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."