Laughing our way to real knowledge


By Camron Owens

I hadn’t really considered the educational value that comedy can have until beginning college. A few weeks ago, one of my instructors showed my class an episode of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” to explain how radio waves are transmitted. Bill Nye certainly had a presence in my junior high science classes, but I never thought I would be watching one of his videos in a college-level science class.

His combination of comedy and science made learning the complex subject fun. I cannot help but remember random information that Bill Nye’s show taught me using its unique combination of music, science and humor.

I am thankful to attend a university that has so many professors genuinely passionate about the subjects they teach. However, my favorite and most memorable lectures and educators have been ones that are able to relate their subject matter to the real world and incorporate elements like humor and pop culture into the lesson.

In a similar way, late night talk shows have taken Bill Nye’s roll when it comes to subjects like politics, culture and history.

I believe late-night talk shows seek to inform as well as entertain their audiences. By using music, comedy and satire, these shows can actually teach us different lessons.

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The most obvious example of the educational/comedy blend is “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” which has shown to have educational value, as evidenced by surveys that indicate viewers of the program have the highest knowledge of national and international affairs. In these surveys, “The Daily Show” surpassed several news outlets such as CNN and National Public Radio.

In the same way, HBO’s political satire show, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” has been shown to have significant effects on real world issues, which Time magazine calls the “John Oliver Effect.” After Oliver delivered a segment taking down the Miss America Organization’s claims about scholarships for women, the show instead promoted the Society of Women Engineers. The group made $25,000 in donations in the two days after the segment aired.

While these newer “news satire shows” are great and can make us well informed on political issues, more traditional late night shows can expose us to a variety of cultures and can make us more well-rounded.

For instance, last week, comedian Conan O’Brien made history when he aired an episode of his talk show that was filmed entirely in Cuba. This episode, coming two months after President Obama announced plans to normalize relations with Cuba, turned out to be more than a dumb comedy show.

In O’Brien’s show, he showcased the culture and traditions of Cuba, while also providing brief commentary on the country. After watching “Conan in Cuba,” I felt informed and had a better appreciation for Cuban culture. O’Brien’s use of humor to showcase Cuba made for a much more entertaining viewing experience for me than a documentary or a Travel Channel special.

Comedy shows like these can have benefits to us that we may not find in the classroom.

Take Jimmy Fallon for example. From watching him host both “Late Night” and “The Tonight Show,” I have grown to appreciate music that I might not have known about otherwise.

Fallon’s youthful energy and swagger can help younger viewers appreciate musical guests that are more of our parents’ generation than ours. Over the past few years, Fallon has had guests such as Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney on his show. While these might not be names that one would think could appeal to the younger audience that comprises Fallon’s demographic, I think it has helped expose viewers to significant music and artists they might not have looked into otherwise.

Even though education is not always the aim, it can be a side effect of these late night comedy shows. We should not discount some of the positive ways comedy can help make us more informed and cultured.

Watching a 20-minute segment on our nation’s infrastructure issues sounds boring, but in the hands of John Oliver, it is funny and interesting. The streets of Cuba may be foreign to many of us, but Conan O’Brien takes us there and gives us a glimpse of a culture rarely seen in the U.S. The music of Neil Young might not be making an appearance on American Top 40 in 2015, but Jimmy Fallon shows us that his music and impact is still relevant.

Comedy is not always highly regarded in academia, but I think the rejuvenated world of late night television shows can definitely help change that.

Camron is a junior in LAS.

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