Jon Stewart and the Ruination of American Comedy

Gori the Grey

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So, the starting point for this thread is the announcement that Jon Stewart is returning to host the Daily Show--one day a week.

I learned of it watching Ari Melber's show. He had on James Carville and Michael Steele. Mostly they were talking about Trump. When he brought this up, all three of them were excited, and Steele said "That's exactly what we need right now; mockery is the best defense against fascism" (quoting from memory). On another site, I've heard Stewart described as a "cultural bulwark against the GOP propaganda machine."

Over in the Clown Car thread, there was some discussion of Stewart's return, and Lexicus, contra Steele, advanced the following bold thesis:

I think Jon Stewart was a major figure in the ruination of comedy, basically him and Trump brought us to this situation where a "joke" is just play a clip of some smooth-brain Republican yelling about how we should make homeless people fight to the death to determine who recieves welfare, then make a funny face into the camera.
And then later elaborated, in a post that I'll trim to what for me is the essence, but also put the entirety in a spoiler:

the genre of political infotainment he has created is a good microcosm of the impotence of contemporary liberalism in the face of an explicitly fascist threat.

Spoiler :

Anyway like I said before I was being a bit melodramatic in condemning Stewart, I did like his Daily Show a lot when I was a teenager but as I became more politically aware it lost a lot of its appeal and I do think that to a certain extent the genre of political infotainment he has created is a good microcosm of the impotence of contemporary liberalism in the face of an explicitly fascist threat.

To bring up ancient history for a moment, there is a scene in the V for Vendetta film adaptation that kind of captures this perfectly, where a talk show host played by Stephen Fry makes funny jokes about the Dictator and has the secret police show up to his house that very night to deport him to British Guantanamo Bay. Another illustrative episode is the kerfuffle around how Hasan Minhaj (another Daily Show "graduate") was just making up stories of racism to use in his "comedy" routines, one of which I happened to catch randomly because my roommate was watching it in like 2016. The former of these illustrates the kind of silly self-regard in which these people hold themselves, while the latter is a good demonstration of the kind of two-step they'll do of pretending that it's more than just comedy, making a statement about the world and even a positive difference, but then it comes out that you're making stuff up and you say all comedians make stuff up and it's just comedy and no big deal.

I sounded him and others out on whether they would participate in a thread with basically this as its question: are Stewart and the gang he spawned (Colbert, Oliver, Bee, etc) and present ilk (Kimmell, Meyers) exactly what we need to fight fascism or a microcosm of the impotence of contemporary liberalism in the face of an explicitly fascist threat?

I'll spoiler my post, too, because it gives a lot of explanation of why I'm interested in this question that you probably don't care about:
Spoiler :



I would really like to see these thoughts worked out more fully, if you're game.

I would create a fresh thread.* It would be in the vein of cultural analysis.

Here would be my starting set of questions. What other, better variety of comedy was available as Stewart was gaining ascendency, that we can say his brand of comedy, once he was ascendant, drove out? What form of comedy would represent a more effective push-back against fascism?

The forum has several posters who think seriously about comedy, so it wouldn't just be me and you talking. Sommer and I had an extended back-and-forth (in which I prevailed, eventually, of course)** about Obama's comedic timing in his delivery of "The eighties called; it wants its foreign policy back." Farm Boy and I had our first serious exchange, as I recall, about an article defending snark in an age of smarm. (It's a whole thread on this forum; I'll dig it up)I think I'd put Ziggy and danjuno in the mix. Everyone who has contributed so far; I don't mean to be leaving anybody out.

I'll tell you what motivates me to make the proposition. The first piece of cultural analysis I ever read was called "Selling Out with a Smirk." It was a critique of David Letterman for never doing politically engaged comedy, but rather just zany bits where he dressed in Velcro and launched himself onto a wall. (I loved Letterman at the time.) It's forever ago, so don't quote me, but I think the author was contrasting Letterman with some edgier comics from a generation before: Carlin, Bruce, maybe Prior. Anyway, it opened my eyes. I hadn't realized that you could subject pop-culture fluff to such serious consideration.

Whadda ya think?

* I would title it "Jon Stuart and the Ruination of American Comedy."
**:p



But one of the other ways I ask the question there picks up on Lex's starting claim: that Stewart is the ruination of American comedy. So that makes me ask: Is there some other, better form of comedy that Stewart's ascendancy drive off the stage? To which Farm Boy gave the surprising but insightful answer:
Romcoms, if I watch what went away.

What I was really asking was: is there some better form of comedy for defeating fascism than Stewartesque? (And maybe this is Farm Boy's answer to that question, too.) Probably the quick answer is no; that's too big an ask for comedy.

So, those are our questions (plus anywhere else you want to take this):
Is Stewart's brand of humor politically efficacious?
Is there any form that is or could be? What form of comedy would best serve us in our present political circumstances?
Did it drive some better form of humor off the cultural stage? (better at fighting fascism, or just better as comedy)
 
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Jon Stewart was good for his time, but it passed and attempts to recreate it are dulled because folks know the score now. John Oliver is okay when he focuses on mainstreaming serious issues network news won't touch.
 
I remember watching his show a very long time ago (early 2000s) and just grew out of it then, but don't know if he's going to change his performance.

and yeah, that playing a video of some politician then cutting back to Stewart bug-eyed I found a little annoying as a "comedy" "routine", i.e. "my indignation is its own statement; no setup required"...
 
Jon Stewart was good for his time
When I read that approbation that I cited--cultural bulwark against the GOP propaganda machine--it made me think back that he did seem to me then to have that purpose: calling to the attention of a wider audience the crazy things that were being said on Fox (and then just calling them our for their craziness). But that seems less crucial now. MSNBC does it. Half of any MSNBC show is the host showing what some host on Fox said the previous night. (And if you flip over to Fox, they're showing the outrageous thing that the host on MSNBC said the previous night)

Lex and schlaufuchs have posted in the other thread clips from the Chapo Trap House podcast. I've listened to the one that schlaufuchs posted and 20 minutes into the one Lex did. I'll try to go bring them over into this thread. In the one schlaufuchs posted, they say--and this rings true to me--that what Stewartesque comedy has degenerated into are things that aren't jokes, but just references to what has gone on in the day, and that all the audience wants is someone on TV to confirm their own feeling that, yes, this is crazy. I was conscious of that in myself during the Trump era. Trump would do whatever stupid or infuriating thing he would do in a day, and I needed to hear the MSNBC talking heads, or posters here, or Colbert "yeah, that was stupid." or infuriating, or whatever.
 
When I read that approbation that I cited--cultural bulwark against the GOP propaganda machine--it made me think back that he did seem to me then to have that purpose: calling to the attention of a wider audience the crazy things that were being said on Fox (and then just calling them our for their craziness). But that seems less crucial now. MSNBC does it. Half of any MSNBC show is the host showing what some host on Fox said the previous night. (And if you flip over to Fox, they're showing the outrageous thing that the host on MSNBC said the previous night)

Lex and schlaufuchs have posted in the other thread clips from the Chapo Trap House podcast. I've listened to the one that schlaufuchs posted and 20 minutes into the one Lex did. I'll try to go bring them over into this thread. In the one schlaufuchs posted, they say--and this rings true to me--that what Stewartesque comedy has degenerated into are things that aren't jokes, but just references to what has gone on in the day, and that all the audience wants is someone on TV to confirm their own feeling that, yes, this is crazy. I was conscious of that in myself during the Trump era. Trump would do whatever stupid or infuriating thing he would do in a day, and I needed to hear the MSNBC talking heads, or posters here, or Colbert "yeah, that was stupid." or infuriating, or whatever.

I'm not 100% sure but I believe that what schlaufuchs posted is a segment from the larger full episode that I posted.
 
I'm going to go see if I can go grab both of them. Once I've finished yours, I'll know.

Here they both are. Even if hers is from yours, it gets to the core point without an elaborate analysis of a one-season 2006 show I never watched and don't even remember existing. :)



 
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I'm less against his "type of comedy" as I experience it, I usually like say Chappelle when he's running hot and in zone. It's more I'm against John Stewart, personally. Sort of like I'm not against populism, persay, in general... but Trump is a problem. They're both the rise of the same zeitgeist(possibly driven by new modes of less personal communication mixed with rising social/class ossification) and neither is what Chappelle is. The latter generally drives at some point of equity. Builds up some part of you to later tear down, generally with a message of biting empathy at the core. Uncomfortable, but loving. Stewart and Trump are both biting. But they lie, and they mock, and they build nothing up. Even the "march for sanity(the sanity that's supposed to save us, naturally)," as Lex mentioned, is rooted in the understanding of who is insane. There's no love at the core, just enemies. Like you figured out with Trump.
 
Well, partly this may end up as a discussion of Stewart specifically. And insofar as it does, I would say that to his credit, it seems to me that his political activity after the Daily Show might have been motivated by his saying to himself "Ok, it's easy to take pot shots, funny boy. Do you think you could do any better than all the politicians you mocked on your show?" And then he went out and tried to do just that, invested himself in a cause he believed in. And kept trying even when it took a long time tp get results.

Don't know if it will make him a different kind of comedian when he gets back.
 
Yeah, people who rely on transphobic jokes and the ensuing media attention to spin into more Netflix specials sure are a type of comedy.

Oh wait, we're meant to be talking about Stewart, right. I don't really have an opinion there.
 
Here they both are. Even if hers is from yours, it gets to the core point without an elaborate analysis of a one-season 2006 show I never watched and don't even remember existing. :)

Yes, this was what I was getting at: the segment she posted is the bit that's probably most relevant to what we were talking about.
 
I always liked George Carlin for his political and social commentary. I wonder what he would have done with Trump.
 
are Stewart and the gang he spawned (Colbert, Oliver, Bee, etc) and present ilk (Kimmell, Meyers) exactly what we need to fight fascism or a microcosm of the impotence of contemporary liberalism in the face of an explicitly fascist threat?
Nope. Stewart and his gang are what you need to go: heh.

It's comedy.

Edit: Stewart described the Daily Show as being part of the digestive process for news. It didn't aim to be an active political player.

But one of the other ways I ask the question there picks up on Lex's starting claim: that Stewart is the ruination of American comedy. So that makes me ask: Is there some other, better form of comedy that Stewart's ascendancy drive off the stage?
To each their own. Don't like it, don't watch it. I hate Friends, so I avoid it. It doesn't many anything beyond that.
 
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What I was really asking was: is there some better form of comedy for defeating fascism than Stewartesque?
Private eye does serious investigations and presents the results with a certain amount of humour. It is generally regard as having been instrumental in Maggies fall so has some effect against fascism. They do not put most on the internet so people actually buy the magazine.
Spoiler Some examples :


Sir,
Have any of your readers noticed the uncanny resemblance between Tim Parker, recent ex-chairman of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals, and ex-Chairman of the Post Office (PO) – who held ultimate responsibility for holding the PO’s Paula Vennells to account – and honking clown Harpo Marx?
 
Stewart’s on TV.
TV can be edited, reshot, sweetened.

If you get the chance, sit in a comedy TV audience sometime for yourself, you might even laugh at something you ordinarily don’t find all that funny. They have guys that come in to get the audience warmed up.

The club comics can’t do all that. I’d rather watch them, and not get my dose of what I should believe from the TV.
 
what does "ruination of american comedy" entail? it rests a lot on the preposition (grammar); whether jon stewart ruins comedy and whether comedy ruins society are two very different beasts. for this thread, i think it's the latter? (or that comedy is at least impotent in the face of real issues)

like, i thought this would be a hate thread all about how jon stewart isn't funny. maybe it's just me, but say about the guy what you like, he's got good timing.

of course, there's the argument that comedy has a purpose in society as concrete politics, that it reveals, all that jazz. which means the two are the same and the question of the preposition i outlined isn't really two different claims. i get that. i do hold, however, that comedy also has a core purpose of being funny. it's not all elevation. everything is political, but some things are more political than others. at least explicitly so. and if you structure a joke to be amusing while being politically impotent, i hold that it's still succesful as comedy.

it's not that it all has to be pee and poopy humor without substance and confrontation. but to me, most of the comedy i enjoy is maybe complicated in delivery, but stupid in underlying essence & point. complicated ways to eventually arrive at "butt". it's still good comedy, so it's not ruined. but it's not particularly potent for political drive, no.
 
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So my intention in the OP is to ask both, @Angst.

I'll give you the td;lr on the Chapo podcast that has been linked. The podcasters' claim is that Stewart to an extent, and all of his progeny, don't really make jokes. They just hold up some crazy thing Trump did the day before and blink their eyes in amazement. The audience gets satisfaction (at somebody on TV recognizing the absurdity) but without actually getting a joke. The podcasters are connoisseurs of comedy; comedians themselves, I think. They are faulting contemporary political-humor writers for being lazy, and Stewart for starting the trend. Listen to the shorter of the podcasts. It's a focused excerpt from the first one (which has a roundabout way of getting to it's point).

But what you'd learn in the longer version of the podcast is that they have a second focus, and that is the pretention that humor can do important political work at all. Stewart in his heyday is regarded as being funny, but as having an inflated sense (or his audience having an inflated sense) of what humor can contribute to battling right-wing ideology. His followers (Colbert, Oliver, Bee, etc) are faulted for retaining that self-importance but not bothering to be funny any more.

So I'm asking, most broadly, for commentary on the relation between comedy and the political health of a nation, and most precisely just about Jon Stewart. And, of course, anyone can go anywhere they want with the broad topic.

Your last point represents one way of addressing the topic: we shouldn't particularly expect humor to have any political effect; the point of it is just to be funny.
 
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Do zeitgeists matter?
 
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