Fact-checking jokes

November 11, 2015
Category: Fact-Checking

You are at a dinner party and you make a sweeping generalization that serves as a premise to the punchline of your joke. From a corner of the table, you hear a “Well, actually…” that negates your premise and kills the laughs. We all know a person like that. In fact, who am I kidding; I am usually that person.

It is one thing to spoil jokes at a social gathering; it is a whole other thing to do it for a living. While this type of profile may not make you a hot ticket for dinner invitations, it may well make you increasingly employable in showbiz.

John Oliver, host of the popular comedy news show “Last Week Tonight”* claimed in an interview with Jorge Ramos that his show has “very aggressive fact-checkers.” In the same interview, Oliver said, “Jon Stewart taught me how to do everything.” So it is not surprising that in his final farewell as host of “The Daily Show,” Stewart included the following exhortation to fact-check everything: “If you smell something, say something.”

I spoke to Adam Chodikoff, a senior producer at The Daily Show, who was understandably very pleased with this line. As Stewart’s ‘facts guy’ – a claim that received his approval would be “Chods Approved” – he has long argued that, “without credibility, a joke has no meaning.” John Oliver has echoed the sentiment in a similar statement: “If you make a joke about something that is factually inaccurate, the joke collapses” (see from 04:37 below).

In another interview John Oliver gave last year to Mother Jones, the role of the fact-checker as a party-pooper is clear:

“So you gotta make sure, even if it’s sometimes incredibly frustrating, if you get excited about a joke angle, and then your fact-checker says, ‘Yeah, you can’t say that. That’s not right.’ And it’s a tough job. I remember when I was talking to Charles before he joined the show, I was just saying, ‘It is the thankless position to have to walk into a room that has kind of a joyful momentum behind it…and be the one saying, ‘Yeah, you can’t do any of that. It’s not true.'”

So why do they do it? Chodikoff says that with Stewart always on the attack of other people’s inconsistencies, he had to provide thorough research to build a form of “adamantium shield” for the host. This was especially important when Stewart went head to head with guests.

To discover to what extent this approach is true in other countries, I spoke to Sam Mitchell, a freelance assistant producer in the United Kingdom who has worked for shows like “Russell Howard’s Good News” and “Mock The Week”. In Britain, Mitchell says public ownership of the BBC and Channel 4 forces the hosts of their comedy news shows to be more neutral. Not that the satire is any less scathing; it just does not take the same editorialized approach of their American counterparts.

Moreover, the licence agreement for British parliamentary proceedings forbids the use of clips from Parliament in satirical shows, with ironic results. For these reasons, fact-checking is less systemic in the comedy show newsrooms he has frequented. Of course, Mitchell stresses, “The jokes won’t work if you’re making things up.” However, the news are “a platform for the joke,” not the basis for an opinion by the host. Fact-checking news reports themselves is therefore often unnecessary.

This seems true here in Italy too, where Maurizio Crozza, a popular comedian with a Friday-night show, mocks politicians of all sides. Yet when he comments the news, he usually uses newspaper headlines as factual props. In a recent episode, a funeral procession for prosciutto and other cured meats was very funny – but relied on a sensationalist interpretation of the WHO study espoused by many Italian media outlets.

This is not to say that comedy shows with a more institutionalized fact-checking process are infallible, just like fact-checkers in general aren’t. In a clip on police shootings, one of Stewart’s examples was wrong, and the reaction intense. Still, Chodikoff says a rigorous fact-checking process helps make mistakes “extremely rare.”

Fact-checking isn’t just an insurance policy for comedians, though; it can also be funny. This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, comedy relies on simplification and exaggeration, while good fact-checkers stress nuance. Yet I challenge anyone not to find John Oliver entertaining when he debunks the claim by the organizers of the Miss America pageant of being “the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women.” Jon Stewart has also used fact-checking to comedic effect following a slip-up on history provoked by none other than the History Channel.

In a more recent episode, The Daily Show fact-checked Bernie Sanders, who claimed he voted against immigration reform in 2007 out of concern for immigrants’ rights. Yet a 2007 clip showed the Democratic presidential candidate justifying his opposition to the bill because it endangered American workers. The fact check prepared the grounds for Jessica Williams to quip that Sanders was not that genuine after all – and could therefore be President. The fact-checking that went on air, however, was only the tip of the iceberg. Chodikoff told me that in order to be confident that the video was reflective of the senator’s views on immigration reform in 2007 he sifted through all of Sanders’ contemporaneous Senate speeches and interviews on the topic.

So if comedians employ fact-checkers, should fact-checkers be more like comedians? Chodikoff does not think this is a good idea:

“If fact-checkers start being smart and snarky they are going to lose their authority. I am not looking for fact-checking to be entertaining, I am looking for a basis for a factual argument. We’ve got a team of comedy writers to do comedy”


* The Last Week Tonight team politely refused my interview request, citing a newsroom policy of not ‘pulling back the curtain’.