TV’s boldest news show

OK, it's fictitious -- but so is our presidency. Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" pulls the pants down on the fakes and fanatics who are leading us into the future.

Topics: Iraq war, Jon Stewart, Satire, Television,

TV's boldest news show

Jon Stewart has gotten his groove back, and not a moment too soon. In the first few days after the war began, Stewart’s late-night satirical news program, “The Daily Show” (Monday through Thursday at 11 p.m., 10 Central Time, on Comedy Central), seemed to go briefly toothless. Stewart and company resorted to parodies of entertainment journalism, dumb war-related jokes that involved plugging the names of various nations into an NCAA playoff bracket and guest appearances by Ringo Starr and actor Eddie Griffin, neither of whom seemed capable of saying anything about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq — Topic A for just about everyone else on the planet. That was a letdown, considering that in the weeks leading up to the March 19 commencement of the conflict, “The Daily Show” had been consistently offering the best political humor on television. Fortunately, the lull was brief.

Stewart, his team of “correspondents” (particularly Stephen Colbert and Ed Helms) and the show’s head writer, David Javerbaum, have used their chosen format — a parody of local newscasts with a talk-show guest segment awkwardly grafted onto its back end — to skewer not just the Bush administration’s single-minded march to war, but also the social temperament that let all this happen. Four nights per week, “The Daily Show” demonstrates the creeping obsolescence of, say, a performer like Bill Maher, whose Enlightened He-Man persona has proven itself barely viable outside the hothouse environment of the Clinton years.

Take, for example, a “Daily Show” segment called “Oh, Come On!” It mimics the tone of knowing suspicion found in cut-rate exposés of government waste and other supposed liberal boondoggles. The correspondent, Rob Corddry, starts out in a playground, gravely explaining: “We’ve all heard it before. It’s an age-old saying that the children are the future. Our society bends over backward for the children. We feed them. We clothe them. We educate them … But are children really worth the investment? [close-up on Corddry with narrowed eyes and a belligerently tilted jaw] I mean, come on!”

Corddry’s investigation takes him to a storefront in New York, where he discovers, to his incredulity, “children get help with their homework — for free,” and to interviews in which he grills tots about alternative energy sources (they recommend poop) and asks them to put names to photographs of political figures (they identify Sen. Joseph Lieberman as “Grandma”). He even faces off against a 4-year-old girl on a basketball court (and trounces her). “The kids I know don’t vote, they don’t pay taxes,” he complains. “Are the billions of dollars we’re spending on the children paying off, or are they just teat-sucking parasites?”

The segment is silly (and hilarious), but the barbs hit home. “The Daily Show” doesn’t just make fun of broadcast journalists (as “Saturday Night Live” has for decades), it mocks the underlying know-nothing mulishness that passed for trenchant common sense back when the president’s sex life seemed like the most pressing moral issue facing the nation. Now there are bigger fish to fry. Asking whether “the billions of dollars we’re spending on the children are paying off” isn’t that far from the mentality of a government that can stand by as schoolteachers are laid off by the score in California and yet still find plenty of money to award tax breaks to rich people.

Political humor used to belong to the left, but that all changed in the 1990s, when the priggishness of political correctitude injected new vitality into a segment of the population that had been shut out of comedy’s pantheon: assholes. Suddenly, a guy could flaunt his most petty and vindictive prejudices and still get to feel like a champion of truth and freedom. You could rail against “victimology” when, say, sexually harassed workers dared to resort to it, and then turn around and avail yourself of the same trend by claiming that a pack of censorious puritans was trying to shut you up. In fact, the appeal of shock jocks and other bad boys mostly lies in the idea that they’re offensive to somebody else, someone you can imagine gasping in horror at each transgression. Without political correctness (and that’s fading fast), a big chunk of what passes for contemporary American humor would be flapping in the wind.

It helps (comedy, at least) to have plutocratic religious fanatics with imperialist ambitions occupying the White House, and “The Daily Show” has been at the forefront in finding a new way to make political humor in the age of Dubya. Some of that feels tentative: Stewart is still honing his persona. He’s an everyman with the intelligence to spot a crock, the humility to ask questions and a nifty way of keeping his mouth shut to let the absurdity of the naked facts sink in. He does, however, occasionally smirk, though he seems to be morphing that mannerism into a daffy eye-rolling gesture reminiscent of Jack Benny.

Here’s what Stewart isn’t: self-righteous. And that is more than Maher can say. The comparison is illuminating. Granted, Maher is a rigorously tough interviewer, and the unscripted conversations on his new HBO show, “Real Time,” are the best things about it. He can get in the ring, deliver a sound drubbing to a cant-spouting Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., then step down and shake hands like a gentleman afterward. The debate segments of “Real Time,” which corral Maher and three people drawn from a rotating group of feisty polemicists on both the right and the left (Dennis Miller, Arianna Huffington, Ann Coulter, Janeane Garofalo and Ted Rall, among others), are riveting. By contrast, Stewart is too nice to get much out of the talk-show segments of “The Daily Show,” and his assortment of guests is peculiar, ranging from forgettable starlets to the editor of the Nation to the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But the sorry truth is that everything on “Real Time” that’s meant to be funny isn’t, including Maher’s opening monologue, regular Paul Tompkins, and (especially) the guest comics who perform at each show’s end. It all feels tired and smug. Infinitely pleased with himself, Maher needs to realize that the value of being the smartest guy in the room varies considerably with the quality of the rooms you choose to hang out in. His hodgepodge conglomeration of pet positions — for the legalization of marijuana, against the demonization of porn, contempt for religion — developed more of a moral center with his opposition to the Iraq war, but it’s still rooted in a self-congratulatory rejection of other people’s sanctimony. He’s pious about his own impiety.

Stewart and company, on the other hand, can articulate their derision for the state of American public life without demanding that we admire their maverick élan. In fact, “The Daily Show” regularly advances the notion that self-satisfied white guys might sometimes be part of the problem and not just the blameless (yet rakish!) casualties of moral crusaders run amok. The show specializes in satires of bogus experts: No matter what the subject at hand, for example, Stephen Colbert is introduced as the show’s “senior analyst.” He’s the senior U.N. analyst, senior media analyst, senior theater analyst, senior death analyst (commenting on a Texas execution), etc. He can always be counted on to speak utter drivel with unflappable authority.

After the war started, Stewart had the following conversations with Colbert, who was wearing his “senior media analyst” hat:

Stewart: What should the media’s role be in covering the war?

Colbert: Very simply, the media’s role should be the accurate and objective description of the hellacious ass-whomping we’re handing the Iraqis.

Stewart: Hellacious ass-whomping? Now to me, that sounds pretty subjective.

Colbert: Are you saying it’s not an ass-whomping, Jon? I suppose you could call it an ass-kicking or an ass-handing-to. Unless, of course, you love Hitler.

Stewart [stammering]: I don’t love Hitler.

Colbert: Spoken like a true Hitler-lover.

Stewart: Look, even some American generals have said that the Iraqis have put up more resistance than they were expected to.

Colbert: First rule of journalism, Jon, is to know your sources. Sounds like these “generals” of yours may be a little light in the combat boots, if you know what I’m saying.

Stewart: I don’t think I know what you’re saying.

Colbert: I’m saying they’re queers, Jon. They’re Hitler-loving queers.

Stewart: I’m perplexed. Is your position that there’s no place for negative words or even thoughts in the media?

Colbert: Not at all, Jon. Doubts can happen to everyone, including me, but as a responsible journalist, I’ve taken my doubts, fears, moral compass, conscience and all-pervading skepticism about the very nature of this war and simply placed them in this empty Altoids box. [Produces box.] That’s where they’ll stay, safe and sound, until Iraq is liberated.

Stewart: Isn’t it the media’s responsibility in wartime …

Colbert: That’s my point, Jon! The media has no responsibility in wartime. The government’s on top of it. The media can sit this one out.

Stewart: And do what?

Colbert: Everything it’s always wanted to do but had no time for: travel, see the world, write that novel. I know the media has always wanted to try yoga. This is a great time to take it up. It’s very stressful out there — huge war going on. Jon, hear me out, it was Thomas Jefferson who said, “Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.”

Stewart: Stephen, Stalin said that. That was Stalin. Jefferson said he’d rather have a free press and no government than a government and no free press.

Colbert: Well, what do you expect from a slave-banging, Hitler-loving queer?

The sketch doesn’t do much more than take the through-the-looking-glass logic operating behind the stances of many media professionals and exaggerate it just a hair. It’s a far better way of needling the mindlessness of mainstream journalism than to simply rail against them for kowtowing to popular sentiment.

It also requires more modesty from Stewart as a performer than most of today’s comics could manage. He’s willing to play the straight man, not just to the show’s other performers, but to the truth itself. His is a variation on the old Lt. Columbo technique, feigning bewilderment and requesting explanations that only underline how nonsensical someone else is being. Before the war, Stewart announced with a delivery that started out confident and ended in puzzlement, “Unless the U.N. authorizes the use of force against Iraq for disregarding its guidelines, the U.S. will unilaterally attack Iraq, thus disregarding the U.N.’s guidelines.”

Here’s another exchange from the same period, also with Colbert, “senior U.N. analyst,” about the deadline by which Saddam Hussein was ordered to provide proof that he had destroyed any weapons of mass destruction:

Stewart: Haven’t there been some rumors that he may not even have some of those weapons?

Colbert: That would be a huge headache for Saddam. In that case, he’d have to build factories to create the weapons, create them, admit to having created them and then destroy them. Again, by Monday. It’s nearly impossible, Jon, unless he possesses weapons of mass destruction, in which case he can use them to destroy his weapons of mass destruction …

Stewart: I’m confused. We think he has weapons, but if he doesn’t …

Colbert: Jon, don’t confuse him actually having them with the threat posed by our thinking he has them. Just imagine what Saddam could do if he did what we’re imagining he’ll do. It’s almost unimaginable.

There’s more than a touch of Monty Python here, but the political sting is distinctly American.

It’s not that Stewart doesn’t get to make his share of the jokes — most recently, after showing a clip of Donald Rumsfeld scolding Syria, he said, “Did you see what he just did there? We’re in the middle of a war and he’s starting another war. We’re already fighting Iraq and he’s like, ‘By the way, Syria? You want a piece?’ … There’s nothing like a cantankerous old man who takes a ‘Hey, you kids, get off my lawn!’ approach to foreign policy.” But even then, Stewart never ditches his average-guy persona. This is, as Frank Rich pointed out recently in the New York Times, an example that Michael Moore, our best-known left humorist, would do well to follow. Moore has always been most persuasive when he is funny — that is, when he is shambling and befuddled and asking questions — and least so when he’s preaching.

What the creators of “The Daily Show” understand is that in times like ours — the era of “freedom fries” — a good humorist doesn’t need to grandstand and sometimes barely needs to editorialize at all. “Our show is obviously at a disadvantage with any of the other news shows we’re competing against,” Stewart said at the beginning of one episode, shortly after the war began. “For one thing, we are fake. They are not. So in terms of credibility, we are … well, oddly enough we’re about even.”

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>