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Oppenheim: The Power Of Comedy

Recently, I went to a performance in Burlington by Lewis Black, the comedian from The Daily Show known for an onstage delivery filled with agitation and outrage.

And the funny thing is, for me, Black’s outrage put some things in focus when he said, it’s not just what the Trump administration is doing, but the pace at which they’re doing it. It was one of the many moments I’ve experienced in my life when a comedian was able to tell me something I hadn’t quite put together myself – in this case, that the news coming from the White House – on immigration, the judiciary, the Russians, and all the tweets – is simply exhausting.

Saturday Night Live has had similar moments. Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of the President as a narcissist who can be manipulated is wildly popular. But of course, Presidents are common targets. What’s more unusual is how other members of the administration are being defined by comedy.

Melissa McCarthy has delivered an over-the top parody of Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Her Spicer character twists facts and shows nothing but disdain for reporters – while in real life the job of the press secretary is to be an honest broker, an intermediary between the administration and the media.

But McCarthy, by being funny, reveals a serious disconnect between the podium and the press – and a relationship that’s both volatile and manipulative. Regular news stories can’t quite capture that.

It isn’t new that comedy creates perception. Think 2008, when Tina Fey played Sarah Palin and said: “I can see Russia from my house.” Palin never actually said that, but the line encapsulated what some voters thought of her as a candidate.

Now, here’s maybe the biggest twist. If you watch the show live, there’s a good chance the President is watching right along with you. He’s made that plain with tweets condemning the program. And to an extent, that heightens the viewing experience for many of us - that the White House is reacting and sometimes, over-reacting.

In the Trump era, it seems the press is adjusting, trying to find its footing. More certain is the role of comedians. They’re holding the White House accountable, and speaking their form of truth – to power.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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