When the News is a Joke

When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg put in place restrictions on large sugary drinks, Paul Mecurio appeared on Fox News with a pretty funny take on it all. What’s next for New York, he wondered, rounding the corners on buildings so people don’t get hurt when they run into them? Making muggers use their indoor voice? Mecurio is one of the most reasonable people to appear on Fox News. He’s a comic.

Paul Mecurio: future anchor? (Photo used with permission)

Paul Mecurio was formerly a corporate lawyer in New York City. He led a double life for a while; working on mergers and acquisitions by day and trying out new jokes in downtown dives by night. He ever-so-briefly helped his mom run the family furniture store in Providence, Rhode Island. But his mom was totally nuts, he said. She would accidentally lock customers in the store and make him drive her around Providence at night to go diving in other people trash for the good stuff they were throwing away. He paints a picture of his mom, in a housecoat and curlers, standing by a trash barrel holding up a broken clock and saying, “Can you believe how crazy people are? They’re throwing the clock away?”

Trading places from corporate attorney to stand-up comic was a long struggle and a risky move for Mecurio, but it’s been worth it. He’ll be performing at Foxwoods later this week in the Comix Comedy Club. He had a special on the Comedy Central. He won an Emmy and a Peabody Award for his work as a writer for The Daily Show. After a few years of the of writing funny stuff for Jon Stewart and gang, he left writing full time to pursue his own stand-up and TV career, but he still serves as the warm-up comic for Daily Show tapings and is a frequent guest on cable news shows on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News. When it comes down to it, he’s an equal opportunity offender.

I met him at a taping of The Daily Show in New York. He was doing the warm up and he recognized me in the audience from my days on TV doing Hard Copy. He made great sport of me and the show for our approach to “news,” and the audience loved it. And we deserved it. He killed. I thought he was hilarious.

I talked to him later on the phone about news, The Daily Show, and his career. He says that The Daily Show really found its rhythm and the visual style that’s turned it into such a hit when they started hiring actual news people to work behind the scenes. People like director Chuck O’Neil, who used to be a news director at WBZ-TV in Boston. He was the nice guy everybody wanted to work with or have on their project. The Daily Show previously used directors with experience in sketch comedy, comic films, and talk shows, and they were all fine, but six months after Stewart arrived as host, they hired a real news director to help make fun of the real news. Mecurio says that if you were to go through the resumes of all the folks behind the scenes, you might be surprised to see how many people have had stints at network news magazines like 20/20 and Dateline. He says they really know how to tell a story visually. And it’s working beautifully.

Even though the mission of The Daily Show has remained, first and foremost, to be funny, it has come to play an important role in keeping Americans informed. A recent survey conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that NPR and The Daily Show are the most informative news outlets on television.

The study also found that people who watch no news at all can answer more questions correctly about international current events than people who primarily get their news from Fox or MSNBC. To put it another way, the study shows that watching Fox or MSNBC actually subtracts from the sum total of your knowledge.

Though making people dumber seems to be working quite well for Fox in the ratings, MSNBC and CNN are lagging behind. They need to shake things up. So here’s my suggestion: Paul Mecurio. He’s far more entertaining than Wolf Blitzer, and he would get better ratings than John King. Mecurio has great stories to tell about his extended family in Providence, and his cousin Vinnie, the type of guy who shows up at a funeral wearing gold chains, an orange shirt, and white pants. And at least Vinnie stories don’t subtract from your total knowledge about the world.

But the great thing about people like Paul Mecurio and Jon Stewart is that they tend to tell the underlying truth. They use satire to puncture the pretentiousness of the pompous, and hang the hypocrites by their own words and deeds. We need more of that — and a lot less of what passes for news these days.

In the early part of the 20th century, the tragically unfunny philosopher and writer Henri Bergson wrote a famous theory of comedy in which he said:

Laughter is, above all, a corrective. Being intended to humiliate, it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is directed. By laughter society avenges itself for liberties taken with it.

I don’t know about you, but I could use a little avenging about now. Along with a few good laughs from someone like Paul Mecurio.