Jon Stewart should stop using comedy as a shield

Jon Stewart to Jim Cramer:

We both sell snake oil. But, here [on The Daily Show], we at least admit it's snake oil.

I love Jon Stewart. I watch the Daily Show more than any other TV show. I think it's great when he attacks politicians. But that's easy. Everyone does that. What I really like is when he goes after the media. When he indicts Crossfire and CNBC and all these talking heads for contributing to the aura of bullshit that pervades our country.

But one thing I don't like that he does: He plays the "but I'm just a comedian" card. Bullshit Jon. We all know you're more than that now. You can pretend you run a fake news show and that no one should take you seriously. But we all know it's not true. We all know what you're doing matters. We all know people trust and respect you more than most "real" newscasters. You have real power and real authority. And you have it because you speak in a way that demands it.

It just doesn't seem fair for you to run around pointing fingers all the time but then as soon as anyone fires back, you pull up your bubble that makes you bulletproof or Teflon or whatever analogy you want to use.

"This is fake news." Maybe it was. But you've mixed in too much truth to pretend you're a phony anymore. "My show is followed by sock puppets making prank phone calls." So what? Maybe that's the place we're most likely to find the truth in our society right now.

You don't hear Bill Maher doing the same thing. He throws his daggers and then he stands right there and takes his shots. He doesn't hide his attacks behind a cloak of "I'm just a comedian so you can't hold me to the same standards." His attitude seems to be: Yeah, I said it. That's what I think. And I'm right. If you don't think so, take your best shot.

I think that's a nobler approach to take. Stand up for what you believe in. I don't think you'd ever hear Bill Hicks end one of his political bits with, "I'm just a comedian though. You shouldn't take me seriously."

Of course we should take you seriously. You're the only one telling it like it is. If we can't take you seriously, who can we take seriously? You're not peddling snake oil, Jon. You're peddling the truth.

So man up. No more hiding. No more special rules because you're funny. No more using comedy or sock puppets as a shield. It's the easy way out. You said it. You meant it. And you were right.


myq said...

He's not saying that he's not telling the truth, is he?

He's saying that he isn't an objective media entity.

Which is the case.

I'm totally behind the way he presents himself and the show, saying that it is first and foremost humor that is important, even if that isn't necessarily the case all the time.

The show is on Comedy Central, it doesn't have to follow all the rules a news organization does in presenting information, it doesn't have to be unbiased, it can say whatever it wants...
It would thus be unfair and possibly undercutting to claim to be an authority.

Even if it's an authority that many of us recognize. Because he isn't one, technically, and recognizing that is representative of the awareness that makes him one, practically.

Sure, Bill Maher (who I really like) acts like what he's saying is important, because it is... And some people think he's a preachy jerk, so who's to say that his way is more effective than Stewart, who says important things without having to decree that he's saying important things.

There are people that won't care what either of them are saying. But for some people in the middle, some people who actually listen to what's being said and could go either way, perhaps it's more effective for someone to find truth delivered from a clown, than to be put off by a perceived arrogance that (right or wrong) sometimes off-puttingly accompanies a self-proclaimed "truth-teller."

PS Bill Hicks might not have played his hand the way Stewart does exactly, but he certainly did have plenty of "Don't worry about this heavy stuff, there's dick jokes a'comin' soon!"

Which seems a similar way of hitting people in the face with the truth baked into a pie.

Matt Ruby said...

Myq, I get what ya mean. But still, when he attacks followed by "I'm immune from attack because I do fake news" it feels like some guy who kicks you in the balls and then puts on glasses and says, "you wouldn't hit a guy with glasses, now would ya?" I just think if you're gonna dish it out...

Blorp said...

Well put Matt, and respectful too. It seems like the show is operating as if it were 2003. Things have definitely changed, and they're at least partly responsible for that, whether they like it or not.

TheSueFunke said...

Interesting piece Ruby!

I see it less as a "You can't get me I'm a comedian" and more like, "I can't believe I'm the one calling everything out."
I think he is aware of his social responsibility more than most and is just kind of shocked by the way he respects it more than others -
especially since he is a comedian

I also feel like he wants it to be a silly news show, but isn't able to because there are no real journalists anymore.

So when he rebuts "I'm a comedian" it's not as much a cop-out but a disbelief that he's become so much more. And while it would be nice for him to step up and become a legitimate reporter, he really just wants to be a comedian that mocks the news.

Matteson said...

Great topic for discussion.

I tend to agree with Myq on this one. I think Stewart isn't coping out so much as saying "I'm entertainment. People can get out of it what they want, but I never claimed to be more than entertainment." The problem with the shows he attacks is that they claim to be more than entertainment and opinion. They claim to be hard news and present the "truth" when actually they are entertainment.

Stewart is to politics and media what movie reviewers are to films. If a director gets a bad review it's childish to say "well, I'd like to see the reviewer make a better movie," because that's not what movie reviewers do. When people shoot arrows back at Stewart he's saying, "my job is to be funny and satire ridiculous things that people in power do. If I'm not funny or interesting or insightful criticize me for that, but you can't criticize my journalism, because I never claimed to be a journalist." I think you can absolutely criticize people for being poor journalists or politicians without being one yourself and it's not a cop out.

PS - One question the Kramer piece raised for me is was it a good epidose of the Daily Show? I am glad Stewart called Kramer on his Bull, and agreed with everything he said, but I didn't find any of the episode funny. In fact I found it very uncomfortable to watch. Should Stewart be doing this stuff on a comedic show?

Anonymous said...

I know what you are saying. Just because he didn't start being a real news guy, he is now. I felt a similar way when I watched the Cramer episode. But Jon did have a point in that they don't have a "In Stewart We Trust". The area that he was attacking CNBC or Fox News or whatever was they were taking part in emotional manipulation. Pitching the news in a way that sensationalizes that is irresponsible.
Jon is just as biased as the people he makes fun of, but he finds the humor in the truth. You can't find a Daily Show equivalent of the "terrorist fist jab" because he is holding himself to a higher standard than real news. He makes fun of the real news people only when they are dealing in crazy "what if's" or editorial/hypocritical rants.

I think a lot of the reason he points it out, as has been mentioned above, is that as a comedian he should be able to hold himself to a lower standard than news. But it never plays out that way.

Matt Ruby said...

To add more context: cramers initial reaction was along the lines of "ooh, silly comedian is mocking me. Who cares?" and ya know what? Acc to Stewart's attitude, that's the correct view. People like cramer should ignore him cuz hes just a phony news guy making "jokes."

Does Stewart really think his views should be dismissed as child's play? Or does he think these people should pay real attention? Just seems like he wants to have his cake and eat it too.

Unknown said...

Great points, Matt, and they've led to an engrossing thread.

Jon Stewart (meaning both Stewart himself and his show) has definitely come to be in a weird position. For me the closest recent parallel is Al Franken's career in the period between writing "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot," and deciding to run for Senator. Like Franken in that 1996-2006 period (when he wrote, among other books, "The Truth (with Jokes)"), Stewart isn't just telling jokes.

Essentially, Stewart now is both a comic and a advocate (on many issues, but especially media criticism). When he plays the 'just a comic' card, he makes it easier for both his targets and the general public to not take that advocacy seriously.

Now, I don't know how much Stewart wants to be an advocate. He has every right to shrug off that role (Rand not intended). And I don't doubt that as someone who has defined himself fundamentally as a comedian that this dual role can be weird and sometimes uncomfortable for him. But as someone who admires and values the advocacy part of what he does, watching him play the 'just a comic' card is a bit like watching someone key their own car.

myq said...

Stewart is a comedian and truth-teller, but that does not make him a real journalist, so when he claims not to be a real journalist, he is STILL being a truth-teller, though if he frames it as "I'm JUST a comedian," there is obviously information missing there, because he IS more than that...

But I don't see it as disingenuous, because given the context of his show and what he's saying and doing, it is CLEAR that he is doing more.

When Cramer says "comedian is mocking me, who cares?" the answer is "a lot of people." A lot of people take very seriously what Stewart thinks, says, and presents, even if he is not presenting it under the auspices of "professional seriousness" (though phrasing it like that might work: Jon Stewart, Professional Serious Guy... or maybe I'll take it).

Stewart's attitude may superficially indicate that he is not to be taken seriously, but as other people have pointed out, it is at least superficially ridiculous that a comedian SHOULD be the person to be taken most seriously.

He wants to be funny. He wants to tell the truth. He's doing those things, most of the time.

I don't think he wants to be a journalist, and he's NOT being one. He's not delivering the real, unbiased news, even though he's often delivering the truth.

The movie critic analogy is a good one, I think. Saying to an established, trusted critic, "Why should I care what you think, you're just a critic?" doesn't make sense, if the critic is speaking the truth and people know it.

There are some people that would disagree with Stewart regardless of whether he presented himself as a clown or a serious newsperson.

He's definitely not "just" anything, but I feel his words and actions speak in combination to reveal the truth (and humor) to anyone who is open to hearing it.

Myq Kaplan, Amateur Serious Guy, Professional Not-Serious Guy

Mike Blejer said...

Well I'm clearly late to the party, but I just saw 'Heat' and I wanna talk about it now!

For what it's worth I thought I would throw my lot in with Myq and Matteson. I do think Jon comes off as slightly disingenuous when he belittles his own significance, but he is essentially right that his role is to stand outside the process and critique it, if he gets into the fray too much then he loses his role as a satirist and becomes a propagandist.

Of course in theory, the role of legitimate journalism is to stand outside the political process and critique it/hold its feet to the fire, but Jon's point is that the info-tainment era brought on by 24-hour news channels in the 90s has pretty much laid waste to that kind of reporting, at least on television. It's an idealistic daydream to think the media was ever completely unbiased, but over the last 10 years there has been a rise in the degree of empty talking heads to the point where legitimate news usually gets drowned out by sheer volume (also because most people prefer simple emotional answers rather than complex logical ones. Crossfire and its ilk are the Brittany Spears of journalism). There's a crap signal to noise ratio. As a result Jon's responsibilities to speak truth as a concerned citizen sometimes outweigh his desire to prioritize comedy first in his role as a comedian (though obviously speaking truth also has a huge role in comedy, in his Crossfire appearance he was clearly wearing his "concerned citizen hat").

That's my read anyhow. The movie critic analogy was dead on.

Great post, great discussion.

- Mike

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