The Campaign Spot

What Really Ails The Daily Show

With Jon Stewart announcing his imminent retirement from The Daily Show, we’ll see a lot of farewells to him and his work on the show in the coming weeks.

It’s likely we’ll see some conservatives offering a simple assessment: “Stewart’s a liberal, and he wasn’t funny.” Despite the heartfelt determination of those holding that view, the first half is simplistic in its assessment of Stewart’s flaw and the second half is inaccurate.

The show was usually funny, and even the most stone-faced conservative could find something laughable in, say, Muppet Michael Steele. It wasn’t that Jon Stewart and the writers of the Daily Show were never willing to mock or criticize Democrats. Every once in a while, they would target one with a passion; witness Stewart’s segment, “You, Harry Reid, Are Terrible”, after Reid speculated that Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes for years, and declared that Romney’s father, the late George Romney, must be ashamed of his son.

The Daily Show was probably ultimately harmed by fans and public intellectuals declaring that Stewart was the Walter Cronkite of his generation, or that the program represented some of the most important and consequential “real journalism” of the Bush era, and other hyperbolic salutes to its alleged real-world consequences. Comedy is hard; it’s nearly impossible if you’re simultaneously trying to make a Grand Statement About the World and How Things Ought to Be.

A lot of the blame can be laid at the viewers who concluded that the Daily Show represented actual news, and not a satire of news, and that watching comedians joke about what was going on in the world was enough to stay informed about what was going on in the world. But the show certainly didn’t mind that “important” and “consequential” status, and the declarations that their fake news was somehow more significant and honest than non-satiric news programs fed upon themselves. (With our popular culture leaders declaring a comedian’s version of news to be the real heroic work, is it any wonder that NBC News anchor Brian Williams was so eager to hang out with Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Fallon?)

The coming hosannas for the show will choose to overlook two particularly weak traits that grew more prominent as the Obama years progressed. We can argue about whether the show was sufficiently tough on Obama or treated the president and his administration with kid gloves, particularly in the first term. But on any given weeknight, Stewart, his writers and his producers were at least as likely to be fuming and aiming their barbs at one of Obama’s talking-head critics as the president himself.

When reviewing Aaron Sorkin’s HBO program The Newsroom, Jake Tapper wrote, “At a time when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, it’s telling that [protagonist Will] McAvoy and Sorkin aim their sights at conservatives seeking power—not moderates and liberals wielding it.” Satirists reveal a lot about themselves in their choice of targets, and in the eyes of the Daily Show crew, the biggest menace in American life came not from lawmakers with their official authorities, massive budgets and temptations of power but by those who appeared on cable news to critique them – a particularly strange target for a cable-based comedy show.

“Look at what this Fox News host, guest, or contributor said!” became an increasingly tedious crutch, probably because it was such an easy target. News networks like Fox News generate live television from early in the morning to late into the night, interviewing guests from the highest and slickest public officials to the stunned witnesses of natural disasters. This doesn’t even get into the hosts, guests, and contributors who aim for deliberatively provocative and edgy and overshoot right into the realm of the controversial, unhinged, or just plain dumb. Eighteen hours of live talk every day is undoubtedly going to generate misstatements, gaffes, awkward moments, and so on.

In Obama’s second term, Stewart’s late segment pivot from “can you believe what the Obama administration did?” to “can you believe what the hosts on Fox News said about this?” was predictable and a bit of a comforting dodge for his audience. It was the comedic equivalent of the “but aren’t Republicans in danger of overreaching?” narrative-shift that pops up with irritating frequency during Democratic scandals or embarrassments.

Secondly, for a program that allegedly was one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful and important satirical voice in America today, it sure as heck had no problem punching down. God help you if you’re some no-name Tucson school board member taking a stance the producers of the show find laughable. If you’re an Idaho pastor claiming evangelical Christians are bullied by the culture at large, don’t worry, a Daily Show correspondent will fly out to Boise to showcase you to the world. Washington Redskins fans who wanted to keep their team’s name were asked, without warning, to justify the name to angry Native Americans on camera. Are these really the Americans most deserving of nationally-televised on-camera rebuke and humiliation?

In retrospect, it’s amazing anyone ever agreed to appear on the show. You’re a small-town lawmaker with a controversial viewpoint, and now a professional comedian is coming to town with a camera crew and the ability to edit your on-camera answers. Some guests complained that the editing of their answers amounted to “a hit job.”

When Jonah Goldberg and Stewart got into a 20-minute debate, the exchange got cut down to six minutes, resulting in what Jonah called “disjointed, stuttering cross talk.”

Hot Air’s Jazz Shaw, describing his experience appearing on The Daily Show:

The final product, as you’ll see below, turned out to be virtually nothing in terms of my participation. They took one of the street shot B roll clips to introduce me as a “gas industry expert.” Why that happened I have no idea, as I explained clearly on tape that I was the weekend editor for Hot Air, had never worked for Baker Hughes, and simply wrote about energy issues as an area of personal interest. Also, that intro shot of me out on the street was horrible looking, but at the time they filmed it I was given the impression that they were just adjusting the lighting and getting Sam and I in frame. Yes.. it’s a horrible picture. As to the interview itself, they used perhaps twenty seconds of me saying that a charity should be able to accept money for a good cause, but it almost seemed out of context.

One has to wonder if Stewart found doing the show enjoyable as it wore on. Those featured segments got awfully formulaic: Someone in the Republican realm would get caught in a scandal or saying something stupid; Stewart would stare at the camera in wide-eyed disbelief; tap his pencil in barely-contained incredulity or irritation, and then bellow out, “What the [BLEEP] is wrong with you?!” or some other outburst that inevitably generated audience applause.

Every segment was destined to generate blog posts from liberals declaring the show had DESTROYED or DEMOLISHED the target of mockery. When you control what the audience sees of your opponent’s argument, and are given ample time to give an uninterrupted counter-argument before a live audience that adores you, there’s really no excuse for not demolishing or destroying the opponent, no? At least when you’re shooting fish in a barrel, the fish have a little bit of room to swim around.

Heavily editing interviews and misleading interview guests are pretty minor sins for a comedy show; if everyone knows the aim of the show is to make viewers laugh, and not inform them, it’s pointless to argue about the need for fairness, objectivity, or even-handedness. But if the show is real journalism, as its most passionate advocates insist, then it’s a sneeringly dishonest practitioner. 

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