Tragedy + Comedy = Catharsis

Television’s jokers—from Saturday Night Live to Stephen Colbert—have long helped viewers make sense of horrific news.


Put John Oliver’s name into Google, and the first auto-complete option that follows it now is “Paris,” and for good reason. After Friday’s horrific attacks, Americans may have turned to the news, the Internet, and politicians for information and context, but they turned to comedians for relief. On his HBO show Last Week Tonight, Oliver provided that in its simplest form possible, as one of the first late-night hosts to address the attacks.

“First, as of now, we know that this attack was carried out by gigantic fucking assholes. Unconscionable, flaming assholes. Possibly, possibly working with other assholes—definitely in service of an ideology of pure assholery,” he told the camera. “Second, and this goes almost without saying: Fuck these assholes. Fuck them, if I may say, sideways.”

Vox called Oliver’s rant “exactly the right response.” The New Yorker declared “Vive John Oliver.” Vanity Fair praised him for responding “as no one else could.” There was nothing especially insightful about what Oliver said, but he tapped into the outrage and fury that many of his viewers were feeling. As such, those headlines captured a broader truth about what figures like Oliver do: Late-night comedy, in particular, plays a unique and crucial role in helping people deal with unthinkable tragedies.

“I’m sorry to do this to you. It’s another entertainment show beginning with [the] overwrought speech of a shaken host, and television is nothing if not redundant,” said Jon Stewart on the first Daily Show broadcast after 9/11. “It’s something that unfortunately we do for ourselves so that we can drain whatever abscess is in our hearts and move onto the business of making you laugh.” His speech that day is still widely viewed on YouTube, as is David Letterman’s, and the famous Saturday Night Live intro where Lorne Michaels asks Rudy Giuliani if the show can be funny, and the Mayor responds, “Why start now?” Of course, those were all shows broadcast from New York wrestling with an attack in their city, but each marked a cathartic moment for viewers around the country—and the world—who’d been stunned by the news.

The bar for late-night shows is a deceptively high one to clear. Yes, they need to acknowledge the weight of a tragedy, at least. But there’s a lot of grace required to do that without the traditional cynicism of a late-night host, and then to smoothly transition out of a more somber tone to get back to the comedy at hand. Oliver stuck to his persona as the fearless soapbox king, unafraid to use the starkest language possible, mirroring the anger and frustration that comes with helplessly watching carnage unfold around the world. Saturday Night Live replaced its cold open with a Cecily Strong monologue in praise of Paris, a classy tip of the hat to the city’s endurance.

Stephen Colbert briefly mentioned the attack at the end of his Friday show, but returned on Monday with a more detailed speech that praised France’s long history of brotherhood with America. He also noted the strange power of any action taken in memoriam, even watching the Paris-set (but U.S.A.-made) film Ratatouille. “Is Ratatouille a French film? No. Is it a valid expression? Absolutely,” Colbert mused. “Because watching a cartoon Parisian rat make soup is certainly as valid as anything I will say tonight, I promise you that.”

Colbert’s Monday episode also served to highlight how much things have changed since 2001 in terms of political discourse. Less than a week after 9/11, Bill Maher notoriously criticized U.S. military policy in a panel discussion on his ABC show Politically Incorrect, saying, “We have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away, that’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, not cowardly.” At a particularly sensitive moment, his phrasing came under fire, and Politically Incorrect was cancelled the following June after losing some major sponsors (Maher moved to HBO).

Yesterday, Maher was the guest on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where the two had a spirited conversation about the generalizations Maher has made about religion and how he relates Islam’s billion-plus followers to the philosophy of ISIS. The tensions between the two hosts shone through. “You see, my religion teaches me humility in the face of this kind of attack,” Colbert deadpanned after Maher mocked his Catholic faith. “Liberals have to say ‘no quarter’ to these kinds of ideas,” Maher said on the treatment of women in Islam, while dismissing the notion that any kind of war could be waged on ideas alone.

Their conversation went all over the place and touched on sensitive topics without reaching many satisfying conclusions, but it was the kind of thing that’s been virtually absent from network TV in the 14 years since 9/11. Comedy is a place for unpacking emotion and “draining the abscess,” as Stewart put it, but it should also be open to the exchange of deeper ideas, not just polemic. The kind of thoughtful discussion Colbert and Maher had is an early sign that late-night may be heading in the right direction.