Comedians have become the most influential people on Planet Earth. Okay, maybe they’re only the most influential people in the American entertainment-media complex. But that makes them pretty damned powerful.
Sure, studio heads and producers in Hollywood still have the power of the purse. And media magnates still determine what constitutes news. But, comedians, through a combination of smarts, talent, and chicanery, have managed to infiltrate and conquer just about every field of entertainment, where they were once relegated to the role of “funnyman”, and have even made inroads into the media, where they were once only the subject of reviews.
By comedians, I mean men and women who often write their own material and perform stand-up or sketch comedy, not actors or actresses who sometimes play comedic roles, like Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts. The distinction is important because comedians, as they will be the first to tell you, are a breed apart.
Think of how many different fields comedians have infiltrated and conquered, particularly in recent years when cable TV and the internet have multiplied the opportunities for comics to be seen and heard and read.
In television, they continue to host / star in late night, daytime talk, and variety / entertainment shows. Many of the most popular sitcoms in syndication are based on the personas of stand up comics, including Cosby, Roseanne, Seinfeld, Home Improvement, and Everybody Loves Raymond. Comedians have entered the reality TV realm with Last Comic Standing and Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List. There are innumerable television showings of stand-up comics performing their routines in front of live audiences. And comedians host some of the most politically influential shows on television, such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and Real Time with Bill Maher.
Stephen Colbert, possibly presidential
And that’s just television.
Comedians are also disproportionately represented in the movies. A full third of the “AFI’s 100 Funniest American Movies of All Time” (released in 2000) feature comedians like Woody Allen, Lily Tomlin, and Eddie Murphy. Even more striking, 18 of the top 25 highest-grossing comedy films of all time, according to Hollywood.com, star comedians like Mike Myers and Adam Sandler.
A surprising number of comedians, such as Robin Williams, Bill Murray, Jim Carrey, and Will Ferrell, have crossed over into dramatic roles, with Williams even winning an Oscar for best supporting actor in Good Will Hunting.
Broadway, radio, and the recording industry: all have surrendered to the attack of the comedians.
The publishing world is not immune, either. It’s de rigueur for comics to write books based on their lives and/or their comedy routines. Jon Stewart went further by taking on American history with America (The Book). Bill Maher is a political columnist for the online magazine Salon. And Steve Martin has become a modern-day Renaissance man, writing satires and essays for The New Yorker and penning the novel The Pleasure of My Company and the novella, Shopgirl.
It may at first seem absurd and more than a little frightening that comedians—people who tell jokes for a living—would have such sway in our culture. And yet, if you think about what the best comedians do—speak the truth, and sometimes even speak truth to power—their ascendancy in the world of entertainment and media makes perfect sense. Truth, after all, is the basis for art in all its forms.
Moreover, in times like these when the supply of truth is dwindling, truth tellers become even more valuable to society. When Kathy Griffin dishes about A-list celebrities, it’s not just for the pure satisfaction of getting away with, and getting paid for, gossiping (what a great gig!), it’s to reveal that the emperor has no clothes, even if he’s dressed in an Armani suit. And when Stephen Colbert coins the term “truthiness” to describe the squishy, unsubstantiated “truth” that our President so often uses to convince the public to support him in his devastating course of action, that’s truth-telling in its highest form.
Yet, every now and then, there’s a backlash against comedians who some members of the public feel have overstepped their bounds. After all, comedians are just here to make us laugh, right? So, when Bill Maher insisted that the 9/11 terrorists who flew the planes into the Twin Towers were not actually “cowards”, ABC terminated his show, Politically Incorrect.
When Chris Rock hosted the 77th Annual Academy Awards, he insulted several actors by insinuating they were small-timers who got parts only when better actors were unavailable. This, combined with a pre-taped man-on-the-street segment in which a collection of moviegoers, most of them African American, said they hadn’t seen or even heard of many of that year’s nominated films, pretty much sealed the deal that Rock wouldn’t be asked back (even if he’d wanted to return).
And Rosie’s evolution from Queen of Nice to, as she described it, mimicking her conservative critics’ terminology, “big fat lesbian loud Rosie” who “attacks innocent pure Christian Elisabeth [Hasselbeck],” has caused an ongoing ruckus.
Of course one might question why a show called Politically Incorrect would get yanked for being…politically incorrect. Or why the producers of the Oscars would choose a comedian known for edgy, in-your-face humor if what they really wanted was a Billy Crystal clone—funny and immensely likeable, not provocative. Or what really went on behind the scenes in Rosie’s decision not to renew her contract with The View or finish out the final three weeks of the season.
On the other hand, the further comedians stray from their original role of telling the truth through humor and migrate into pure political commentary, it’s natural that the line of what’s “acceptable” is going to keep shifting.
Maybe the only solution is for comedians to skip the intermediary stage of becoming political pundits and, instead, become the first truth-telling politicians in the history of the world.
Stewart / Colbert ’08, anyone?
Jon Stewart, looking rather presidential