As George W. Bush’s presidency wound down, it became obvious that a comedy crisis was looming. As you might recall, there was much media thumb-sucking over what America’s gag writers would do when they no longer had the tongue-tied Texan to kick around. To make matters worse for the comedy scribes, Bush’s eventual replacement was a well-spoken, walking civil-rights triumph who largely shared the entertainment industry’s liberal politics.
In a New York Times article last year somewhat incredulously titled “Want Obama in a Punch Line? First, Find a Joke,” the most influential political comedian in America admitted he was at a loss.
“We’re carrion birds,” Daily Show host Jon Stewart told the Times. “We’re sitting up there saying ‘Does he seem weak? Is he dehydrated yet? Let’s attack.’”
Fair enough. But that was last year. We’re about six weeks into Obama’s presidency, with a car-crash pile-up of scandals, broken promises, and embarrassing encounters with foreign heads of state. So, Mr. Stewart, do we have enough comedy carrion yet? Is the president weak enough to make fun of? Obviously, regular watchers of The Daily Show would note that Obama’s problems haven’t been ignored and the show is still capable of being funny — but its political priorities have been made abundantly clear.
Indeed, what we’re seeing is not the predicted crisis of comedy but rather the show’s lack of integrity and honesty. If Bush had racked up these kinds of mistakes like so many dominoes, we’d be looking at a comedy crucifixion every night on The Daily Show.
Instead, Jon Stewart has most recently been snatching headlines by engaging in a petty feud with CNBC host Jim Cramer, in a lame attempt to defend the Obama administration’s economic policies. Sure enough, a guy who’s always screaming “BOO-YAH!” and announcing stock picks like they were bingo numbers seems a fairly safe target for a comedy show.
The problem is that when it comes to the substance of their debate, Cramer, arguably the most lampoon-able guy in cable news, has been attacking Stewart on NBC’s Today Show, MSNBC, and other network properties — and he had been kicking Jon Stewart’s behind.
With the Dow down nearly 3,000 points since Election Day, Cramer and other business-network personalities have been understandably critical of the Obama administration’s response to the financial crisis. First, Stewart went after Rick Santelli, the CNBC commentator famous for his recent “tea party” jeremiad against the administration’s proposed mortgage bailout in a long monologue immediately after Santelli cancelled his scheduled appearance on the show. (Santelli’s decision not to show up proved wise; the next week, Stewart admitted they had prepared a savage monologue skewering him to deliberately create “discomfort” during their interview.) Stewart’s Santelli-bashing soon turned into a wholesale attack on CNBC that eventually ensnared the combative Cramer.
Cramer was ably defending himself against Stewart’s broadsides — but then he agreed to appear on The Daily Show, where Stewart enjoys a decided home-court advantage. Should an interview subject make Stewart look bad, the interview tends to go through an embarrassing and obvious Cuisinart editing process, as was the case when Jonah Goldberg made his appearance last year. (The same thing happened to Cramer, though to their credit, the show put the unedited interview online this time.) Sure enough, Cramer’s appearance on the show last night was nothing short of a predictable sandbagging, with Stewart hopped up on faux-indignation.
The Daily Show’s critique is essentially this: Cramer, Rick Santelli, and their CNBC ilk have been irresponsible Wall Street cheerleaders, which means they are in no position to criticize the administration’s handling of the crisis. Claiming the business networks have been reckless in their advice is a legitimate point, and the video evidence that Daily Show staffers assembled does look bad. The Daily Show helped touch off the feud when it put together an eight-minute clip of Cramer repeatedly endorsing Bear Stearns stock in the weeks prior to its collapse. But was that really justification to conclude said monologue by having Stewart look angrily into the camera and say “F–k you”?
If you want to have Cramer on your show and bully him for sticking his neck out and being spectacularly wrong in hindsight, fine. Perhaps he deserves it, and certainly it’s not hard to see Cramer as emblematic of Wall Street arrogance. The problem is that Stewart’s critique of Jim Cramer, or of the financial press in general, is not new or particularly relevant — banks have been collapsing for a year. It only became an issue when Stewart wanted to delegitimize Santelli and Cramer’s comments on the Obama administration.
Stewart wants to use bad stock picks to question the motives of financial observers who are now saying the Obama administration has botched its handling of the crisis. But, ironically, Stewart is the one now risking his own neck with a shaky prediction. Anyone want to bet on whether or not a year from now Stewart’s pro-Obama boosterism will look foolish?
After all, Cramer, Santelli, and the rest aren’t making individual predictions in their criticism of the Obama administration; they’re parroting the conventional wisdom. It seems unlikely that Stewart will unleash a stemwinder directed at Warren Buffet — whose reputation as a stock picker is a wee bit more polished than Cramer’s and who publicly endorsed Obama — for daring to criticize Obama for letting “pet projects” get in the way of a proper fiscal response to the economic crisis. Nor do I suspect that Stewart will make jokes about the unease created by the troubling details in Treasury chief Timothy Geithner’s bank-rescue plan, because, oh yeah, even though the banking sector is imploding, we don’t know what that plan is yet.
Instead, Stewart prefers to take cheap shots, like he did when he went after CNBC’s tongue-in-cheek “In Cramer We Trust” promotional tagline. Perhaps that does indicate some hubris, but consider how Stewart defended his inability to make a joke about Obama to the New York Times last year: “So far, our take is that he’s positioning himself to be on a coin.” Now given that Cramer is a Democrat who publicly endorsed Obama, which commentator’s current take on the administration has more, er, currency?
Earlier this week it seemed Stewart was in retreat. He downplayed his feud with Cramer, scurrying back to his I’m-just-a-comedian-schtick and mocking the dispute as “Basic Cable Personality Clash Skirmish ’09.” But from the moment it was announced that Cramer would appear on The Daily Show, it was obvious that Stewart was going to swing a club rather than try to be funny.
Stewart’s been having it both ways for far too long — his moral authority was such that when he appeared on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004 and declared that the show was “hurting America,” it was soon canceled. Liberal journalists such as The Nation’s media critic Eric Alterman have declared, “Literally no one upheld the honor better of what remains of the media than did this ‘fake news’ comedian. He is our leader.” Last August, during an appearance at the Democratic convention, he gave a pointed lecture to the “established” media bemoaning that they’d abdicated their role to the “slow-witted beast.” And his interview roster is the envy of broadcast journalists the world over.
Yet, when Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz questioned him on his role, the exchange was pretty much the perfect distillation of Stewart’s arrogant and hypocritical defense:
KURTZ: So you don’t, you’re not confusing yourself with a quote “real journalist”?
STEWART: No. You guys are . . .
KURTZ: You’re just making fun . . .
STEWART: You guys are confusing yourselves with real journalists.
That’s right, don’t confuse the comedian Stewart with being a journalist — because he’s better than that. Jim Cramer, on the other hand, is a tool of the corporate media and Wall Street. Of course, anyone who has tuned into his show and seen Cramer strutting around a soundstage that looks like the helm of the Starship Enterprise as envisioned by the Teletubbies’ set designer and pushing buttons that make wacky sound effects could tell you that Cramer is to stock-picking what The Daily Show is to TV news: something not to be taken too seriously.
Two years ago, Slate financial writer Henry Blodget put it this way: “I mean, of course Jim Cramer gives terrible investment advice — we all know that, right? — and we only watch the show because, well, because he does possess a certain bizarre type of market and entertainment genius . . . he’s irreverent, madcap, and, yes, even brilliant, in an idiot-savant, freak-show sort of way. (Moreover, Cramer is mesmerizing reality TV. Admit it: You watch because you wonder if this is the night he finally has a heart attack, kills someone, or explodes in a tirade of expletive-laced slander.)”
The problem is that in order for Stewart not to take Cramer seriously, he would have to take himself less seriously. He elevated Cramer as part of his feud and took it personally when Cramer fired back. It’s been obvious for some time that Stewart is too busy grinding his partisan axe to properly hone his once considerable comedic sensibilities. He can’t even try to cut a gasbag such as Jim Cramer down to size without coming off as self-important and, worse, unfunny. Maybe before Jon Stewart starts accusing anyone else of hurting America, he should tell it to the man in the mirror.