Since 2001, our culture has been marked by both the expansion of politically-tinged comedy and the harrowing, exponential growth of violent tragedies across the nation. Back in 2001, Jon Stewart delivered the most famous response by a comedian to the attacks on New York City on September 11th, and Saturday Night Live went on hiatus before inviting Rudy Giuliani onto the show with Paul Simon, to deliver a memorial address before performing sketches once again. When Giuliani performed, offering his “permission” to Lorne Michaels to restart the show, Michaels asked, “can we be funny?”
That question feels terribly prescient, more than a decade later, as the press is marred with the news of what feels like one tragic mass shooting after another. Shows like The Daily Show, now helmed disappointingly by Trevor Noah, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, comment satirically on the political sphere week after week. In doing this, they’re forced to comment, using whatever tone they deem most appropriate, on each national tragedy.
One only has to search “John Oliver + shooting” to find far too many videos of Oliver either performing satirically on the state of mental health in America, police militarization in Ferguson, or the church shooting in South Carolina. The fact that Oliver’s repertoire has collected so many musings on gun violence and hate crimes is a product of our culture — it’s not his fault that violent radicals make the news so often — but it’s still a grotesque series of videos.
Oliver chose to comment without comedy on the shooting in Orlando – when a violent, homophobic American allying himself with ISIS gunned down a gay club, killing 50 people – without using jokes. He delivered a quick, sober address pre-show. “This pain is so familiar,” Oliver said, citing the attacks in Paris. He ran a clip of the hundreds of volunteers in line for blood donation (which has its own stupid, discriminatory problems, leaving his address on a hopeful note. “And now,” Oliver said, “please our stupid show,” and HBO cut to his opening sequence.
Though it feels particularly gruesome to comment on Oliver’s commentary — two degrees away from an honest reaction to the horrific slaughtering of people who believed they were in a safe place — it’s still worth mentioning that Oliver continues to carry himself respectably. The truth is that many of us look to comedic, late-night hosts for emotionally resonant, complex reactions to the worst of the world. While news anchors at CNN have one role to play in tragic situations like this, folks like John Oliver and Trevor Noah operate with a different objective: to remain respectful of victims and those shocked by violence, while still framing the news of each week through a comedic lens.
In 2001, Lorne Michaels asked Rudy Giuliani, and effectively, the rest of his TV audience, “can we be funny?” In 2016, we’re still hoping that our comedians can pull it off.