anyhow or, alternatively, that he was just participating in an “uninhibited, robust and wide-open” debate on a matter of public concern.

In the end, there are a couple different ways that Oliver could win this thing. On the flip side, Murray’s odds of winning are quite long indeed. Then again, Murray could be the sort of guy who finds it worth his while to hale Oliver into court and make him sweat some and spend money on lawyers. After all, the statements in his lawsuit suggest that Murray feels wounded by Oliver’s attempts to make fun of his age and appearance. Recall that Oliver also called the guy a “geriatric Dr. Evil,” for added measure. So, given the gigantic odds against him, it is quite possible that Murray might choose to press ahead in this lawsuit because he looks at victory in an altogether different way, however perverse and vindictive that might seem to the rest of us. Otherwise, a lawsuit of this sort against a comedian in a place like America isn’t a good use of time because winning on the merits just isn’t a realistic expectation.

Twitter: #@ocarls