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America Is a Joke

The worst of times for politics and media has been the best of times for The Daily Show’s host—and unfortunately things are getting even funnier.

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It’s hard to top a kick in the nuts.

Especially when the kicker is Linda McMahon, the Connecticut Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Pure comedy gold.

Jon Stewart watches the tape and doubles over with laughter. He and fifteen of The Daily Show’s writers, producers, and performers are gathered around a 40-inch flat-screen TV inside the show’s Eleventh Avenue offices early on a Thursday morning in August. Creating a segment for tonight’s Daily Show around this footage, from one of World Wrestling Entertainment’s harmless little skits, would seem to be easy. Maybe they can just run the nut shot repeatedly. Along with another clip of McMahon, the co-founder and former CEO of WWE, chugging a beer and drooling foam down her cheek.

Except that the goal here isn’t simply topping the kick in the nuts—it’s using the scrotum slam in the service of a larger point. Oh, Stewart & Co. enjoy a lowbrow laugh as much as the folks over at South Park; heck, next week they’re publishing a book that includes some excellent masturbation jokes. But Stewart and The Daily Show became America’s sharpest political satirists by aiming at least a little bit higher.

“Slut! Slut! Slut!” The next clip shows McMahon’s daughter entering the wrestling ring to a booming chant from the crowd. Followed by McMahon’s deadly serious face, in a Nightline interview. “Oh my God,” Stewart interjects. “How do you answer that as a politician? ‘Well, you don’t know my daughter’? Or, ‘You know, the use of the term slut was obviously inadvertent’?”

This sets off a spasm of free-associative jokes from the other writers. “Or, ‘You don’t understand—Americans love this shit.’ ”

“What if we ran the clip like Super Mario Brothers, and every time she kicks that guy in the nuts, a gold coin comes out?”

“Was McMahon endorsed by Triple H? Or was it Triple X?”

“That’s funny stuff,” Stewart says. “But let’s get a sense of where the media is trying to build the narrative and where the story lines are going to go.”

Segment producer Ramin Hedayati dials up a series of clips of everyone from Greta Van Susteren to George Stephanopoulos inveighing on the endorsement “proxy war” between Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, or Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, or maybe it’s—

“Somebody last night said there’s no story line here,” Kevin Bleyer says. “Was it Chuck Todd?”

They run the clip of NBC’s Todd saying, “The one thing we learned is that the candidates that got the most votes won.” The room erupts in laughter. Until Times reporter Jeff Zeleny tells Todd that the media would have blamed Obama if the results in Colorado had come out differently. “See, that’s very telling right there,” Stewart says, “where he says, ‘Had this happened, here’s what we would have done.’ ”

“They’ve already read through the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book on this,” John Hodgman says.

Stewart shakes his head in disgust. “Let’s take a stab at ‘Thank God these primaries are coming to an end, because as far as a news-media narrative, they’ve blown through so many ideas already—‘angry voters,’ ‘ladies’ night,’ ‘proxy war’—it’s like dresses that they feel like they can’t wear to more than one movie premiere. So they’ve got to come up with a new story line. Maybe this one is endorsements; is the next one height?”

It wasn’t exactly an innocent year, given the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Columbine, and the two frames of a topless woman hidden in Disney’s The Rescuers. But since 1999, when Stewart took over as host, the context in which The Daily Show operates has been radically altered. Terrorist attacks, two wars, and a global economic meltdown have charged the political atmosphere. More important for Stewart and his show has been the media transformation. Print is crumbling. The mainstream TV networks have steadily shed seriousness and viewers. The Internet, a minor player at the turn of the century, has become overcrowded with opinion silos. As the new century began, Fox News Channel was finding its fair-and-balanced footing and Glenn Beck, an itinerant radio shock jock, was trying on a new persona, “Limbaugh Lite.” Today, Fox News is an evil empire and Beck just led a messianic Washington rally. America’s politicians, willingly or not, often seem like they’re actors in scripts created by cable producers.

Stewart made himself into the leading critic and satirist of the media-political complex, starting with “Indecision 2000,” The Daily Show’s parody of that year’s presidential campaign. His comedy is counterprogramming—postmodern entertainment but with a political purpose. As truth has been overrun by truthiness and facts trampled by lies, he and The Daily Show have become an invaluable corrective—he’s Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, although in keeping with the fragmented culture, he’s trusted by many fewer people, about 1.8 million viewers each night. Years ago, Stewart lost out to Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel for late-night network jobs, but the shifting media fortunes have made him the long-run winner, with vastly more job security and cultural influence than his conventional talk-show competitors—and most conventional journalists.


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