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Steve Almond

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The Joke's on You

Posted: 07/19/2012 11:11 am

From The Baffler, no. 20

Among the hacks who staff our factories of conventional wisdom, evidence abounds that we are living in a golden age of political comedy. The New York Times nominates Jon Stewart, beloved host of Comedy Central's Daily Show, as the "most trusted man in America." His protégé, Stephen Colbert, enjoys the sort of slavish media coverage reserved for philanthropic rock stars. Bill Maher does double duty as HBO's resident provocateur and a regular on the cable news circuit. The Onion, once a satirical broadsheet published by starving college students, is now a mini-empire with its own news channel. Stewart and Colbert, in particular, have assumed the role of secular saints whose nightly shtick restores sanity to a world gone mad.

But their sanctification is not evidence of a world gone mad so much as an audience gone to lard morally, ignorant of the comic impulse's more radical virtues. Over the past decade, political humor has proliferated not as a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source. Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.

Our lazy embrace of Stewart and Colbert is a testament to our own impoverished comic standards. We have come to accept coy mockery as genuine subversion and snarky mimesis as originality. It would be more accurate to describe our golden age of political comedy as the peak output of a lucrative corporate plantation whose chief export is a cheap and powerful opiate for progressive angst and rage.

Fans will find this assessment offensive. Stewart and Colbert, they will argue, are comedians, offering late-night entertainment in the vein of David Letterman or Jay Leno, but with a topical twist. To expect them to do anything more than make us laugh is unfair. Besides, Stewart and Colbert do play a vital civic role -- they're a dependable news source for their mostly young viewers, and de facto watchdogs against media hype and political hypocrisy.

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times offered a summation of the majority opinion in a 2008 profile of Stewart that doubled as his highbrow coronation. "Mr. Stewart describes his job as 'throwing spitballs' from the back of the room," she wrote. "Still, he and his writers have energetically tackled the big issues of the day . . . in ways that straight news programs cannot: speaking truth to power in blunt, sometimes profane language, while using satire and playful looniness to ensure that their political analysis never becomes solemn or pretentious."

Putting aside the obvious objection that poking fun at the powerful isn't the same as bluntly confronting them, it's important to give Stewart and Colbert their due. They are both superlative comedians with brilliant writing staffs. They represent a quantum improvement over the aphoristic pabulum of the thirties satirist Will Rogers or the musical schmaltz of Beltway balladeer Mark Russell. Stewart and Colbert have, on occasion, aimed their barbs squarely at the seats of power.

The most famous example is Colbert's turn as the featured speaker at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. Paying tribute to President George W. Bush, seated just a few feet away, Colbert vowed, "I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world." He went on to praise, in punishing detail, the media who had served as cheerleaders for the president's factually spurious rush to war in Iraq, and his embrace of domestic surveillance and torture. The crowd, composed of A-list cheerleaders, sat in stunned silence.

Stewart has generated a few similar moments of frisson, most notably when he eviscerated Jim Cramer, the frothing former hedge fund manager who hosts the CNBC show Mad Money, and Betsy McCaughey, an unctuous lobbyist paid by insurance companies to flog the myth of government-run "death panels" during the debate over health care reform. Stewart also played a vital role in shaming Senate Republicans into supporting a bill to provide medical care for 9/11 first responders.

What's notable about these episodes, though, is how uncharacteristic they are. What Stewart and Colbert do most nights is convert civic villainy into disposable laughs. They prefer Horatian satire to Juvenalian, and thus treat the ills of modern media and politics as matters of folly, not concerted evil. Rather than targeting the obscene cruelties borne of greed and fostered by apathy, they harp on a rogues' gallery of hypocrites familiar to anyone with a TiVo or a functioning memory. Wit, exaggeration, and gentle mockery trump ridicule and invective. The goal is to mollify people, not incite them.

In Kakutani's adoring New York Times profile, Stewart spoke of his comedic mission as though it were an upscale antidepressant: "It's a wonderful feeling to have this toxin in your body in the morning, that little cup of sadness, and feel by 7 or 7:30 that night, you've released it in sweat equity and can move on to the next day." What's missing from this formulation is the idea that comedy might, you know, change something other than your mood.

Back in October of 2004, Stewart made a now-famous appearance on the CNN debate show Crossfire, hosted by the liberal pundit Paul Begala and his conservative counterpart Tucker Carlson. Stewart framed his visit as an act of honor. He had been mocking the contrived combat of Crossfire on his program and wanted to face his targets. The segment quickly devolved into a lecture. "Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America," he told Carlson. "See, the thing is, we need your help. Right now, you're helping the politicians and the corporations. And we're left out there to mow our lawns." The exchange went viral. Stewart was hailed as a hero: here, at last, was a man brave enough to condemn the tyranny of a middling cable shoutfest.

But who, exactly, did Stewart mean by "we"? He's not just some poor schnook who works the assembly line at a factory then goes home to mow his lawn. He's a media celebrity who works for Viacom, one of the largest entertainment corporations in the world. Stewart can score easy points by playing the humble populist. But he's as comfortable on the corporate plantation as any of the buffoons he delights in humiliating.

The queasy irony here is that Stewart and Colbert are parasites of the dysfunction they mock. Without blowhards such as Carlson and shameless politicians, Stewart would be out of a job that pays him a reported $14 million per annum. Without the bigoted bluster of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, The Colbert Report would not exist. They aren't just invested in the status quo, but dependent on it.

Consider, in this context, Stewart's coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. His initial segment highlighted the hypocrisy of those who portrayed the protestors in Zuccotti Park as lawless and menacing while praising Tea Party rallies as quintessentially patriotic. But Stewart was careful to include a caveat: "I mean, look, if this thing turns into throwing trash cans into Starbucks windows, nobody's gonna be down with that," he said, alluding to vandalism by activists during a 1999 World Trade Organization summit. Stewart then leaned toward the camera and said, in his best guilty-liberal stage whisper, "We all love Starbucks." The audience laughed approvingly. Protests for economic justice are worthy of our praise, just so long as they don't take aim at our luxuries. The show later sent two correspondents down to Zuccotti Park. One highlighted the various "weirdos" on display. The other played up the alleged class divisions within those occupying the park. Both segments trivialized the movement by playing to right-wing stereotypes of protestors as self-indulgent neo-hippies.

Stewart sees himself as a common-sense critic, above the vulgar fray of partisan politics. But in unguarded moments -- comparing Steve Jobs to Thomas Edison, say, or crowing over the assassination of Osama bin Laden -- he betrays an allegiance to good old American militarism and the free market.

In his first show after the attacks of September 11, he delivered a soliloquy that channeled the histrionic patriotism of the moment. "The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center," he said shakily, "and now it's gone, and 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 does not take a particularly supple intellect to discern the subtext here. The twin towers may have symbolized "ingenuity" and "imagination" to Americans such as Stewart and his brother, Larry, the chief operating officer of the New York Stock Exchange's parent company. But to most people in the world, the WTC embodied the global reach of U.S.-backed corporate cartels. It's not the sort of monument that would showcase a pledge to shelter the world's "huddled masses." In fact, it's pretty much the opposite of that. To imply a kinship between the towers and the Statue of Liberty -- our nation's most potent symbol of immigrant striving -- is to promote a reality crafted by Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. Stewart added this disclaimer: "Tonight's show is not obviously a regular show. We looked through the vault and we found some clips that we thought might make you smile, which is really what's necessary, I think, uh, right about now."

You got that? In times of national crisis, the proper role of the comedian is not to challenge the prevailing jingoistic hysteria, but to induce smiles.

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