You Can’t Be Serious!

Photo: Larry Fink

Fake news”: Jon Stewart originally coined the term to put some distance between The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and, say, The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather or Meet the Press. With the jovial incredulity that makes him so charming, Stewart started regularly reminding viewers and interviewers that what he and his writing staff did was a “fake news” program, because there was a great deal of media chatter about how lots of citizens were using The Daily Show as their primary source of political information.

But because he keeps repeating the joke, and because the hard-news media is so desperate to appear hip to the critique of conventional reporting that Stewart lays out nightly, “fake news” has gone from wry mantra to annoyingly pervasive cliché pretty fast. In fact, the notion of Stewart as the Joker Who Speaks Truth to Power has now gotten away from the joker himself: His cult success on Comedy Central has become bloated and excessively esteemed. There is such free-floating goodwill toward Stewart at the moment that no one wants to point out that, while the first ten minutes of The Daily Show—Stewart’s news-desk take on the day’s events—contain reliably dandy yuks, the rest of the show is increasingly wobbly. It’s full of half-baked taped bits relying on hoodwinking-the-rubes interviews that condescend to a big chunk of the citizenry Stewart would like to mobilize (to judge from serious comments he’s made) as well as to entertain.

As for his interviews with politicians, it’s unfortunate that Stewart overthinks his questions into circular logic: He tries so hard to be the anti-anchorman that he ends up being a disdainfully mediocre one, tossing verbal Twinkies and Ho Hos at everyone from John Kerry to Ralph Reed, ending up with sugary, jittery segments. (Oh, and y’know, Lewis Black has really never been funny a second in his life.)

You may read this as mere contrarianism. After all, yes, Stewart endlessly notes that his is a comedy, not a news show, and shouldn’t be held to news standards. Nonetheless, every time his staff books a politician, he’s part of the process, because by now, appearing on The Daily Show is the most fashionable place to go to prove a pol’s ability not merely to laugh at himself but to impress the host and his doubting audience that the office-seeker really means what he is saying on the stump.

His perch at Comedy Central and the number-one sales of America (The Book) may enable him to be more pointed and lustily vulgar than David Letterman (Stewart’s only, often superior, competitor), but Stewart’s persona implies a more ferocious attack than he actually launches. No matter that his Manhattan-liberal studio audience laughs harder at his ridicule of Bush; to these eyes, Stewart has bought into network news’ most pious belief—the debilitating notion of “evenhandedness.” As with most hip satirists, Stewart’s underlying message is that both sides are square (Bush = bumbling warmonger; Kerry = garrulous equivocator). Thus, The Daily Show may actually undermine the sober message Stewart seems intent on beaming out between the lines of scripted jokes and in interviews: that this time, it’s really important to get off our asses and vote.

Every time his staff books a politician, he becomes part of the process.

It all comes down to the distinction between what Stewart does and what he says. People who watch the show night after night can come away with the same idea others get after watching Ted Koppel or Crossfire: that these two candidates will say anything for my vote, so screw ’em both.

Stewart’s July run-in with the taxidermic Koppel, who long ago devolved into a robo-newsreader, coasting on Nightline’s glory days, was instructive. Stewart had been booked by producers patently eager to attract some of Stewart’s youth demo, and in response, Koppel shook off his dolor long enough to bridle at the notion that what he and Stewart do is very nearly analogous—i.e., informing the populace. He seemed most offended by Stewart’s Naomi Klein–like comparison of political campaigns to “product launches.” If Stewart had stayed serious about these matters, he might have scored points with Ted’s audience. But, of course, Stewart had to layer in some laconic, just-chill-out-Ted shtick—a defensive position that gave Koppel an opening, and left him free to dismiss Stewart’s argument as nothing more than light comedy.

Stewart has developed this bad habit of wanting it both ways: Hey, I just tell jokes! and You can’t handle the truth! Koppel would have none of it, and hustled him off the air. The result? Media commentators, eager to align themselves with the cable-channel cool kids, adjudged Koppel a fogey, when for once the Man With the Meat-Loaf-Shaped Hair was doing something useful: insisting on some clarity in the whippersnapper’s argument. But Koppel’s ego was so threatened, he couldn’t articulate the essential question: What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish, young man?

Similarly, Stewart’s October 15 drop-in on CNN’s Crossfire was a media mind-blow of conflicting cross-purposes. It was, to be sure, profoundly satisfying when Stewart blithely called Carlson a “dick.” To the startled dismay of Carlson and co-host Paul Begala, Stewart tried strenuously to make an earnest point—that there should be actual debating on a program that advertises itself as a debate show, and that “you have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.” (My own dismay, I should admit, was that Stewart made the umpteenth comedian’s joke about Carlson’s bow ties—in his proudly Jewish soul, there’s a lotta Jackie Mason in our Jon, folks.)

But let’s go to the videotape: After Stewart’s “public discourse” remark, Carlson whined, “Wait, I thought you were going to be funny. Come on, be funny.” To which Stewart retorted, “No. No, I’m not gonna be your monkey.” The following Monday, Stewart used The Daily Show in a way I’d never seen him do: as a bully pulpit. “They said I wasn’t being funny. And I said to them, ‘I know that, but tomorrow I will go back to being funny and your show will still blow.’ ” Great cheers erupted, but, but: He didn’t say that on CNN’s air. This was just nyah-nyah, can’t-catch-me baiting. And I say this as someone who agrees with Stewart that, as he also clarified on his October 18 show, “I think they’re all dicks” on Crossfire. That parting shot, delivered from within the fail-safe studio of The Daily Show, was so atypical of Stewart, it made me realize something. All these months, Stewart has been coming from a good yet naïve place; he seems to truly believe that if his show so rigorously parodied and pilloried these ethically corrupt news and analysis shows, the Crossfires and the Hardballs would have a revelation—they’d do what Stewart was begging them to do: conduct true conversations, without the squawk and the hyped-up false alarums. But now he seems rattled by his own power, and unsure how to react. When he stepped over the line, he demonstrated that the line still exists.

So this is the dilemma Jon Stewart now finds himself facing: Is he the Emmy-winning “monkey,” idol to millions of young couch-skeptics, or the thoughtful partisan satirist who’d like to be a player in the national discourse? It would take a genius comic to pull off both roles. But for the moment—his moment; his make-or-break moment up until the election—I’m sad to say, my money’s on the monkey to win out.

You Can’t Be Serious!