04/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Discomfort Zone

At the end of his "face-off" with Jim Cramer tonight, Jon Stewart said something about hoping that the audience felt as much discomfort watching it as he did conducting it. This audience of one certainly did, and it also sensed some restiveness and embarrassment in the studio-audience reactions to the nine or ten consecutive unanswered blows to Cramer's midsection, especially by those mortifying 2006 blurry video clips in which Cramer seems to endorse three or four types of investment gaming and near-scamming. Why is it that this sort of public moral comeuppance gives some of us much more discomfort than it does righteous vindication, anger, indignation? Because it's literally out of place.
First of all, Jon Stewart abandons his comic genius to put on metaphorical judicial robes and a peruke. They don't fit very well, as they didn't when he attacked Tucker Carlson. But the discomfort also arises, I think, from the conscious or unconscious understanding among many members of the audience that IT'S ALL SHOW BUSINESS. "The Daily Show" is no less a part of show business than "Fast Money" and the rest of CNBC's yammering-heads parade are. At the beginning of the show--show!--Stewart even alluded, in however a self-parodic way, to the positive ratings consequences of having Cramer on the program.
So Stewart's censorious mien, however justified by the "shenanigans" that Cramer may have participated in on his program and that take place in the real world of finance, struck me and I bet many others as a kind of category violation and even turned into a kind of boomerang. Cramer's show is (actually not-bad) entertainment. Come on--you knew that, and so did I. If you take that kind of crap seriously, who's fault is that, when you come right down to it? In whose hand rests the remote? Stewart's show is absolutely brilliant comedy, night after night--an amazing accomplishment--and he delivers severe and telling blows to the pompous and the preposterous and pernicious through his comedy. This show is close to a public service in its antidotal effects. When he gets serious with other guests, it's usually momentarily and a natural part of a basically comic interview. This time, though, it was almost all very serious, but since it was ultimately still in the service of show business (remember: ratings!), the ring of righteousnss was just a litle hollow--just as it was, at least for me, when Oprah dressed James Frey down a while back.