Archive for the ‘Daily Show’ Category

The Unexpurgated Version

November 3, 2010

I was invited to participate in a New York Times “Room for Debate” online roundtable prior to the Stewart/Colbert rally. I was told initially to submit a few paragraphs (and given less than 24 hours to come up with something). Upon submitting my piece, I was told to trim it to about 1/3 the length, and quick, quick, quick! Naturally, some of the nuance was left on the cutting-room floor.

Here, then, is the longer version:

There has already been a good deal of pre-emptive tut-tutting about the Stewart/Colbert rally, so I want to say at the outset that I am all for it, and think that the intentions behind it are, if not exactly pure (it’s partly a publicity stunt, of course), then mostly good. And despite Stewart’s somewhat disingenuous denials, the “Rally to Restore Sanity” is absolutely an “answer” to Beck’s rally, which absolutely deserves—nay, demands—a satirical answer. Why have satire, and why live in a society where we (rightly) cherish the right to satirize, if not to respond to such provocations? It’s no leap of logic to see that one of the unstated goals of holding this rally is to outdraw Beck’s 87,000 attendees, thus “proving” that, despite all the attention he and the Tea Partiers have gotten in the mainstream press, that they represent a fringe phenomenon—which would be a welcome corrective to the media narrative that has developed around them.

When any group of Americans uses their freedoms of speech and assembly to express ideas with which we disagree, the most appropriate, honorable, and patriotic way to respond is to use those same freedoms to express our opposition. Answering one rally with another is wholly appropriate; it’s the American thing to do. Nor do I think that the humorous tone diminishes this exercise of the First Amendment; any country that venerates Twain as its greatest writer and Lincoln as its greatest leader ought to realize that a sense of humor is not incompatible with a sense of serious purpose.

As to this rally’s purpose: though Stewart’s stated aim of “restoring sanity” is obviously a bit of comic grandiosity, I think he is basically sincere in stating this as the rally’s theme. It’s hyperbole, but it’s not cynicism. I don’t think Stewart is himself a cynical person—anyone who has watched his interviews can see that he takes ideas and issues seriously—nor is cynicism the basis of the kind of satire The Daily Show and The Colbert Report deal in.

There is a tendency, in covering the role of comedy in our political discussion, to simply equate mockery with trivialization and cynicism, but not all mockery is trivial, or cynical. Some of it is. The kind of political humor that is the stock in trade of network late-night shows—the Johnny Carson, “equal-opportunity offender” model which Leno, Letterman, Conan O’Brien and even Saturday Night Live still mostly follow; which treats politics as a silly game played by a set of roughly interchangeable fools and charlatans; which goes for quick, broad jokes that focus on personalities more than policies—that’s cynical. It precedes from a cynical premise, and in large doses (which we’ve surely been getting since late-night shows started multiplying in the early 90s), it does, indeed, encourage cynicism. The bottom line of this kind of humor is, “they’re all crooks, it doesn’t matter, why bother, why care?” And it’s easy to forget this, especially with the present focus on Stewart and Colbert, but that kind of political humor is still far more prevalent than the very different kind you can see for four hours a week on Comedy Central: Leno’s ratings are down, but he still reaches millions more viewers than Stewart or Colbert.

I refer to that type of humor—“George W. Bush is such a ninny, Bill Clinton is such a horndog, Al Gore is a robot, John McCain is so old”—as pseudo-satire. It seems political, because it mentions politicians, and uses the day’s headlines as a jumping off point, but it’s actually dismissive of politics. It’s scrupulously bi-partisan (or non-partisan) and anti-political, and it is so by design. It not only suggests that political engagement is futile, it insists that it is. And though that may seem like a radical premise, it’s actually very safe: if it’s all just silly, there’s no reason for anyone to get very upset about it.

Colbert and Daily Show viewers, as a general rule, take politics more seriously than that. These shows traffic in genuine satire (not always, but most of the time). You have to care about what’s going on in order to get anything out of them. Fans of Stewart and Colbert watch with the feeling that if you couldn’t laugh about what they’re saying, you would have to cry. That essential, underlying appreciation of the seriousness of the subject—the consequential nature of politics—is not compatible with cynicism.

That sense of consequence, and the passion that arises from that commitment, is the common link between Stewart/Colbert viewers and followers of pundits like Beck. But though Beck, on the one hand, and Stewart/Colbert, on the other, do represent constituencies that are likely to support different sets of politicians, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that they are surrogates for those politicians. They are, rather, alternative representatives for their viewing constituencies. They give voice to audiences that feel, justifiably or not, voiceless. Elected officials purportedly represent the people who vote for them, but media figures can “represent” in a purer way. (Especially in this age of narrowcasting. Neither Fox News nor the Comedy Central shows have audiences large enough to have kept them on the air in the network era.)

They are comparable, I suppose, to politicians in very ideologically homogeneous districts, like some of the more viable Tea Party candidates: their appeal is narrow, but powerful, because their circumstances allow them to succeed without compromising or tempering their remarks. On the other hand, if you’re a politician from a “purple” state, a president or presidential candidate, or a member of Congress who actually wants to get something passed, you’re going to have to compromise, and you’re going to have to speak more carefully. By a similar token, if you’re a “mainstream” journalist or a network comedian, you can’t succeed playing it “pure” to a narrow, but fervent, constituency.

Having said that, I think the Stewart’s position is in danger of becoming untenable, in a way that Beck’s—or even Colbert’s—is not. For one thing, as Stewart’s influence grows, his insistence that he is “just a comedian” becomes harder to accept. You can’t go on Crossfire, refuse to be funny, accuse the hosts of “hurting America,” get the show canceled, and then go back to insisting you’re “just a comedian.” Stewart deserves credit for those occasions upon which he exposes truths where news media fear to tread, but you can’t both influence the political discussion and claim to be outside of it—not without coming across as disingenuous.

The other problem I see for Stewart is this whole commitment to “sanity.” Not that I’m not pro-sanity, but satire, like contemporary punditry, originates in a sense of outrage, and is essentially a negative form of address. It’s about what you are against, not what you are for. That’s why The Daily Show really came into its own during the Bush years: politically-aware Americans who thought that both the country and the news media had gone crazy with the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, and the other excesses of the W. Bush administration, found an oasis of sanity on Comedy Central, and turned Stewart into a force to be reckoned with, whether he sought that or not.

But being Pro-Sanity is not as viable, for a satirist, as being Anti- (specific kinds of) Crazy. The “Pro-Sanity” premise, and the very structure of The Daily Show, force Stewart to keep one foot in the “equal-opportunity offender” camp. The correspondents say crazy things, the politicians and media figures he shows clips of say crazy things, and he stares wide-eyed, into the camera, looking shocked. He’s the sane referee, “they” are the crazy idealogues. He is the surrogate for the audience, but this assumes the audience also aspires to neutrality, which is, like cynicism, a form of disengagement. Though he may spend more time worrying about the jokers to his right than the clowns to his left, he is still stuck in the middle, with Us.

But now that the real-world situation is somewhat different, and a president who is more palatable to the average Daily Show viewer is in office, that “impartial referee” position pushes Stewart dangerously close to Jay Leno, “equal-opportunity offender” territory. When he was interviewing Obama the other night, Stewart criticized the health care act for being too compromised—but you can’t really be for “moderation” and then attack things on the basis of their being too compromised and, in a sense, too bipartisan. (I don’t mean this to be a defense of the bill; what I’m examining is the viability of Stewart’s rhetorical position.) If your over-arching commitment is to be criticize whatever is going on and whoever is in office from a standpoint of reasonableness and moderation, you’re going to run into trouble coming up with a satisfactory response to the frustrations that arise from an excess of reasonableness and moderation.

Fortunately for Stewart, Beck and the Tea Party candidates still provide plenty of outright madness to contend with. Still, I find it painful to watch The Daily Show engage in calculated acts of “balance”—stooping so low, at one point, as to do an Obama/teleprompter joke that would barely have passed muster on Fox’s late, unlamented Half-Hour News Hour—so that Stewart can continue to deny that he is for anything other than “sanity.” I don’t think Stewart should “declare” himself as a committed liberal, or turn The Daily Show into agitprop—that would probably kill the comedy—but I do wonder if he hasn’t painted himself into a bit of a corner.

Ironically, Colbert—whose whole shtick is built on saying the opposite of what he really believes—runs less risk of being forced into a kind of cynical insincerity. Since he doesn’t play “himself”—a sane, “nice-guy” audience surrogate—he doesn’t have to go through any of those “equal-opportunity offender” motions. And he can’t get by, like Stewart too often does, on being cute and likable. (For all the sharpness The Daily Show sometimes musters, it’s amazing how much camera-time Stewart eats up mugging and giggling.) The Colbert Report has revived the tradition of Swift, without much taint of the spirit of Leno. It’s partly a function of the writing (it’s much more of a through-written show than Stewart’s, which gets a lot of mileage from taped pieces featuring rubes saying the darnedest things), but it’s largely due to the central conceit of Colbert’s right-wing blowhard persona. The fact that he operates from the perspective of this character allows Colbert and his writers to analyze political language at a much deeper level of complexity than even the unusually-literate-for-TV Daily Show can manage. More to the point, it represents a step away from the “I’m just a comedian, and this is all a joke” foundation that keeps Stewart tied to a more timid tradition.

I’m certainly more in favor of Restoring Sanity than Keeping Fear Alive, but I think Colbert’s position offers richer and more sustainable satirical possibilities. We could use a dose of Sanity, but as history suggests it is unlikely to prevail (and that Fear will out), we will definitely continue to need satire that stays on the attack.

Here is a link to the version that appeared on the Times website: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/10/28/when-does-a-fake-political-rally-turn-real/the-opposite-of-cynicism

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More Trouble for Who, Now?

October 1, 2010

I really didn’t think I was going to post on this blog ever again, but this is perhaps the most idiotic thing I’ve ever seen.

The real story here, as anyone who is not a reporter out to make his mark in the mainstream media by taking a contrarian angle can see, is that Rick Sanchez, well-known to everybody who has ever seen him on TV as a big-mouthed idiot, opened his big mouth and said something idiotic.  But that’s not “man bites dog” enough for Time.

Stewart is as much of an innocent bystander to Sanchez’s stupidity and bigotry as Jeffrey Smuzinick was to Sanchez’s drunk driving, when Sanchez ran him over and drove away (and got off scott-free) back in 1990–undoubtedly due to the machinations of the International Cuban-American Cabal (note: sarcasm) that controls the US Justice system.

But by all means, keep an eye on this Nate Jones. With this kind of ability to call black white and to spin a news story 180 degrees from its factual basis, he will probably soon have his own cable news show.

It Always Comes Down to Jocks vs. Nerds

November 1, 2008

I’ve been griping about Jon Stewart’s McCain-love for some time now, and Thursday night he finally came out and said that if McCain had won the GOP’s nomination in 2000, he would have voted for him, instead of Gore. (The video‘s here, but be warned: you have to watch several minutes of Bill Kristol, love-child of Goebbels and The Joker, to hear the quote.)

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Comedy and “Balance”

October 29, 2008

Today’s installment of NPR’s Fresh Air featured an interview with SNL head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor Seth Meyers. He came across as an articulate and pleasant fellow, generous in his praise for colleague Tina Fey, boss Lorne Michaels, and recent guest-star Sarah Palin — and as an uninspired and workman-like creator of mass-market comedy. Seth Meyers is to comedy what an Applebee’s entree is to food: reliably palatable, but nothing memorable.

On further reflection, that’s pretty unfair to Applebee’s. Maybe he’s more like a Denny’s Grand Slam: not great, but readily available and unlikely to make you actually vomit.

Two things from the interview jumped out at me as worthy of comment. First, he called Amy Poehler’s delivery of the Sarah Palin rap (I’m paraphrasing, but this is close) “one of the best performances in the history of Saturday Night Live.”

Okay, maybe the Denny’s comparison is too generous. How about Jack in the Box: usually okay, but with occasional e. coli poisoning.

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Expertise We Can Believe In

October 22, 2008

Long time, no post. I’ll have something more substantial to say soon, but I wanted to pass along this snippet from an Onion AV Club interview with Daily Show “resident expert John Hodgman:

The thing that I find so compelling is that right now Obama’s whole campaign strategy is simply [to] speak to people as though they were adults and trust that the truth of the world situation will be evident to them. For him to be attacked as a friend of a terrorist, for “palling” around with terrorists and to simply go back and say, “No, I’m not”? That was such a refreshing political moment. …I’m enchanted by the idea that a politician can come along and speak simply and clearly and truthfully to an electorate as though they are grown-ups and to feel the electorate respond to that. I’ve found that to be astonishing and especially now that we are in the end game and you see basically the McCain campaign has nothing left but conspiracy theories to throw at Obama. It really has become a fight between fantasy and reality, and although I don’t make my living off of it, I endorse reality.

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John McCain: Master Thespian

September 27, 2008

I’ve been critical of Jon Stewart for what I perceive as a tendency to pull his punches when dealing with John McCain. But The Daily Show did a pretty good job responding to McCain’s ridiculous and reckless “suspension” of his campaign.

There’s still a tendency, shared by many “straight” pundits and late-night comics, to treat McCain 08’s excesses as strange anomalies—as if McCain himself is somehow not responsible for them. Even as Letterman was pummeling McCain for his dishonesty about jetting off to DC the other night, he put it in these terms. This was not, Dave said, “the John McCain I know.”

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WWJSD? (What Will Jon Stewart Do?) updated

September 24, 2008

Updated below

By now you’ve probably heard that Senator McCain has chickened out “suspended” his campaign and unilaterally attempted to postpone Friday’s scheduled debate, so he can hasten to the Capitol (presumably in a celestial chariot, drawn by wing-ed horses) to Save the Republic.

McCain must rid himself of the distraction of debating his opponent, so that he can devote all of his Mojo to solving this crisis (as only a Maverick can!), or we’ll be looking at 12% unemployment, and a depression by Monday.

Never mind that McCain hasn’t cast a Senate vote since April 8. And the fact that he’s slipping in the polls? Pure coincidence.

If the news media falls for this stunt, they are officially beyond redemption. If the public falls for it, we’re beyond stupid.

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Prunes & Politics

September 22, 2008

Awards shows are usually dull viewing, but last night’s broadcast of the Emmy Awards was so bad it was almost shocking: not just lame (I expected that), but unprofessional. It was like a public access show with better-looking people and better production values.

On top of its general crapitude, ABC also managed to make the occasion a pretty impressive display of cowardice, cutting away from John Adams writer Kirk Ellis, just as he was about to make the shocking charge that George W. Bush is inarticulate. Heavens! We can’t let our viewers hear such heresies!

Leave it to Stephen Colbert to figure away around the suits’ preemptive censorship.

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Jon Stewart: MSM’s Last McCain-Lover?

September 17, 2008

Josh Marshall’s TPM has another entry in its “Tire-Swing Watch” — a running tally of media members once enchanted with John McCain who have finally quit giving him the benefit of the doubt. Today’s disenchanted former fan is The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, whose column is well worth checking out. It seems McCain’s extraordinarily dishonest campaign has not only caused Marcus to question his “Maverick” bona fides, it has emboldened her to utter what is, in the MainStream Media world, the ultimate heresy: “balance” does not equal fairness.

This may be a Copernicus moment: a challenge to conventional wisdom that could, if enough other media members pick up on it, or stumble upon it themselves (as Galileo did with heliocentrism), could fundamentally change their picture of the universe — and thus, the picture they present to the public.

This would be a welcome change. The practice of reporting every devious political tactic with the qualifier, “both sides do it” attached has nothing to do with fairness or thoroughness, and everything to do with preempting partisan critics who will cry “Bias!” any time their candidate is caught.

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A Friendly Reminder

September 16, 2008

I’ve got a book:

Anchors & Pundits

September 11, 2008

So MSNBC’s parent network, NBC, and corporate grandparent, GE, decided that it was the better part of valor to bow to pressure from Republicans whining about “bias” than to continue pursuing a winning ratings strategy: they demoted “liberal” Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews from campaign-season anchor duties (by the way, if Chris Matthews is a “liberal,” we might as well throw out the dictionary–the word has lost all meaning). The totally untainted by bias David Gregory (whom you may remember as one of Karl “M. C.” Rove’s backup dancers) will handle those chores from here on out.

The last straw–or more accurately, the excuse–for Olbermann’s demotion was his on-air objection to the GOP’s exploitative use of graphic 9/11 footage at their convention. Instead of maintaining the pretense of disinterested “objectivity,” Olbermann reacted to something he found shocking and disgusting with shock and disgust. For an anchorman, that’s a big no-no.

The principle that reporters and anchors should put aside their own opinions and present all points of view fairly is a good one, in theory. In practice, however, journalistic “objectivity” has been turned into an excuse for throwing skepticism, judgment, and even the recognition of empirical truths out the window. We must respectfully report what both “sides” say, even if one side says “fire is hot,” and the other side says, “fire is NOT hot, and third-degree burns are just Satan’s way of making us think that it’s hot–just like he went around burying all those dinosaur bones to make us doubt the book of Genesis.” Over the last couple of decades, the GOP has played the the media’s fear of being charged with “bias” like a violin, and the result is that views that would once have been considered nutty, and tactics that would once have been considered sleazy (like McCain’s baseless charge that Obama supports sex ed for kindergartners), must now be accepted without question. This is not “objectivity,” it’s capitulation to the irrational, and to the bullies who depend on the support of the irrational.

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