When the Jokes Make you Mad

Aug 01, 2018

NPR’s popular weekly news quiz show, “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!!” has never lacked fodder for poking fun at the ways of Washington and various presidential administrations, going back some 20 years to its start. 

Most of its 6 million listeners, on air and via podcast, get a Saturday morning belly laugh from the segments that traffic in actual news of the week. And sometimes that news begs credulity to such an extent that it’s hard for panelists or contestants to pick what really happened from the decoys made up for the game. 

But in today’s polarized political climate, cries of foul and anti-Trumpism in the show’s jokes have taken on an acerbic tone. And some listeners assert that the humor has a political agenda. 

“I have been a listener for years, but just turned off the podcast in disgust – again,” wrote one complaining listener. “I always found the show clever and looked forward to it each weekend.  Now I’m tired of Trump and Republican bashing at every opportunity.   

“The show usually ends with the panel having zingers about Trump. I would not complain about the political humor if it were not so one-sided and arrogantly disdainful.” 

An earlier complainant wrote, “I am not a President Donald J. Trump supporter nor did I vote for him” 

He continued, “NPR, as with all MSM [mainstream media] outlets, are constantly bombarding the public with information presented in a manner intended to persuade the people to view the current President of the United States as incompetent, illegitimate, and unintelligent. This is otherwise known as agenda-driven journalism.”

When asked whether complaints about the show’s humor have risen since Trump was elected, Isabel Lara, NPR’s Senior Director of Media Relations, said NPR hadn’t noticed any overall increase in emails about the show.   

She stressed that “Wait, Wait…  Don’t Tell Me!” is not a news show. It’s “a comedy show that pokes fun at the news. Their goal is to make people laugh.”  

There’s no liberal bias, she said. “The show’s only bias is towards jokes:  What story (or angle on a story) will get them the best joke. As the show’s humor is based on the week’s news, whoever is in the headlines that week will get the most jokes, no matter what their political leanings are.” 

With today’s cultural and political divisions so pronounced, should the joke itself be the end game?

Since Trump was elected, there has been discussion in the overall comedy community about the role of comedy in this administration. Of concern is whether, in the rush to find the humor and deliver the joke, comedians might end up watering down, or normalizing, serious issues. 

Issues raised in articles addressing these themes include: Should laughter be a refuge or therapy to anxiety or stress for some parts of the electorate?  Should comedians balance the escapism of humor with truth telling? 

A late-2016 information survey in Paste Magazine, a monthly digital magazine about music and entertainment that gets high marks for factual reporting, surfaced similar thoughts from comedians of all stripes. 

Caitlin Barlow, who wrote, acted in and produced “Teachers,” on TVLand weighed in this way: “Comedy is a way to get eyes on an issue. … My job as a comedian is to shine a light on problems in our culture, further a national dialogue and keep people from slipping into complacency.” 

Keisha Zollar and Andrew Kimler, the interracial Harlem couple who produce the “Applying it Liberally” podcast, offered this: “The role of jokes during the Trump administration is more important than ever. They serve to provide levity during these stressful times and to avoid normalizing hatred towards marginalized people.” 

In my view, humor can be more than a laugh line. And, for some, jokes may be more effective than news reports. The jokes can become touchstones for uncomfortable truths and serve to call people’s attention to political choices that are being made by their elected officials on their behalf.


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