Sunday, July 17, 2011

800 Words: The End of Jon Stewart?

The Anthony Weiner scandal looks to be, definitively and thankfully, over. As with every sex scandal in American history, historians will be flummoxed that Americans were so oblivious to the world that they devoted a two weeks of their free time to reading about the genitalic contents of their leaders (to say nothing of the year they devoted to Bill Clinton’s). But the Weiner scandal reached an especial level of stupid - even for a sex scandal. The fact that his behavior was even a scandal says something about our stupidity, and the fact that he would engage in it says that much more about his.

Yet just as this particular scandal was particularly stupid, its ramifications will reach particularly far. Unfortunately, not in the realm of politics, where neither the politicians nor the people who vote for them have learned anything more than they have from the last hundred sex scandals. The place where the ramifications will reach deepest is on Comedy Central. Whether or not we acknowledge it, it is possible that the Age of Jon Stewart just ended.

When the same historians of America stop marveling at The Weiner Twitpics, they will turn to things that matter (hopefully) and not hesitate to proclaim the 00’s a decade in which America was principally shaped by three people (or at least their handlers): George W. Bush in politics, Francis Collins in science (chair of the human genome project), and Jon Stewart in culture. Why Bush should be obvious and why Collins will become moreso as time advances. But Jon Stewart is at least a bit more elusive.

Anybody who’s sat through a Daily Show episode, let alone thousands, realizes that Stewart is as inconsistently funny as he is likable. There are fists-full of jokes that don’t work, a revolving door of variably funny correspondents, and an assortment of guests boring enough to make you think you’ve accidentally switched to Charlie Rose.

But when he’s on...oh my, when he’s on...

The pummelling starts out slow. All Stewart has to do is report the news as any serious newscaster would, albeit at a much faster pace so as to alleviate boredom. Then, with a sleight of hand subtle enough to stupefy a FOX newsman, all it takes is one word in a perfectly placed context - an ‘is’ or ‘has’ to frame the whole thing - and then the show cuts to a politician uttering a phrase so ridiculous as to defy belief. We have no idea how it would sound without the setup, but we double over every time. Not only because it’s funny, not only because we never saw it coming, but also because we can’t believe that we live in a country in which people this stupid run our lives. Then we cut back to Stewart, who in his best moments knows that no commentary can improve on what he just did. He just sits there, with a vague shake of the head, and we absorb it as if it were our own reaction, because it is.

Then the pounding starts to build. More news. A story that grew out of the first story, and before we know it we’re watching another political figure saying something even dumber. Now the cackle is loud enough to make the person in the next room wander over to ask what’s so funny. “Sit Down.” you say every time.

Stewart’s reaction is a little less modest this time and there’s a corny joke made in a corny voice. It isn’t funny, nor is it really meant to be. It’s his way of saying, ‘don’t pay attention to me, pay attention to what I’m showing you.’ Not that we need to be told twice, but self-effacement is the most important part of his brand.

Now comes a bit of editorializing. Not Lou Dobbs faux-grandiosity, not Andy Rooney triviality and certainly not Bill O’Reilly finger-pointed-at-camera. Usually, just a sentence long. “Gee, maybe they should try _____ _____ _____” And those last three words, whispered with the back of his right hand shielding his mouth from whoever’s backstage left. And out comes the most obvious statement imaginable, said as though it’s the most subversive thing anyone’s ever said. A mild titter follows that puts us at ease.

“I mean, if they didn’t think of that, maybe they could try this?” And out comes a random youtube clip or 80’s music video, the height of stupidity. A connection we could never have thought of ourselves between the youtube video and the important people on the screen, which makes us both elated by the comparison and depressed by how dumb these guys are. We suddenly find our ribs hurting, as though we’ve been endlessly walloped by a prizefighter, and still we can’t stop laughing.

And now all the clips we’ve seen and more are going together as the screen erupts in total anarchy. We’re assaulted by a montage that includes Star Wars, Stan Bush, babies dancing, John Wayne, Fox & Friends, cats playing pianos, Jimmy Buffett, Al Jolson, a human cannon ball and The Unabomber. We’re down for the count, the tear ducts are flowing, and we can’t stop laughing all through the commercials.

The apparent irony of it all is that the moment we’re worked into that helpless state is the moment Jon Stewart strikes the serious note and tells us why the world should be a different place than it is. The sermon is never more than three sentences long, and one would think we’d never be able to hear it through our spasms. But we hear it every time. We’re never more receptive than that moment when we’ve passed over from laughter to tears. For anybody who could do that to us, we would march on Poland.

What we’ve just been through is our generation’s defining experience; as crucial to our development as dissecting Dylan lyrics was to our parents, or dancing the lindy-hop was to theirs; an experience that lets us experience the freedom of a part of us which our elders forbade us to ever know was there.

Sex was the forbidden for our grandparents. Rebellion was the forbidden for our parents. For us, the forbidden is plain speech. The simple notion that we should say what we truly think has so long disappeared from modern life that we no longer recognize it as a necessary part of human nature, and therefore it has all the attraction to us of a fresh self-discovery. And how could it be anything but a discovery in today’s world? Businesses trample our need for plain speech with every TV advertisement we watch. Academics thumb their noses at our need for plain speech with every incomprehensible journal article they publish. Political actors exploit our hunger for plain speech with memes like ‘Straight Talk Express’ and ‘No Spin Zone’ as a means of feeding us a daily intake of political spin. Every time there is the whiff of a celebrity scandal, every television network pretends as though it is at all shocking; and we the consumers pretend that it is at all interesting. Financial firms pretend that the worries of your life will simply wash away so long as you invest your money with them, and do so while creating mathematical money-siphoning schemes too complex for the regulators to ever understand. Soundbites have become more reductive, intelligent speech more obfuscating, and the twain never doth meet. Our government was so convinced by half-truths of its own invention that it convinced itself to launch a (thus far) eight year war in Iraq - a country whom every major intelligence bureau in the world decided had weapons of mass destruction without a shred of empirical evidence. The lack of plain speech has become the most prevalent, and probably most destructive, feature of our daily lives. None of us are immune from its reach, and all of us have become less trusting of others as a result. As Peter O’Toole’s character said in The Last Emperor, ‘If you do not say what you mean, how can you mean what you say?’

The Princeton philosophy professor, Harry Frankfurt, perhaps put it best when he said; ‘One of the most salient features of our culture is that there’s so much bullshit.’ in his monograph, ‘On Bullshit.’ To Frankfurt, bullshit and lies have less to do with one another than lies do to truth - at least a lie is told to evade the truth, bullshit is spewed with disregard for it.

The world we grew up in was ripe to be skewered. All that was needed was two things:

1. A person who could dissect bullshit and do it in an engaging manner.
2. A person able to take on bullshit without getting smeared by it.

There were many who tried. Michael Moore gave it his all, so did Bill Maher, and Al Franken, and David Cross, and Chuck Palahniuk, and Garrison Keillor. To say nothing of Christopher Buckley, Dennis Miller and P.J. O’Rourke as advocates for the ‘other side.’ But none of them understood the one thing that would let them pass test #2.

Satire is comedy first, message second. It is impossible to make fun of pretension credibly if you have pretensions yourself. In each of the above cases, the humor seemed to serve a larger agenda. No matter how skilled each of the above humorists were at the mechanics of satire, their aim is so consistently in one direction that they can’t arrive at something which seemed like plain speech. Every time we watch Michael Moore yell at an unsuspecting passer-by, or Bill Maher growl at the camera, or Dennis Miller reference mid-16th century chiauroscuro, something in us suspects that they’re going over the top merely as compensation. Perhaps there is something in them no more credible than the people they foil.

Before Jon Stewart inherited the Daily Show, he was thought of as a comedian who never hit his peak, with a movie career that sputtered before it began. At one point in 1993, he was considered the prohibitive favorite to replace David Letterman at NBC’s Late Night; and instead watched himself passed over for a comedy writer with almost no on-camera experience named Conan O’Brien. He had no less than four failed TV shows to his credit. In all likelihood, he was the party to feel lucky to land The Daily Show, not the other way round.

When he arrived, The Daily Show’s aim was far lower. The content of the show was grounded in entertainment, not satire. Craig Kilborne had wanted the feel of a local news show, with spoofs of human interest news stories and celebrity snark being the driving forces and politics a distinctly secondary concern. It certainly seemed like the right choice for the time. It was the 1990’s, and politics seemed to have little interest to America except for how politicians’ behavior mirrored celebrities. The hook for the show was its edginess. His show was marketed, correctly, as one that made jokes too edgy to be shown on the on Saturday Night Live newscasts. Perhaps the early Daily Show’s most obvious decendent is The Soup, with the similarly vinegar-veined Joel McHale taking Craig Kilborne’s place.

Kilborne left The Daily Show after three years for what he had thought would be greener pastures - following David Letterman at CBS. While Stewart changed the format dramatically, he did so with almost all of the same writers, same production team and same correspondents whom Kilborne used. Comedians are, generally speaking, an intelligent group of people. So Stewart simply told his writers to start writing pieces about the issues they cared about. Perhaps, Stewart must have reasoned, if the writers felt an engagement in the material, they’d come up with funnier things to say about it.

As a comedian, Jon Stewart was always funny. But there was always something a little too sensible about him to be one of the immortals of traditional standup. Unlike Robin Williams or Louis CK he seems far too aware of the risks involved to throw himself completely into the performance. His comedy was always not only more substantial and more literate than other comedians, but also nicer. Sure, there was always the same vulgarity you’d find in Carlin or Pryor; but unlike the true greats, Stewart was always at great pains to show you that how generous, how principled, how earnest he was. Every breech of good taste would immediately be followed by a step back. “Can’t the aliens catch the people we don’t Kathy Lee Gifford?” he would say, followed by “Kathy Lee Gifford personally insulted me on her television program, and I think I’m still holding a grudge.”....just in case Live with Regis and Kathie Lee fans were not mutually exclusive from the people who frequented late night comedy clubs.

Even with the steel it must take to nightly hammer on points about the Iraq War which journalists never dared, there is something within Jon Stewart that naturally defers. He is at his best when his material does the speaking for him. Even his best shows are peppered with throw-away jokes that don’t work, if only to fill the space. But those jokes serve a second purpose as well - they deflect from the idea that Stewart is personally as funny as the things he’s showing you. Stewart’s personality does not radiate from the screen. If one were asked to describe the personalities of David Letterman or Craig Ferguson from their onscreen personas, it would be fairly easy. But to describe Stewart off-camera would be far more difficult. One would probably conjure an image of a vaguely likeable guy who’s interested in politics. It should then follow that a genuflecting sort like Stewart would leave a vacuum on the screen that would require more dominating figures to occupy the space he was loathe to take up himself.

Enter the Stepvhens. Two homonymically eponymous comedians who seemed joined at the hip from the beginning of their careers. One, the most dominating comic presence the Boob Tube has seen since the heyday of John Cleese. The other, the quickest comedic improviser in Hollywood since Johnny Carson.

It was Colbert and Carell, roughly simultaneously, who developed the correspondent persona which dominates The Daily Show to this day. Where Stewart was jocular and amiable, while the correspondents were deadly serious. Yet Stewart was the straight man and the correspondent the clown. It was the utter humorlessness of the correspondent’s delivery that made it so funny. In every show, they would present us with a deadly serious justification of behavior that defies logic in every way, and do so by contorting logic in a way so outrageous that we had to laugh, both delighted and scared by how easy they made it seem. What we were seeing was more than simply the bending of logic. Every time we watched the Stepvhens at their best, we got a brief glimpse into the ease by which bullshit can harden into Newspeak. On some level, it disturbed us as much as it delighted.

Inevitably, the Stepvhens were far too hot to keep around. Fundamentally, each could have had the other’s career, but both of them chose wisely. Colbert, the more imposing presence, becoming the second half of the Daily Show brand - an O’Reilly-style blusterer as self-aggrandizing as Stewart is effacing. But Carell, whose talent relies more on agility than strength, chose the harder path. He has taken the Daily Show correspondent model, softened it, and made it work for mainstream comedy. What is Michael Scott but the Stephen Colbert persona trapped in middle management? So much of The Office is clearly unscripted that one can’t help marveling at how Carrell makes his character consistently one-up the outrageousness of twenty other characters, each played by a gifted performer.

Neither Jon Stewart nor Stephen Colbert were ever the Orwellian prophets of some people’s fevered imaginations. In an authoritarian regime, a Jon Stewart would never have been possible. He’d have been assassinated about five minutes after the first time he aired a Lewis Black commentary. America is not an authoritarian country, and contrary to some people’s beliefs, Jon Stewart is neither the leader of a ‘resistance’ nor a man with an especially insightful ethical code for us all to follow.

The reason we find Jon Stewart compelling is because he speaks to a specific, nameless fear we all have. America is still very much a democracy, and every Jon Stewart super-fan who blames capitalism when his credit card maxes is evidence of that. But in a country where our leaders no longer inspire trust (whether they ever deserved trust is a question for another day), Stewart is the mouthpiece for that barely nameable fear we all have that all these bullshitters may be taking away our ability to ignore them; and that if they did, we’d never see it coming because they’ve been spewing bullshit the entire time. The day we wake up and realize that we are being forced to proclaim our allegiance to bullshit or face dire consequences, if or whenever it comes, is the moment when Bullshit will harden into Newspeak.

We’re not there yet. But the delicate dance between Stewart, Colbert and the Mainstream Media shows how perilously close we continually come. The MSM never knew what to make of them, and Stewarts relationship to the MSM provides greater evidence as to why he is America’s defining cultural figure of our time than any other facet of his career.

At first, there was no reason for the Media pay attention. Stewart was testing formats for a year and only hit upon the right one during the 2000 election cycle. But the first time when Stewart was indispensable was after 9/11. After David Letterman bravely went back on the air only six days after 9/11, Jon Stewart returned three days later. Letterman’s response, like ours, was one of dumbfounded incomprehension. It was riveting television, and very moving. But Stewart’s return was cathartic. It was Stewart who showed us the way forward with these lines:

"They said to get back to work, and there were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position...We sit in the back and we throw spitballs – never forgetting the fact that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that...The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center. Now it's gone. They attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can't beat that."

It was the first moment when he changed the curve of America’s arc. Letterman was in the present, but Jon Stewart looked toward the future. More than any of the thousands of public figures on television during that time, he demonstrated that there was a proper way of looking forward while still honoring those who died. From this moment on, Stewart was impossible to ignore.

When Stewart proved impossible to ignore, the MSM made a grand show of embracing him with all too open arms as if to offer him a place as one of them - Newsweek and Time covers, profiles on every major network news show, pundits marvelling about how substantial he can make comedy seem. And as time went on, the MSM’s paeans to Stewart got increasingly ostentatious; as though their hope that he was one of them turned into fear that he excelled them at their own job. Stewart not only pointed out the tried and true hypocrisy of politicians, but also of the journalists who cover them. But it was Stewart himself who brought an end to the MSM's overtures by appearing on Crossfire, CNN’s 20 year showcase for out-of-work pundits looking for a quick buck, and telling them to ‘Stop Hurting America.’ At that moment, Stewart became larger than journalism itself. ‘Do your job’ he said to the MSM, because as a comedian he did his job better than most of them ever did theirs; and showed how much overlap on both sides there could be between the two.

To most of us, 2003 seems like so long ago that we forget how close we came to the bullshit hardening. It was one of the few times in American History when a sitting President declared criticism of his policies to be unpatriotic. Dissent was nearly silenced in the name of unity; in the face of an enemy that remained virtually unidentifiable.

For all the deserved criticism of the media during the Bush years, one consideration should be remembered. They were scared. After 9/11, most of us had enough good faith to believe that when our President says that there are Weapons of Mass Destruction in a country with the desire and capability to attack us, he damn well means it and knows something we don’t. Most people would believe their President on something that grave even had 9/11 never happened. But even if we take our politicians on faith, it’s the job of journalists to be skeptical.

In an age when scared journalists would not ask questions, it took a comedian to regularly put the questions we all should have been asking on television. It was not a question of bravery, because if Stewart were ever subject of intimidation, he could have simply hidden behind ‘I’m just a comedian on a comedy network.’ He has many times before. What motivated The Daily Show to ask questions about Iraq was not bravery, it was comedy. The fact that reputable journalists refuse to ask the most crucial questions about the outrageous facts their government claims to find without displaying empirical proof........that’s really funny.

After twelve years, the frequency at which The Daily Show still manages to reach those moments of stupefied hilarity is remarkable. The edges are certainly fraying, but the core remains fundamentally intact. After the capture of Saddam Hussein, people predicted the end of Jon Stewart. After the Stepvhens left, people predicted the end of Jon Stewart. After the election of Obama, people predicted the end of Jon Stewart. After his somewhat ill-conceived Rally to Restore Sanity, people predicted the end of Jon Stewart. Yet Stewart has remained through it all, because his hold on us is larger than any facet of his show. If it’s funny to make fun of a public figure’s pretense or hypocrisy, whether Conservative or Liberal, he’s never had any scruples about it (one can’t help it if there’s simply more comic fodder from the right).

And this is why his reluctance to go after Anthony Weiner is so troubling. Weiner was, in so many ways, The Congressman from The Daily Show. Granted, Weiner and Stewart are good friends. They had known each other since their college years, and it is not hard to see why they befriended one another. Weiner has long been known as one of the funniest members of congress, probably less afraid to use humor to emphasize his points than any present member. He is also, like Stewart, doggedly persistent; able to ask questions about the hypocrisy of fellow members which less brave congressman would never dare. Like Stewart’s favorite foils, he is also a dominating presence - in his way, as imposing a television personality as Stephen Colbert. The fact that such a man with so close to, and so similar to Jon Stewart could make such a grave (and gravely hilarious) lapse in judgement calls for all the more reason that Jon Stewart had a responsibility to treat him like any other.

But this was the first moment in the history of the show when you could feel Jon Stewart wishing himself to be a self-effacing standup comic again. The Daily Show provided him with a program where he could entertain people with the most biting possible humor and still earn plaudits for being principled and respectable. But how can a person be principled and respectable if he lampoons his friend on National Television? The humor of Jon Stewart was supposed to shield us from bullshit exactly like this. And now we’ve learned that like everything else, it doesn’t. The moment this story hit the headlines was, perhaps inevitably, the moment which Jon Stewart broke his contract with us. We would view life with all the silliness and directness which he demanded. And in return, he would provide us immunity from all the bullshit which politicians tell.

But every revolution betrays its principles eventually. That never means the revolution was a complete failure. Jon Stewart put plain speech back into our discourse. We’ve now elected a president who admits to marijuana and cocaine use without fear of stigma. We routinely share things on Facebook and Twitter which, eight years ago, would have taken Patriot Act Authorization to discover. Financial firms are finally being warned (if not held accountable) for obfuscating about the ways they make money. Academics are occasionally held accountable for writing unclear prose.

None of this is Stewart’s doing. But as history turns its wheels, it will need a figure who epitomizes these beginning steps in returning towards clear, plain speech; in which people speak their minds freely and without fear of giving away some advantage for having done so. Why would Jon Stewart exemplify this? Because no one has done so in public as well or for as long. Just look at what he says here:

"….And I may have mentioned during the discussion we were having that Harry Truman was a war criminal. And right after saying it, I thought to myself that was dumb. And it was dumb. Stupid in fact. So I shouldn't have said that, and I did. So I say right now, no, I don't believe that to be the case. The atomic bomb, a very complicated decision in the context of a horrific war, and I walk that back because it was in my estimation a stupid thing to say. Which, by the way, as it was coming out of your mouth, you ever do that, where you're saying something, and as it's coming out you're like, "What the fuck, nyah?" And it just sat in there for a couple of days, just sitting going, "No, no, he wasn't, and you should really say that out loud on the show." So I am, right now, and, man, ew. Sorry."

Try to imagine Bill Maher saying that.


  1. An illuminating piece, built on lots of great observations... like the fact that John Stewart intentionally recedes behind the material he showcases, which makes the material itself (contextualized by witty editing and montage) the real source of commentary and humor.

    I agree that Weinergate is one of many clear signals that the landscape is changing for The Daily Show. Stewart worked the story pretty hard, but I think you're right that it challenged his "principled" personal brand, because the story itself was so ridiculous... it was almost self-parodizing. This made it hard for John to cover the story, and also lampoon the MM's coverage, without crossing the line into hypocrisy.

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  3. (accidentally deleted this post)

    It's true that Stewart was caught between a rock and a hard place with Weinergate. But he's handled delicate situations more deftly in the past.

    He certainly mentioned it plenty on the show, but the kid-gloves seemed on. There was no lunge at the jugular this time. One can readily understand why, but I think it hurts his brand - not as a serious truthteller to power (the whole notion of which is rather silly and only matters because he's saying things that other people are not), but his brand as a comedian, which is the way which Stewart should be taken seriously and is made all the more powerful because of how he reflects his era.