Maybe I can’t take a joke, or maybe there’s something seriously wrong with political humor TV shows. I think that the truth matters and watching these shows tends to make me angry, not because I disagree with them, though I do, but because they have a habit of trampling the truth. They’re not always doing it, but there’s one kind of joke that stretches across shows that suggests that the hosts don’t really care about the truth and are willing to flaunt that fact.

So, I’m going to do that thing everybody hates. I’m going to  explain jokes, except in this case I don’t care if they’re funny or not, only if they’re true.

Here’s that one joke’s format:

  1. The Setup: The host brings up a topical political event.1
  2. The False Analogy: The host makes a false analogy.
  3. Everybody Laughs: The false analogy is by itself both ridiculous and funny, but because it is an analogy, it is rendered hilarious.

Let’s take a look at it in action. The topics of the day are immigration court and illegal immigrants.

The setup: “. . . we’re doing death penalty cases in a traffic court . . .”2

The false analogy: “That is something we probably shouldn’t be doing in a place we definitely shouldn’t be doing it. Like having a cockfight in an emergency room. Or doing coke in a Build-a-Bear Workshop.”

Did you catch it?

The form of the analogy, which Oliver lays out for us is this: something we probably shouldn’t be doing: a place we definitely shouldn’t be doing it.

So, the extended analogy is “death penalty cases: traffic court :: cockfighting: emergency room :: doing cocaine: Build-a-Bear Workshop.”

These things do not analogize to each other.

The first one is untrue by itself. While it’s not the optimal place to do a death penalty, a traffic court is still a court. It’s the right kind of a place to settle legal matters, so saying that’s a place we definitely shouldn’t be doing it seems like a stretch. Also, can it be said that doing death penalty cases “is something we probably shouldn’t be doing” without acknowledging that the Supreme Court said it was okay?

Unlike death penalty cases, cockfighting is illegal. It’s not something we probably shouldn’t be doing, it’s something we definitely shouldn’t do. And, things that are illegal are also illegal in ERs, so it’s redundant to say that we definitely shouldn’t do it there, even if it is funny to imagine it occurring.

Likewise, doing cocaine is already illegal. It’s illegal in Build-a-Bear workshops. It’s illegal everywhere. Don’t do cocaine. It’s illegal.

Thought provoking question: why is John Oliver comparing legal processes to illegal ones?

Also, do I even have to point out that we’re not doing death penalty cases in traffic court, but rather immigration cases in immigration court?

Case Two: Trevor Noah

The setup: “[Mark Zuckerberg] started out by basically making a ‘hot or not’ website for his college and now America is counting on him to protect the integrity of its elections.”

The False Analogy: “It’s like if an asteroid was headed toward the Earth and for some reason we turned to the guy that invented Tinder.”

Here’s the analogy: Zuckerberg: election integrity :: Tinder guy: stopping asteroids.

We have to talk about the first half of this analogy. America doesn’t rely on Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg. That’s why we have the Federal Election Commission, whose mission is “[t]o protect the integrity of the federal campaign finance process by providing transparency and fairly enforcing and administering federal campaign finance laws.”

And, there’s the justice department, which charged 13 Russians because of their improper influence on the election, though I would still argue that they didn’t have that big of an impact. 

Thankfully, we’re not relying on Mark Zuckerberg to do anything, because it’s not his job, but the flip side of the coin is that it is possible that he could take actions that would make the problem better. Facebook is already working to reduce the abilities of foreign nationals to influence the election.

Which is why the second half of Noah’s analogy falls apart. Unlike Tinder guy, Zuckerburg can take actions to reduce election interference, even if we’re not relying on him. Yet, Tinder guy has no chance against the asteroid.

So, yeah, I’m harping on comedians.

A lot of times we’re willing to cut them some slack or give some wiggle room for the joke in regards to the truth.

Here’s John Oliver on the truth:

“When you confuse them, it actually matters. Real people get hurt when you make policy based on false information.”

And, here’s what Trevor Noah had to say:

“I’ve come to the realization that the most important thing for my show is for me to tell the truth. That’s honestly it. For me to tell the truth.”

Which brings up a lot of questions.

If these guys care as much about the truth as they say they do, why do they allow themselves so much wiggle room?

It’s really important to understand that these hosts often advocate for policy positions on their respective shows.

Here’s John Oliver talking about Crisis Pregnancy Centers and abortion:

And another where he talks about Trump and Truth:

Here’s Trevor Noah talking about Michael Cohen:

And racism in South Africa:

They’re not afraid of coming out and saying what their position on the issues is, or what yours should be.

But, their jokes reveal the, well, truth. They have a sort of squirrelly relationship with the facts, and they’re more than willing to tell jokes that have little correlation with reality in order to frame the following serious policy discussion.

Or maybe they’re just comedians, and nobody cares. Jimmy Kimmel certainly isn’t America’s moral compass, and anyone who worries he might be is being dramatic.

But, I’m not being dramatic. These guys are lying to you, consistently, every night. And 3% of Americans get their news in part, or in whole, from the programs. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than get their news from newspapers!

Our problem right now is that we have an epidemic of comedians who put their narrative before the truth and even before their own comedy, which is funny but in many cases only after they’ve twisted the facts.

But hey. I’ve taught you the secret to telling good political jokes. Why don’t you write a few of your own the formula I outlined above and leave them in the comments section below.

Who knows? You might one day have a late-night talk show of your own.


  1. I think sometimes they don’t present it accurately, but that’s more a factor of political bias and not that big of a deal by itself.
  2. For the record, this is

    1. Totally just that judges’ opinion.
    2. Removed from context.
    3. Probably the most ridiculous thing that judge said in that interview.

    But, let’s pretend that it’s true and that John Oliver isn’t being misleading.