“There are going to be a lot of other voices saying terrible things, and so if you say something just as terrible, it’s not going to resonate,” Huskey said. “It could be just as easily co-opted by those saying terrible things as well, and get spread around and misinterpreted. It’s up to comedians to be much more aware of the message they’re sending. Whether the satire or irony of it, make sure that it reads, and isn’t some kind of meme that can be picked up by white nationalists. It’s a very delicate time. I think a lot of people will have to be a little less cavalier about what they say and how they say it. If you’re going to say something maybe it will just become more pointed.”
There’s also the fear that political comedy only lands in the echo chamber. Apatow points out that comedians took on Trump during the election in a way that the media didn’t — yet the reality TV host was still elected to the most powerful job in the world.
“We would hope that the brilliant satire that the people like John Oliver and Samantha Bee and Bill Maher and Seth Meyers did throughout the campaign, that it would have woken people up to certain things they should be concerned about,” Apatow said. “But I’m not sure it did. I don’t know if they’re preaching to the converted or they’re helping a new younger generation decide what they believe. It’s hard to know the impact of comedy in this environment.”
Apatow said that also places comedians in a delicate balance. While funny remains their first job, the stakes are higher.
“I think everyone has to keep it up and pay attention, because a lot of people find out about hypocrisy through the comedy and research of all these shows, so it will be very important,” he said. “But I don’t know if it’s the linchpin that will alter anything, and it may just be about us getting a laugh at the end of a very stressful day of new information.”
Pete Holmes, star of the new HBO series “Crashing,” said there needs to be a role for comedians who want to take audiences’ minds off real world troubles.
“I tend to go out and try and give people a 15-minute break and be silly because, personally, I need that,” he said. “It’s a mutually beneficial thing. I’m up there and they’re laughing, but we’re all at the show together. Some people go at it hard, and I think that’s wonderful. They will speak truth to power, and I’m excited to see that. And then there’s also still room for some silliness, whatever kind of gets us through the night.”
However, those comedians who go at it “hard” reject the notion that they’re performing the role of truth-seeking journalists. As Jon Stewart did during his reign as leader of “The Daily Show,” hosts like Bee, John Oliver, Seth Meyers, and Stephen Colbert bristle at the notion that they’re filling a media void.
Bell notes there’s a reason behind that: If topical comedy shows had to actually act like real news operations, they’d lose their bite.
“You want to hold onto the job description of comedian as tightly as possible because comedians are allowed to and expected to have a perspective,” he said. “When you start getting lumped doing journalists, then people start to expect you to become even handed. I think that’s why people are turning to comedians, because if you turn on Trevor Noah or Samantha Bee, or John Oliver, you know you’re going to get their perspective on what’s happening. When people say to me, ‘You’re a journalist now because you’re on CNN,’ I go, ‘I am?’ Because I know that when I look at who is a journalist at CNN and what I am, we’re doing different things.”
Said “Full Frontal” executive producer Jo Miller: “We’re commentary and POV, but we’re not a news room.”
Nonetheless, just like their journalism peers, topical comedy shows must race to keep up with the headlines. Just this week, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” was forced to rewrite an entire portion of its show to address late-breaking Trump news – pushing a previously produced segment to Facebook that streamed as a post-show bonus clip.
“You think, ‘well it happened at 5 in the afternoon and that means it will be fresh by tomorrow,'” said late night host Meyers of the constant scramble to keep up. “But it’s not, it’s already faded so far in the rearview mirror because of everything that has happened since then. I can only imagine the magnitude of a challenge it is for actual journalists, considering how difficult it is for us.”