As I was watching the one-sided cage match that was Thursday night's Daily Show I thought, wow, I don't think I'll ever be able to look at that network in quite the same way. I didn't quite realize how borderline irresponsible they have been in their programming, especially in this age that calls for so much more. And how they have really shirked their responsibility to their audience. That really makes me mad.
The network I'm referring to of course, is Comedy Central.
Much like CNBC, Comedy Central claims to be the home, the Mecca, the go-to place for all things related to its stated field of expertise. The state of the current comedy world is reflected through their programming, or at least that's what their name would seem to imply. By their name and by their standing as the only cable channel devoted solely to comedy one could easily infer that their shows represent the apotheosis of comedy today. But as I was watching The Daily Show - a brilliant, important, powerful piece of television; a piece that only a comedy show could have made possible - here are the ads for other Comedy Central programming with which I was inundated: Important Things With Demetri Martin, Scrubs, Reno 911, and The Comedy Central Roast of Larry the Cable Guy. Or to quote a great comedian of his day, "sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Now just like taking on Jim Cramer isn't entirely fair to CNBC, it should be noted that Comedy Central has also given birth to The Colbert Report, South Park, Chapelle's Show, That's My Bush, and others, which have, with widely varying degrees of success aimed for importance and real-world relevance.
But they are also the network responsible for Drawn Together, Halfway Home, Dog Bites Man, Stella, Crank Yankers, and Strangers With Candy, any many many more.
Now some of those shows are genuinely funny and well-done. Even brilliant at times. So I'm not saying that there isn't a place for those shows or that they shouldn't be made. I'm just saying that they're not important. And I say that as a self-professed comedy nerd. I used to spend my free time in college at the library watching DVDs of Monty Python's Flying Circus and Mr. Show. Growing up I spent hours dissecting Airplane! and The Jerk like they were some sort of comedy Rosetta Stones. But watching Jon Stewart eviscerate Jim Cramer last night helped catalyze for me something that I've been wrestling with for a while. And that is that maybe it's time to reassess our values when it comes to comedy. Because when it comes right down to it, why is Monty Python important? What truth is an improv show speaking to? What purpose will the Arrested Development movie serve other than to provoke laughter? To what end is a well crafted joke if it doesn't in some way illuminate the human condition? Laughter is perhaps the most powerful weapon we have; perhaps we should start using it a little more wisely. Entertainment is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, but isn't it time we all asked for a little more than that?
In many ways we already have without even knowing it. Tina Fey writes and acts in a brilliant comedy show. Arguably the funniest one on the air. But her mainstream popularity didn't explode until she used comedy to take down a real life political candidate in a way the news media could only dream about. Chappelle's Show and Chris Rock's stand up specials are hits in large part because they can say things about race that no serious commentator could get near with a ten foot pole. People won't go see movies about Iraq if you pay them to, but they'll gladly watch reruns of M.A.S.H. for free. We say we don't like serious subjects, but yet we all, on some level, respond strongly to comedy about serious things. Comedy allows us a way in to where we're hesitant to go on our own. That's why even if Jon Stewart's destruction of Jim Cramer was not "comedy" per se, it was comedy that made it possible. Because there's no way Jim Cramer even agrees to that interview in the first place if it's not done under aegis of a comedy show.
Since comedy is fun, friendly, entertaining, and seemingly non-confrontational it seems safe. But as it offers an ostensibly easier entry point to the truth than drama, it can, because of its deceptive softness, allow its practitioner to dig much deeper than they could through "seriousness". And if what we need in the world today, what we demand, is more truth, more accountability, more serious discussion of important matters, and if comedy can do that better than anything else, then isn't a comedian in some way shirking his artistic responsibilities by doing anything less? Having a brilliant comedic mind and using it to improv your way through some meaningless show on Comedy Central during these bleak times would be like having a show on the most watched financial network in America and during a crippling financial meltdown filling your show with wacky sound effects and zany hi-jinks. Hiding behind the "oh I'm an entertainer; I'm a clown" isn't an excuse, it's a cop-out. And that's no more true for Jim Cramer than it is for anyone else. Now is not the time for Bananas. This is an Annie Hall age. So its time we stopped settling for anything less. Let's not just demand more from our politicians, let's demand more from our comedians. Let's demand more from Comedy Central.