Friday, July 14, 2006

The Daily Show

I was not impressed with Craig Kilborn when he was on SportsCenter. I was impressed with John Stewart before he was on The Daily Show. I saw him on MTV and I thought "that Stewart kid's got talent!"

Then I saw Kilborn on The Daily Show, and tho I enjoyed his Five Questions, the best thing about the show was the bullpen of commentators including A. Whitney Brown, Brian Unger, Beth Littleford, Mo Rocca, and Steven Colbert. Rocca was part of the transition to the incoming Stewart - tapped to fill the anchor seat vacated by Kilborn's exodus to CBS as host of the Late Late Show - replacing Tom Snyder.

And Stewart demanded the power to change the show. It became The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And its indelible mark on the political tabula is storied and shall remain granted. But let's focus on what happened to The Daily Show - not what happened because of it. What used to be subtitled "The Most Important News Show - Ever" ironically gave up that claim because it felt it was irresponsible humour (It's probably not a coincidence that it dropped that claim upon coming back from the post 9/11 silence).

The show is still unabashed satire. Stewart makes fun of his role as a journalist at least once a show. Anticipating the reaction to the headspace graphics he often pauses just after his lead-in when he reads the material (the show suffers from a raging case of paronomasia) The problem is it's just not that funny anymore. It has its moments. I laugh - sure. But more often I roll my eyes and sit waiting for the jolts of rhythm that sustained comedy requires.

In its attempt to be funny while still casting that all(self)important critically satirical eye on politicians and news services it has looked to a method of balance by extremes. One minute Stewart is offering a rational tho empassioned plea to politicians that they stop insulting the voters' intelligence. The next minute a senior correspondant stands in front of a green screen making absolutely ridiculous claims that so trumpet their own inanity that they can scarcely be called ironic. Instead of providing that necessary imbalance, the wag plays to the same predictably farcical voice.

In these moments the show has compromised well-crafted and delicately shaded humor for easily identifiable charicatures and appeals to broad raillery. Brown, Unger, and Colbert had
an ability to play a role straight reciting straight lines while backing the subject of the interview into a corner. The only way out was to admit idiocy.

Bee, Corddry, Ed Helms, and the stalwart Lewis Black too often erupt with their jokes. Correspondents pretending to cry about the tensions between dwarf Kiss cover bands, or breaking down after a report on a loyalty oath crying out "Jon! They had my parents!" make the humour more about performance than observation. And the audience is clapping along like a seal after a treat.

This habit of entrance applause has reached a pitch not heard since Arthur Fonzarelli's fanatics whistled and swooned as soon as he stepped on stage: forcing him to pose and look around aimlessly until they settled down. The Daily Show's audience has become a peanut gallery poised to cheer for heroes or hiss at villains more readily than it will laugh.

Stewart's most legendary rant came not on his own show but when he appeared on Crossfire. Refusing to be Tucker Carlson's "monkey" he lambasted the host saying that Crossfire was failing to responsibly inform its viewers. He also shrugged of any of his own responsibility by claiming they had different charges.

"You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls. What is wrong with you?"

The next day on his own show he recapped and reflected.

. . . [T]hey were very mad, because apparently, when you invite someone on a show called Crossfire and you express an opinion, they...they don't care for that...I told them that I thought their show was hurting America and they came back at me pretty good, they said I wasn't being funny. I then said, 'I know that, but tomorrow I will go back to being funny, and your show will still blow.'

What Stewart has overlooked is that every show can only exist if an audience is willing to indulge its form. Television only exists as a means to attract a predictable audience for the commercials. Just as The Daily Show follows a muppet show - every channel is flanked by other channels competing for a demographic. What should shows do? Show some integrity. Play your part honestly. And all comedians have to guard against hacking. The best won't try to get laughs by doing a rap or by using ventriloquism or going off on a rant so exhausting that it gets applause but no laughter.

Stewart has often defended his audience granting it the intelligence to discriminately appreciate the value of his "news." It now loves him for it. And its approval has trained him and his staff to dance like monkeys.


  1. How does TDS come back to observational satire? I enjoy their Resident Expert John Hodges (I almost went with John Holmes.), and Dmitri Martin's Trendspotting works in the observational satire mode too, but really they need new correspondents. Colbert on the other hand can do no wrong. His interviews in character are much better than many I've seen when Stewart is doing one straight.

  2. They do have their moments. I'm just sick of them ruining them.

    Jon Stewart show some promise - though not gracefully - by acting apologetically during interviews to make up for his staff.

    Colbert commits to his character. There's no hint of an attempt to be taken seriously. It's pure filthy satire. I like it more each time I watch.

  3. It is actually John Hodgman. Sorry.

  4. Yes - Hodgman is pretty good. I like his calm delivery. It's a performance, but it's not a performance that sells a weak joke.

    He does tend to stick with ridiculous claims like all of their other experts do. But he doesn't over-sell. It's controlled.


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