The presidential debates are here: Obama and Romney on Tuesday, then Jay Pharoah and Jason Sudeikis on Saturday.
It almost seems second nature for viewers to await spoofs of presidential debates and spot-on impersonations of each candidate prepared by comedic and late-night talk shows.
With the changing role of social media, programs like “Saturday Night Live,” “The Colbert Report,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and late-night talk shows are becoming more and more prominent, not only as sources of entertainment, but also as sources of current events.
Dr. Tim Groeling, chairman of the department of communication studies at UCLA, said, “Whether it’s relying on peer-to-peer distribution of news or relying on news sources that are available online in a more compressed format, a lot of people rely on news that is delivered as a byproduct of entertainment.”
From political cartoons to satire in literature to talk shows on the radio with hosts like Will Rogers, the overlapping relationship between comedy and politics continues to persist.
Fred Rubin, a lecturer who teaches television writing and screenwriting for the UCLA Department of Theater, Film and Television, said shows like “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” exist because of politics. This relationship between the two elements opens doors to educate people who might not otherwise read the news.
“Someone once said, “˜If you’re going to tell the truth, you better make people laugh or they’ll kill you.’ … The danger is to sugar-coat it and laugh it off. The true satirist (looks) at the hardest issues by laughing at them to increase our ability to look at really tough issues,” said Dr. Dee Bridgewater, a lecturer in the communication studies department.
Young voters in the age bracket of 18- to 29-year-olds are known to be frequent viewers of this secondary entertainment news. And for some, this is the only news source they use.
Groeling said college students are often trapped in a bubble that makes it hard for information to pass through. The same phenomenon existed among college students in the 1980s when Groeling was attending DePauw University, where people were even less aware of the world around them than students are today.
“I think it’s a little bit harder to be that disconnected right now because your friends will be talking about it on Facebook. (For example), what proportion of students don’t know how bad Hurricane Sandy was?” Groeling said. “I think they all do and I don’t think it was paying attention to national news for the most part. It was because of this peer-to-peer redistribution of news.”
Jessica Felix, a UCLA alumna of the Department of Theater, Film and Television who is currently pursuing a master of fine arts at Northwestern University, said she addresses how using comedy and theater to shed light on politics have helped humanize the people behind these issues. For her application to Northwestern, she wrote an Occupy Wall Street musical that highlighted stories of individuals affected by the 99 percent movement.
“What (comedy) does best is take these candidates, these figures we talk about, on a more direct news source and (it fills) in the person that’s behind the name,” Felix said.
In fact, many of these comedy and talk shows are preferred alternatives to traditional news stations. Groeling said that not only are candidates able to speak to viewers who are not reachable through traditional news outlets, but they tend to get softer questions that highlight the relatable aspects of their personalities. For many candidates, there is a large incentive and reward for going on these shows.
Trevor Tevel, a fifth-year history student who regularly performs at The Improv Space in Westwood, said that while these comedy and talk shows make political news more understandable and accessible to the public, he confesses that some of his peers limit themselves by only watching these sketches.
“I know that a lot of people my age, they don’t watch the news … But to get your news just from political sketch isn’t enough. You need to be aware of what’s going on to get what they’re talking about,” Tevel said. “I (also) think you should be coming from an unbiased place … (because) Hollywood is (naturally) skewed towards the left.”
There’s also the chance people might take what is said during these sketches as reality. Empirical studies have shown that when given lines said by Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live,” people actually thought they were said by Sarah Palin, Groeling said. “I can see Russia from my house,” is one of the more well-known classic lines delivered by Fey but attributed to Palin.
Despite the disparity between comedy and reality that sometimes takes place, this cost still might not be enough for people to follow the news.
Being politically aware comes down to the classic economic problem of opportunity cost, where reading the news isn’t cost-effective and doesn’t always provide adequate returns. With the amount of time it takes for someone to read the news, they could be doing a number of other activities that could provide better rewards.
“They could have been surfing, they could have been making money, they could have been studying for my class. If they aren’t doing any of those things, it’s a bad investment. It’s a bad use of their time,” Groeling said. “For the most part, they’re doing things not because they’re stupid but because they’re being smart. They (just) have different incentives.”
But even if it is a byproduct of entertainment, secondary news is better than no news at all, Groeling said. These entertainment news sources provide young adults with engaging avenues that will break down the opportunity cost barrier of learning about current events.
“I think it makes a fair amount of sense for them to get this byproduct information, the cheap information that comes as a result of doing things they’re already doing because they enjoy it,” Groeling said. “Now, they might find that they come off sounding (ignorant) when they are talking to people who are involved with politics, (but) that might give them a little more incentive to find out more.”