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Patrick Hruby

Humor, writing and the grand unified theory of BS: my Q and A with Brandon Sneed

Chris Jones, Chris Ballard, Tom Lake and now ... me. Good thing batting .750 makes you a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Fellow journalist Brandon Sneed was kind enough to interview me for a lengthy email Q and A on his website, where we talk journalism, writing, humor,  and why the concept of bulls__t is so near and dear to what I do. An excerpt:

Q: We talked in emails a lot about humor in journalism. Why do you think it’s not as prevalent? To me, I think it’s because journalists and companies responsible for journalism are a little leery of coming off as not serious enough. There’s something about handling “the real world” that makes people uneasy when it’s treated lightly, I think. I mean, I love Jon Stewart. I think he’s hilarious and valuable to our culture. But think people would have a hard time taking him seriously if he tried to make that transition to serious journalism. What do you think? Why do you think humor and journalism make for such a difficult mix? 

A: I strongly disagree about Jon Stewart. I think he takes the news more seriously than most serious news organizations do. Have you ever actually watched the Today Show? Stewart is funny, yes, but he’s funny because he cuts through bullshit, which is a responsibility much of the regular media has gradually abdicated in pursuit of page clicks and ever-shrinking audiences.

I do think you’re right about journalism companies being concerned about how they’re perceived. That concern is great when leads to accurate and thorough news reports; it’s counterproductive when it leads to timid, conventional, offend-no-one blather. If you’re doing your job right as a journalist, you’re probably offending someone -- and that someone is probably rich, powerful or both, the kind of someone who can make an angry direct call to your publisher and threaten to pull access and advertising.

That said, you specifically asked about humor. Why not more? Like I said before, it’s tough to pull off. And it tends to limit your potential audience size. Humorists with wide appeal – like [Bill] Simmons or Dave Barry – are rare, because humor itself is highly subjective. Anyone can tune into the Nightly News and listen to Brian Williams; by contrast, a person who likes Bill Maher likely isn’t going to appreciate the comic stylings of Rush Limbaugh. And vice versa.

Speaking of Limbaugh and Maher, humor is also inherently risky. Somebody is always the butt of the joke. Most media companies are either large corporations or owned by either larger corporations, and corporations are risk-adverse. Especially when it comes to their public images. They often have no place to go in the market but down.

One last point: just as the Internet has made everyone a potential writer/publisher, thereby upping the supply of things to read and dramatically devaluing the written word, it has done the same thing for humor. If you’re a major media company, it probably doesn’t make a lot of financial sense to invest money and resources in being funny when other places can do it better and cheaper.

Read the rest of the interview here