TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The last few weeks have been an amazingly busy news cycle, with a mass shooting at a South Carolina church, landmark Supreme Court decisions being handed down and more presidential hopefuls announcing their candidacies. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has been following it all, but not just on the standard news outlets. He says he's learned a lot, in both tone and substance, from TV's cable comedy shows - the ones hosted by Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore and by HBO's John Oliver and Bill Maher.
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BILL MAHER: Yes, what a week, huh? The Confederate flags are coming down and the rainbow flags are going up.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: That was the opening of last Friday's "Real Time With Bill Maher," when the host comically summarized recent events - calls for the Confederate flag to be removed from prominence in the wake of the South Carolina killings and a Supreme Court ruling supporting marriage quality in all 50 states. It was one of the court's rulings. Support of the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare, was another that had some conservatives questioning not only those decisions, but the Supreme Court itself. On "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," here's news footage of remarks by Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee, followed by Jon Stewart's incredulous reaction.
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TED CRUZ: What a crazy system - to have the most important issues of our day decided by unelected lawyers.
MIKE HUCKABEE: Five unelected, black robe lawyers rule. That is not the America that our founding fathers created.
JON STEWART: Then why did they put that article in the Constitution?
BIANCULLI: What impresses me so much about these shows by Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and by Stewart proteges, John Oliver and Larry Wilmore, is not just that they proudly present a point of view in an entertaining way. Most of them also make room for a deeper and more honest discussion than you'll find on the Sunday morning public affairs shows. And in addition to keeping the television news outlets honest by checking, questioning and often ridiculing their remarks, they do the same for the newsmakers themselves. Here's John Oliver last Sunday.
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JOHN OLIVER: This landmark decision inevitably drew a dissent from Antonin Scalia, a pizzeria chef statue that came to life...
OLIVER: ...That never acquired human emotions or empathy.
OLIVER: And Scalia was emphatic in his response to Roberts.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: His opinion sparked a blistering dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia, who took the unusual step of summarizing it from the bench, calling the course reasoning absurd, interpretive jiggery-pokery and pure applesauce.
OLIVER: I'm sorry - jiggery-pokery, pure appleauce? Are you a justice or a Victorian dowager writing an angry letter to Prim and Proper Ladies monthly magazine?
OLIVER: Listen, Scalia, let me answer you in terms that I think you'll understand, because, yes, the court's ruling was a bit frippity-frappity (ph), but...
OLIVER: But I say this - if it takes a touch of goofery (ph) and baba ganoush to help people - to help keep the people of this great nation healthy, well then, by hiblet (ph) or by giblet, bring on the hoople (ph) and zizzle-zazzle (ph), because that's the kind of country I want to live in. I say good day, sir. Blueberries - blueberries and custard, sir.
BIANCULLI: Another prominently divisive issue in the news recently, of course, is the Confederate flag. And Larry Wilmore, whose "The Nightly Show" had its strongest week ever in terms of content, threw in his two cents without any hesitation or any equivocation.
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LARRY WILMORE: For the record, the Confederate flag is not a proud symbol of tradition or heritage. It's a symbol of oppression and intimidation. That's not my opinion. That's an objective fact. On March 21, 1861, the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens, stated that the Confederate government was based on the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man. That speech is now called the Cornerstone Speech, because that idea is the cornerstone of the Confederacy. You don't get clearer than that.
WILMORE: Now, some people say that Southern states should fly the Confederate flag because it's a symbol of their heritage. But if we flew every flag from our past, why aren't we flying the Union Jack in front of the White House?
WILMORE: And for the record, South Carolina, you don't get to make the heritage argument, because the stars and bars hasn't been flying over the statehouse since the Civil War. It went up in 1961 to mark the centennial of the Civil War, and, coincidentally, right around when the black people started with the wanting of the civil rights.
WILMORE: In 1961, it was a reminder to black people that they should know their place. It has always been used as a symbol of intimidation and terror, and that's what it remains today. In fact, because displaying the swastika is illegal across much of Europe, skinheads and neo-Nazis often adopt the Confederate flag in its place.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes they do.
WILMORE: It's such a racist symbol that it does double duty as the backup racist symbol for another racist symbol.
WILMORE: That's crazy.
BIANCULLI: On the regular news outlets, there was lots of discussion about whether the killer in South Carolina was motivated by hatred of race or religion. On this point, too, Wilmore was quite clear - to the point of being blunt.
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WILMORE: I know, because this was in a church, that it's hard to understand this was about race, but let me give you an example. Four black girls were murdered in a church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, all right? Back then, no one pretended to wonder what the motivation was. If you tried to say it was about religion, even the perpetrators back then would have corrected you.
WILMORE: Well, we killed them because they're [expletive]s.
WILMORE: Yep, that's why we did it.
BIANCULLI: And in one of his roundtable discussion segments, Wilmore put the whole discussion of race and racism in a memorable conversational context.
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WILMORE: You've heard of this term Columbus-ing? Have you guys ever heard of this?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I have heard of it.
WILMORE: It means, like, when...
WOMAN #1: Yeah, I've heard it.
WILMORE: ...When white people discover something that everybody else already knew.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Like America, yeah.
WILMORE: Like, I feel like this whole church - this horrific church thing has Columbus - has allowed white people to Columbus the fact that racism is still going on. Like, in the '60s, in the civil rights - in the civil rights era of the '60s, when a lot of these things that were happening to black people was put on television, white people got to Columbus that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Right.
WILMORE: You know, it's like, oh, racism is happening. Yeah, it's been happening for a long time, but thank God for...
BIANCULLI: Television is allowing us to discover things around us and look at them in new ways all the time. But while in the 1950s and '60s it was the broadcast evening news shows that helped us to discover the atrocities of racism and the Vietnam War, today we're just as likely to learn and to be moved by going to more unlikely sources. President Barack Obama visits Marc Maron's podcast and talks bluntly about race. On BBC America, Obama invites TV nature host David Attenborough to the White House to hear Attenborough's ideas about what humans have done to the planet. That's all politics, too, and there's reason to question the motives for these conversations, as well as to listen to the content, which, in a wider context, is precisely what these cable comedians are doing. It's a very public service and a very valuable one. Even with all the punchlines, we can all benefit from a little Columbus-ing.
GROSS: David Bianculli is the founder and editor of TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Adam Liptak, the Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times. He'll analyze the term that just ended, examine some of the biggest decisions, and we'll talk about what Liptak describes as the overall story of the last nine months - the court's drift toward the left. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.