aNewDomain — Is Jon Stewart funny enough?
My colleague Ted Rall begs: Let the next guy be funnier.
Really? Jon Stewart is not funny enough? No belly laughs, Ted complains.
Rather than argue this point by point, I submit this bit, in which Jon Stewart takes down libertarian author and TV/radio commentator Glenn Beck. It almost made me cry, it was so funny.
Video: Oberonhouston YouTube channel
Jon Stewart probably is most memorable for his ongoing feud with Fox News. He and the reactionary Fox host Bill O’Reilly swapped jabs for years, went to one another’s studios, pushed the boundaries of cordial conversation. As it goes, Bill was pretty well behaved when Jon visited last year.
Video: Postbrit YouTube Channel
But is The Daily Show only about being funny? It has always been not fake news, but meta-news: the news about the news, veiled in jokes. This is why The Daily Show viewers often rate at the higher end of real-world knowledge compared to people who get their news directly from the spigot: Stewart gives you that news, what’s wrong with it, what’s biased about it, and what it left out.
Some of the more direct commentary you might never even have seen, as it was edited out of other shows. Check out this video, purportedly covering what Fox edited out of one Jon Stewart-Bill O’Reilly encounter it aired on the O’Reilly Factor.
Video: B8812 YouTube channel
The beauty of the show for me hasn’t even been Stewarts bits at all, really. It has been the talent for finding the talent. Stephen Colbert and Larry Wilmore and John Oliver all spun off from The Daily Show to have their own successful and rather hilarious programs.
Colbert spent a decade lampooning conservative punditry to the extent he even showed up at court hearings and congressional hearings in character, bloviating his very best. Oliver has developed a weekly, half-hour segment that goes in-depth the way the “real” news should.
That the bits include jokes and profanity enhances rather than detracts from the way the show gets right to the point and holds your head under it until you understand it, really and deeply.
And Wilmore’s show, at times the edgiest of the three, goes after race and other diversity issues with heart and brutal honesty. Wilmore knows that you can’t learn anything meaningful unless you are uncomfortable and endeavors to keep you there, all the time. Kind of like Melissa Harris Perry with jokes. Keep keeping it 100, Larry.
Here’s the brilliant Jessica Williams, below.
Video: The Big Show YouTube channel
And heres Samantha Bee, incredible, amazing, outstandingly hilarious.
Video: Lance Manion YouTube channel
Steve Carrell did his time on TDS and went on to do some of the most brilliant, underrated comedies out there. Like Dinner for Schmucks. Talk about out there. Here he is corresponding for Stewart:
Video: Burning Log Men
OK, that wasn’t that funny. Dinner for Schmucks, though, must be seen.
But Stewart is always at his best when taking on the racism of the news world. And if that’s not always rolling-in-the-aisles funny, maybe it’s still worth doing, and something that we will miss. This, for example, a segment on how the coverage of the Ferguson protests was hypocritical and racist:
Video: GetSmart Productions YouTube channel
Anyway. Stewart says (implies, really) that he’s restless. A cagey statement, really: the show doesn’t deserve “a host who is even slightly restless.” He hasn’t been at his best, for sure, since coming back from filming Rosewater. Maybe some caution about poisoning a new career as a filmmaker with too much controversy? Sheer fatigue? Or maybe Jon didn’t change, but the rest of us did.
Humor changes over time. It’s primarily a response to something unexpected or inappropriate in the environment. Human laughter looks a lot like chimps’ responses to strangers entering their territory. The thing is, what is appropriate moves over time.
Think of all the words you could not say on television at the start of Stewart’s run that are totally common now. And think of the buttocks. And think of comedians like Sarah Silverman and Melissa McCarthy moving the line, slamming into good taste, kicking its ass, and shoving it into the gutter. Think of how Dan Savage (Dan, you’re my hero!) getting Rick Santorum’s name a new definition and making it the top of the Google results for that search.
Our sense of humor adapts to all of this. The goalpost moves. We don’t laugh at the stuff that seemed edge ten years ago. I used to howl and cry over Jasper Carrot in the 80’s, but now those shows are so tame as to be laughable. I mean, no longer laughable.
The Daily Show actually contributed to the creep – with, for example, sex toys on screen, brutal coverage of the Anthony Weiner debacle, and frequent reference to NAMBLA. Stewart is still funny, though, even if he’s been a little tamer than usual. If I criticize, it’s because he’s breaking my heart right now. I started writing feverishly last year, turning out six books, one of which is published, one close to publication and two maybe set to drop this year. And my hope for the future was always to make the talk show rounds and sit on Stewart’s set.
He and his show and the shows he produces have done a lot for social justice and I have nothing but admiration.
Well, onto the list of contenders for next.
It’s a fantasy list more than a most-likely list. What do I know, after all? Not so much. But, number one: Jessica Williams.
Samantha Bee probably deserves it more. She’s been on the show longer. And the producers seem unlikely to put Williams up before Wilmore, making it a Black hour. But I would watch the Hell out of a Williams-led Daily Show. She’s funny, courageous, funny, smart, funny and edgy. And funny. But I’d watch Samantha Bee, too.
A lot of good talent has been spun off and probably can’t be spun back. Oliver has a prime gig now. Colbert, too. Carrell is a movie star. Going off the show itself, though, there are lots of possibilities.
Let’s go back to Sarah Silverman and Melissa McCarthy.
I’ve brought up their names in conversation a few times and folks don’t like them. Women especially. And I like very much that people don’t like them. I ask why, and it’s that they’re too crass, too dirty.
I think that means they’re pushing up against some boundary that needs to be moved, and should have a broader venue for doing that. Think of basically any of their bits or jokes or roles performed by a man – how much less offensive it would seem, or less shocking, because a man in under no pressure to be “ladylike.” That’s part of their value as comedians. Sheer nerve and talent are the rest. Either would kick butt in the role.
Kristen Wiig could do it, too. She’s been out there working on strong female roles in cinema, strong writing and good jokes and funding and the rest. Good work, Kristen.
And Chris Hardwick has to be a contender, too. He’s already doing multiple shows where he demonstrates guts, edge, and rapier wit. Quick-thinking and penetrating, he’s also willing to shout about racism or sexism. Look:
Video: Comedy Central YouTube channel
I think any of these folks could do what the mainstream news isn’t really doing: hold guests’ feet to the fire when they’re being disingenuous or trying to parrot their talking points. Meet The Press used to do that. It hasn’t in years. Stewart has been brilliant at it. It’s a function the news has given up that we desperately need back.
Our country is predicated on the idea, among other important ideas, of a free press. No-one is freer in the press than a comedian. This is the central thesis of Rall’s bit: that comedy should also be pushing the boundaries and keeping the rest of us informed.
Comedy is truth, the recognition of the thing that doesn’t fit or isn’t appropriate. Tame comedy, or comedy that never offends or never upsets, isn’t doing its job.
I’m actually changing my mind based on his bit. I’ve been debating whether to turn off Bill Maher. His insistence that extremist violence owes it origins to religion – rather than, say, poverty and racism and xenophobia – and also the casual misogyny unfortunately prevalent among us non-believers has made me want to just switch it off. My liberal guilt says I should.
I don’t have the right to never be offended. And the fact that I am offended is of value. And none of this invalidates what his comedy unveils.
So, in summation, I’ll miss you, Jon Stewart, like I miss Colbert in character. And, damnit, couldn’t you have waited until my book came out?
For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.
Cover image of Jon Stewart: “JonStewart” by Martin Monroe (detail cut out by MARVEL) – http://flickr.com/photos/willismonroe/73332530/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.