"Quick, send in the clowns.
Don't bother, they're here."
— Stephen Sondheim, "Send in the Clowns"
Thank you, Stephen Sondheim. Your iconic lyrics capture what is currently happening in news media. The clowns are taking over. Like the Fool in King Lear, they say publicly the criticisms we feel in our hearts and minds but are too timid to say to any authority. Humor can shield the criticism in social commentary, making it more palatable.
Jon Stewart was recruited, reportedly, for big money, to be the moderator of "Meet The Press." He declined. John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" on HBO has surpassed "Real Time with Bill MaherWilliam (Bill) MaherBill Maher, Isiah Thomas score over the NFL's playing of 'Black national anthem' Bill Maher criticizes NFL for playing Black national anthem 9/11 sparked a surge in Islamophobia — for years, the media fed the flames MORE," Salon reports. Stewart's "The Daily Show," and the "The Colbert Report" (he is to take over David Letterman's "Late Night" soon) are as popular as ever. Jodi Picoult remarked in an interview in The New York Times that Stewart "has a way of swiftly illuminating the truth when you think you're just there to be entertained." In addition, there is an afterlife: All of these shows reappear on daily digital shows, Salon, Slate, YouTube, Twitter, and others the next day to repeat their pointed analyses of the news of the week.
The comic-commentators do their takeoffs with sardonic humor, and off-color language, but they deal with serious issues — Oliver, in more depth — with no-holds-barred commentary and less political correctness than the networks and cable pundits provide. They are young, liberal but not doctrinaire, not given to the struts of pseudo-sagacity that characterize some "serious" sages of Sunday morning talk shows and the hosts of the weekly evening duels between partisan advocates on FOX and MSNBC. These comedic analysts' editorials on serious subjects are provided as entertainment, but entertainment with a strong and serious point of view.
Of course, part of the genius of these comic satirists is their effective, diabolical use of news clips to punctuate their commentary. But they don't pull their punches as network and cable pundits do, to assure "fairness and accuracy," such as it is. See Stewart's appropriately rough treatment of AIG's lawsuit to collect billions from the government that saved the failing company from bankruptcy.
The sharpest form of criticism is making the object of it a ridiculous laughingstock. Remember Mel Brooks's "Springtime for Hitler"? There you have it. Want the tough truth? Send in the clowns!
Goldfarb is an attorney, author and literary agent based in Washington and Miami.