Not Necessarily Not the News

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert posing with their show logos

The “fake news” block of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central is a great one-two punch of laughter four nights a week — spiked punch, to mix a metaphor. Last Wednesday’s Daily Show had a first act that’s a perfect example of Stewart and his crew at work, eviscerating the bizarrely persistent idea that our current President was not born in the USA.

I’ve put those quotation marks around “fake news” because the shows offer “fake” reportage and commentary in much the same way that Spinal Tap is a “fake band”: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, & Harry Shearer actually compose songs, play instruments, record albums, and even perform in concert, but as characters poking stone-faced fun at the whole enterprise. While parody, Spinal Tap also entertain as accomplished practitioners of what they’re parodying. Adding satire to that mix, Report’s would-be conservative pundit Stephen Colbert (the alter ego of actor Stephen Colbert) and The Daily Show’s smug, stentorian correspondents are insightful as they’re being inciteful; anchorman Stewart may be the only person in the entire TDS/TCR troupe who isn’t putting on a persona.

I haven’t been able to update the blog for a couple of weeks now, so I’d written the above before, as fate would have it, Spinal Tap — Blogger won’t let me add the metal umlaut over the n — appeared on Daily the other night. The opening segment of that episode provides evidence that Stewart is hardly a knee-jerk apologist for Obama. Colbert that night then featured a visit from Orly Taitz, a dentist, real-estate agent, lawyer, and Obama birth-certificate disbeliever seen via the clip two paragraphs up.

Stewart and Colbert each develop a conspiratorial relationship with their viewers.
The pontificating Colbert refers often to his Nation, echoing Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, while Stewart plays off of his live studio audience and to those at home in traditional fashion, akin to late-night brethren David Letterman and Conan O’Brien but without the stand-up monologue. After Craig Kilborn departed a decade back for the après-Dave Late Late Show, Stewart went in a considerably more political direction with Daily writer/producers and The Onion expatriates Ben Karlin & David Javerbaum. Stewart entered as the lone voice of reason — sometimes nebbishy, sometimes outraged, frequently both — in a coterie of correspondents and special contributors
who pretend to be either outright clueless or utterly self-absorbed.

The clueless contingent ranges from Jason Jones and Rob Riggle to such successful alumni as Colbert himself, The Hangover’s Ed Helms, and Steve Carrell of The Office and Forty-Year-Old Virgin fame. Among the above-it-all opinionators are the too-irregular John Hodgman, Resident Expert, and generally bemused Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore. The Daily Show’s most surprising and most glaring deficiency has been its dearth of female and minority writers and performers, in fact, despite having been created by two women in Lizz Winstead & Madeline Smithberg; Samantha Bee is the lone on-camera gal save for a recent handful of appearances by delightfully ditzy Kristen Schaal, and only lately have Wilmore’s periodic color commentaries been supplemented by correspondent Aasif Mandvi and now Wyatt Cenac. Also visiting the desk are the quite British, terribly white John Oliver and long-running contributor Lewis Black, Daily’s angry, Jewish answer to Andy Rooney.

Stewart has belittled The Daily Show’s importance, believably frightened by the idea that anyone would rely on his telecast for the news. Yet much of his and Colbert’s humor wouldn’t land if you weren’t already informed, making even the sillier or slighter gags somewhat sophisticated in nature. Although its humor occasionally veers towards the juvenile — or at the opposite extreme, Stewart often leaves guests whose position he opposes insufficient opportunity to respond — the show is laudable for its clever punnery, a willingness to engage real issues clearly, and humor that comes from lack
of commentary, from observation, from connecting the dots to reveal how disingenuous or flat-out dumb politicians and fellow members of the fourth estate can be.

The Daily Show is dismissed by the ignorant as just a longer version of Saturday
Night Live
’s Weekend Update, which is off the mark. I think it has greater depth than Update or than the pioneering BBC series Not the Nine O’Clock News, from whose American HBO spinoff, Not Necessarily the News, this post takes its name. Update’s half-hour Thursday editions during last fall’s Presidential campaign were quite welcome, but Stewart does more than read jokes based on news headlines, and there are no actors doing impressions in sketches. The Colbert Report, by contrast, can be seen as one long sketch that’s been going since its inception. Colbert recently did a week of shows for the troops in Iraq, while Daily correspondent Jones and producer Tim Greenberg found themselves freely exploring Iran only last month; in neither case were the shows merely, intensely committing to the gag by going on location.

Colbert turns in a remarkable performance, and supports worthy charities amidst his blowhard buffoonery as a bonus, yet The Daily Show is essential viewing. Stewart tackles issues with both wit and great empathy for the average citizen, often actually making sense out of confusing stuff. Whatever real or concocted threats we face, from war to financial crisis to attacks on civil liberties, I can’t help feeling that as long as this guy and his friends are out there deflating authority figures and speaking, as they say, truth to power, we’ll be all right. How’s that for a Moment of Zen?

Images © 2009 and logos ® Comedy Partners.

Related: John for Jon 30 Days of Tonight Deft Wonk

1 comment:

  1. Nice job, Blam... as usual. Did you see the column on this very topic in the latest EW? (PS: There was a girl in my 5th-grade class with Orly Taitz.)