Pundits vs. Comedians: Who Wins the Battle of Wits?

Jon Stewart, Bill O'Reilly, The Daily ShowComedy Central

The brouhaha that erupted over Stephen Colbert being named as successor to David Letterman’s chair as host of CBS’ The Late Show once again shined a light on the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of the American public that is still raging between comedians and conservative pundits.

When news broke of Colbert’s new role — providing him with potentially a much larger audience than his Comedy Central show The Colbert Report — right-wing commentators, especially Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh went on the offensive, decrying CBS’ choice as the potential undoing of America.

It was just the latest volley in the feuds that have been going on for years… or at least since Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999. When the Hollywood Reporter released its list of the 35 Most Powerful People in New York Media, the list included a healthy dose of both conservative commentators (O’Reilly, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity) and comedians (Stewart, Colbert, Jimmy Fallon).   

It used to be that comedians made fun of politicians and the political types would just ignore it. That was in the days before cable gave comedians significantly more leeway to discuss politics than Johnny Carson could’ve ever imagined.  To counter what they viewed as liberal bias, conservatives developed their own media stars to keep politicians from having to get dirty. So, who’s winning the battle?

The Pundits

O’Reilly seems to by turns enjoy his tete-a-tetes with Stewart and to be infuriated by the platform that Comedy Central has given Stewart and Colbert to promote a “liberal agenda.” Where he seems to have fun with Stewart, that playfulness doesn’t always extend to Colbert, who based his character and show largely on O’Reilly. “Colbert has built an entire career on pleasing the left,” O’Reilly said on his show. “It’ll be hard to fathom that 40% of Americans who describe themselves as conservative will watch Colbert.”

O’Reilly isn’t alone in his view that comedians are undermining the message that conservative policymakers are trying to deliver. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter has long sparred with Bill Maher over the views that he expresses on his HBO show. Coulter, whose books include How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must), is a frequent guest on Real Time with Bill Maher, offering a counter to the host on everything from welfare reform to immigration. Elisabeth Hasselbeck, first on The View and now on Fox & Friends, has also frequently called out comedians — most notably her former View co-hosts Rosie O’Donnell and Whoopi Goldberg — while promoting her own largely conservative views on subjects. As President Barack Obama found out, the conservative pundits don’t want politicians in on the joke either. When the President appeared on Zach Galifianakis’ web series Between Two Ferns, O’Reilly and others went after what the felt was Obama’s flippant treatment of a serious issue (healthcare reform). Of course, when O’Reilly said that “Abe Lincoln wouldn’t have done it” it led to a series of jokes.

The Comedians

Really, the comedians largely have it easy. Making fun of politicians is a time honored tradition, and an American birthright. From newspaper cartoonists to Will Rogers to Saturday Night Live, there’s always been someone taking shots at the powers-that-be. The difference is that more and more, comedians are offering an actual opinion on their beliefs beyond just the jokes, something that Maher on Politically Incorrect and one of his HBO predecessors Dennis Miller (now a conservative radio host) helped make fashionable. O’Donnell and Janeane Garofalo have long been outspoken on their views on gun control, women’s rights, and a variety of other issues. While Stewart, Colbert, John Oliver and the rest of the Daily Show group point out hypocrisy in both political parties — similar to what SNL has done for nearly 40 years — they make little effort to conceal their glee at puncturing holes in the façades of conservative political figures like Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum. In a recent commentary on The Daily Beast, comedian Dean Obeidallah opined that conservatives “fear comedy because they aren’t good at it.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the political influence that comedians like Stewart and Colbert have come to wield. “The problem becomes, are they the principle source of information for the country? Do they begin to move in and occupy the place that Walter Cronkite occupied or Edward R. Murrow occupied?,” media analyst Marvin Kalb said. “The unfortunate answer now is ‘Yes,’ they are occupying that space. The danger there is that people begin to take it too seriously and they begin to think that the joke is the reality.”

Whether it’s good or bad, there’s little doubt that potshots from both sides, pundits and comedians, will continue unabated for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, we know enough as a society not to take either side too seriously… whether they’re joking or not.