Recently four members of that least-recognized Indian tribe “Redskins Nation” agreed to participate in a Daily Show segment discussing the controversy surrounding their team name. Their conversation with comedian Jason Jones was stretching into its third hour when eight Native American activists were suddenly brought out. The newcomers became vitriolic and one fan left the set crying, saying later that she’d felt threatened.
The Washingtonians told the Washington Post that they would have gladly agreed to debate a group of the Indians, but the show had said no such confrontation would occur. The producers lied, sprang an ambush, and laughed at the acrimony that followed.
If this doesn’t feel like déjà vu, then it should. The Daily Show lies all the time. Once a clever romp through the evening news, the show has become a tedious exercise in ideological anthem playing. Its purpose is the same as that of Neil deGrasse Tyson: to present neatly edited vignettes that assure elites of their mammoth intellectual superiority over the Fox News crowd. Satirists are supposed to poke fun at the cultural consensus; the Daily Show ruthlessly enforces it, seeking out and destroying anyone who ventures outside its bounds. Its host Jon Stewart is a pathetic devotee of hegemonic center-left opinion who uses dishonest techniques to portray himself as the last honest man. Its in-studio audience is the world’s most annoying echo chamber.
Four years ago Stewart held a rally on the National Mall where he whined, “The image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a fun house mirror.” It’s difficult to think of a more transparently fraudulent statement than that. Stewart’s entire shtick is using the power of media to portray others as fun house attractions. His faux-correspondents go to great lengths to achieve this, spending hours fishing for quotes that can be edited to make their interview subjects look like fools.
When minister Matt Slick reluctantly agreed to chat with Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee about relations between gays and Christians, he faced the same format: skeptical interviewer, oddly long conversation. Slick dodged Bee’s baiting and focused on Christian love. At one point he was asked if there had been instances of gays assaulting Christians, to which he deflected:
I don’t know about bullying where homosexuals go out and find straights to beat up. I’m sure it happens though. Just as I’m sure it happens where straights go out and look for homosexuals to beat up. Both are wrong.
When the segment aired, Slick appeared to say this: “The reverse happens as well where homosexuals go out and find straights to beat up.” The sentence consists of two different Slick quotes shot from two different camera angles torn out of context and spliced together to make Slick sound like he was prescribing a major social problem when he was really expressing innocuous ignorance. But the audience laughed anyways. We suspected Christians were self-pitying buffoons and we were right!
The Daily Show’s M.O., buttressing blue-state prejudices, often comes at the expense of its comedy. The fatal transgression of Jones’s Redskins segment wasn’t that it was dishonest, but that it was unfunny—seven minutes of sarcasm with an intermission of Jones making marginally amusing faces while drinking at a Redskins tailgate. Then at the end there was this comedic crescendo: “Hey, he-who-stands-on-the-wrong-side-of-history: change the f-cking name!” This is funny, you see, because of the word “f-cking,” which is considered profanity.
This has become a pattern on the Daily Show. Here’s a smattering of recent headlines: “Jon Stewart Tells Fox News: ‘F-ck You and All Your False Patriotism.’” “Jon Stewart: Can ‘F-cking Crazy’ ISIS Even Lead?” “Jon Stewart Wonders ‘What the F-ck is Going on’ in Iraq?” “Jon Stewart to Donald Trump: ‘What the F-ck is Wrong With You?’” “Jon Stewart: ‘F-ck You, Shakespeare, F-ck You.’”
This is instant microwave humor, the sort that’s employed when humor isn’t really the point. Somehow Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis were able to write scathing social satire without overcompensating with endless F-bombs. That’s not to say that strategically placed naughty words aren’t good for laughs, but use them twenty times in one night and your returns start to diminish. As Christopher Hitchens said (wrongly) of P.J. O’Rourke, Stewart’s shtick can be funny, just not funny enough.
It’s also not nearly as funny as it’s perceived by Stewart, who seems to be purchasing his own hype in commercial quantities. When Seth McFarlane worked an inside joke into an episode of his animated show Family Guy that mocked the Daily Show, Stewart called McFarlane in a rage and ranted for over an hour. He’s become the Taylor Swift of comedy: unable to take a tiny sliver of the abuse that he routinely dishes out.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the late nineties and early aughts the Daily Show was more of a mimicry act: parodying television news rather than screaming at it. The correspondent segments focused more on local eccentricities like a killer swan terrorizing a lakeside community. The bits were funnier and Stewart was more self-deprecating. But some time during the Bush administration, the full-ensemble news parodies were mostly ditched in favor of Stewart commenting directly on the news. That meant yelling swear words at videos, and sometimes, if variety was needed, yelling swear words at videos in an affected accent.
Thus came the paradox that’s since burrowed into the core of the Daily Show. Stewart hates talking heads, and yet Stewart himself now spends most of his show as a talking head. He’s become the pundit he despises—another crank howling into the wind, another voice in the modern media complex.
And just like Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann, he can’t resist responding to criticism. Before the Redskins report aired, he stated: “If we find out that someone in a piece was intentionally misled or their comments were intentionally misrepresented, we do not air that piece, we would not air that piece.” Comedic pause. “So that being said, I hope you enjoy the following piece.” Applause! Applause! The right-wing Morlocks had been vanquished to the darkness once again!
Never mind that the accusations of mendacity were never addressed. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party needed a vast bureaucracy to discredit inconvenient information. In modern America, a well-timed smirk will do the trick.
So why even entertain this gutter sniping with a response? There are already plenty of good anti-Stewart polemics out there: the genre classic is “The Destroyer Cometh” by the brilliant Kevin Williamson.
But in my defense, I have a unique grievance against Stewart. I’m a Millennial, the age cohort that was raised with the Daily Show in their living rooms, and the most annoying thing about my generation is its infatuation with Stewart. At least once a week a news story about some outrage appears in my Facebook feed with a comment like: “I just NEED Jon Stewart to address this tonight,” as though his one-liners are booster shots or security blankets. It’s not enough to shake your head and disagree anymore. Offenders must face the thumbs up from the emperor and the roar of the colosseum.
Mine is a fairly narrow criticism: it doesn’t apply even to most liberal comedians. Stephen Colbert is very funny because most of his humor isn’t political. And I’ll even confess that Bill Maher has been growing on me. Maher is self-satisfied and his audience is idiotic, but he at least welcomes dissenters on his show and gives them a relatively fair hearing. While Stewart thrives in his hermetically sealed little world, Maher seems determined to transcend it, and that makes a difference.
No, Stewart is a unique blight on our discourse. I don’t expect him or his team to read this piece, let alone acknowledge it. But if for some reason they decide to respond, let me offer a helping hand. Earlier in this piece I wrote: “I have a unique grievance against Stewart.” Even earlier I reported: “The Washingtonians later told the Washington Post that they would have gladly agreed to debate a group of the Indians.” If you fuse the two together you get: “I have a unique grievance against a group of the Indians.” What a moron I’ll seem! Of course that isn’t honest and it isn’t funny. But that’s not the f-cking point, is it?