A Dialogue on Jon Stewart and the Politics and Commerce of Comedy

stepping on banana peelA friend, Kenny Childers of Gentleman Caller renown, posted two words to his Facebook Wall yesterday morning: “Jon Stewart”.  The comedian and political satirist was in Bloomington Friday night and Kenny had been in attendance.

The first comment to this “status” was “Hilarious”.  What follows is a direct transcript of the dialogue that ensued between Mr. Childers and myself, Mr. Wet Blanket.

Douglas Storm: I’m gonna rain on this parade…a corporate anger diffusion machine…laugh away your anger and do nothing.

Kenny Childers: Doug, that definitely doesn’t apply to me. If it weren’t for Jon Stewart, I probably wouldn’t even know what to be angry about. I’m not sure we’re collectively short on rage. I think it’s the opposite. Activism, sure, we’re short on that maybe (at least w/ regard to some issues), but not rage. Jon Stewart has nothing to do with my own personal lack of motivation to take to the streets. By the time I understand a movement enough to want to be a part of it, it’s usually over. I just took the bait didn’t I?

Storm:  Well, look, most of us have no time or energy to be aware of anything in the world…We have even less time to make ourselves knowledgeable about things. We choose our battles. We can likely do no more than try to have honest conversations about systemic class hierarchies that we make “meaningful” as personal evaluations. (Poor deserve poverty, rich deserve wealth, etc.) We CAN have these conversations. They matter. Satire is wasted breath to me…it is an “after-effect” as you point out. And it’s targets are often too-large to be harmed.

Childers: I can’t see that it’s wasted breath any more than soccer is wasted energy, for example. It’s entertainment with the accompanying benefit of exercise (be it mind or body). I learn a little bit. Laugh a lot. A fun way to pass for me to pass the time while I’m waiting around to die of old age or something worse. Sometimes I also enjoy watching my dog hump the cat. I’m a simple man.

Storm:  I can’t argue with your pleasures. But I don’t think they’re comparable and I feel like singing the sesame street song, one of these things is not like the others…the things listed are personal and of singular effect. Stewart, and all cable shows catering to a particular audience of particular minds serve a purpose beyond the intention of making you laugh. It’s important to note that Stewart had O’Reilly on the other night–this is left v right in cable seriocomedy. It’s intentionally partisan.

There’s no doubt laughter is NECESSARY these days…but not at the expense of deliberate thought about important social and political issues. Stewart, like O’Reilly, like Maddow, like Limbaugh, like Maher, offers the viewer a kind of cribbed thinking.

I’m all for the simple pleasures–I’m against making the complex and harrowing into material for a schtick.

Childers:  “I’m against making the complex and harrowing into material for a schtick.” – wow, really? I’m certainly not. When we were having the sex talk w/ my son, it was really awkward for everyone until Terra said “you know how the dog humps the… cat?…” (note the callback).Besides, I don’t think he replaces critical thought. I think he rewards it. Comparing Stewart to O’Reilly, etc. or even Maddow seems like a stretch. They are on networks called Fox News and MSNBC. Stewart’s network is called Comedy Central. South Park is also on this network. The other day I turned on the channel and that baseball movie with Matt LeBlanc and a monkey was on. It’s not the same thing. Just because his political satire tends to be more informative and insightful than mainstream news, that doesn’t make it news.

Also, my post was referring to his stand-up at the IU Auditorium (I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you didn’t go). Only about a third of it was political humor. My favorite bits were the anecdotes he shared about having kids. Talk about “making the complex and harrowing into material for a schtick…”

Storm:  That, then, as I’m sure you would gather from above, is a local and personal comedy of human being. It IS what is funny about even being alive…it is often simply ridiculous!

It is the same thing re: television…it’s my point.  These are all products fulfilling a role as products. Also, the major problem for me with much of what Stewart does is just say, “media is biased and bad.” That’s it. Well, most of us watching Stewart are well aware of this. What do we do with this information?

….as for the humor of family life–cosby still makes me laugh.

Childers:  So because Stewart doesn’t offer the complex solution or openly weep about it, that’s the problem? Does Dave Chappelle satirizing racism make him guilty of diffusing that issue as well? I’m trying to nail this down. I like Bill Cosby too. Or at least his stand-up.

Storm:  Alright. Okay. So, complexity in our angle of vision makes this hard to nail down. I don’t know. You know, a poet said, poetry makes nothing happen. This is not true in the sense that words can inspire action; that words can inspire other words; that words can simply be a prod to thought. So, it’s fair to apply this to comedy and tragedy and other aspects of the human arts.

I guess I am trying to apply this to a sense of scale. What I find visceral and provocative in my local space tends to “diffuse” as it is offered at a greater scale.

Maybe it’s an attempt to say that the medium and its formatting betrays the depth of these ways that humans think out loud.

So, to me, inconsistent moral or ethical messages also work to confound the depths of thinking. We pretend that there is “relativism” but I think most of us want to agree that there are some very BASIC actions that must be wrong. Creating comedy out of the theater that commits actions in a relative manner–“good for us” minus or plus “bad for you” equals a “relative” good.

Television in particular but all of our visually “disjunctive” methods of communicating “mind” confuse and confound our thinking. We do not have time deliberate.

In this manner we simply bifurcate “kinds of minds”–“right-wing” thinking is authoritarian and so there is communication via metaphors that enhance and enforce that position. “Left wing” thinking is “interventionist” and so there are ways to manipulate that cohort of humans.

No one is “guilty”. We are beholden to the machinery that is in place to manage and manipulate these responses.

Stewart plays to a particular metaphor, but he makes comedy out of the “foibles” of the court. Those foibles are responsible for endless war campaigns and the consistent erosion of civil liberties.

There is power in being “popular”…but speak out against a thing…or take a stand against POWER and you are finished in that “theater”. Colbert and Stewart showed they were simply partners in pacification with their “Rally”…we should not as a population just “try to be nice to each other”. WE are complicit in government atrocities…we pay for them; our military commits them. And so on.

The one courageous act by either colbert or stewart came when Colbert did REAL satire against Bush at the Correspondents Dinner [this has not been bettered]. He was brilliant and merciless skewering power to his own possible detriment. He committed an act of defiance personally, with no sponsorships, in the face of those who commit evil as a matter of course.See More

Childers:  I admit that I might just not be smart enough to have this discussion, because I don’t know what a lot of that means. I’d suggest that you might be over-complicating it a little bit. Here’s an anecdote: Terra and I went to see the Daily Show in NYC a couple of years ago. John Yoo was the guest. Prior to the show, JS came out and talked to the crowd. He made a very strong point of listening, being respectful and having an open mind. It was something I considered to be a really nice act of humanity. If you watch the show, he skewers the left pretty harshly too and has been pretty critical of Obama’s administration. Obviously, he wasn’t a fan of Bush and has left-leaning philosophies, but he has openly railed against blind partisanship. I don’t know that I’ve seen him go at ANYone harder than Wolf Blitzer. But if he wasn’t funny, FAR fewer people would give a shit. He’d be Tim Russert (but alive). I think he has great political insight and perspective, but to me he’s a comedian first. I watch the show because it makes me laugh. If I wasn’t watching the Daily Show, I’d probably kill time watching Teen Mom or Hoarders.

Storm:  Kenny, there is nothing I wrote that you don’t understand. The position that Stewart occupies IS a complication in and of itself. Skewering Wolf Blitzer is like beating up on a child. How in the world CNN gets away with Wolf Blitzer is beyond me and part of our general issue. I didn’t see the Yoo…did he allow that mass of evil to equivocate or did he just say, you, in effect, created linguistic and legalistic “cover” in the form of obfuscation and relativism. And it was poorly done also. The fact that people like John Yoo are privileged STILL is a major issue and folks like Stewart can say, you are a criminal and should be in jail. If, that is, they believe this.

Really, don’t get me wrong, Stewart is smart AND funny. But his straddling the line is disingenuous and deflates any indignation that he actually feels. He is a product FIRST and because of that he has parameters to his brand.

“Killing time” is a PRIMARY issue here. Getting news from Stewart is a primary issue. What we choose to watch is a thing that infects our thinking. We are unprotected against the barrage of images and themes that invade us. And more so our children.

Childers:  My brain just disintegrated. But I wonder if this straddling you mention is less about him betraying his actual feelings than about what you wish he felt. He strikes me as pretty genuine, and I think that’s a big part of his appeal. He’s not bluster. He’s just a funny guy who’s interested in politics. I don’t think him skewering Blitzer is like “beating up on a child.” Seems like you are an AVID political reader- someone who really, really drills into processes. I would argue that most people (myself included) aren’t like that. Your assumption that he’s oversimplifying or picking on easy targets reminds me of when the high level IT guys I work with assume that people know how to open a command prompt, adjust their security settings or troubleshoot things they actually don’t know exist.

Storm:  That seems a way to abdicate responsibility. I am not an avid political reader as it is unnecessary. Politics is template thinking. Politics is persuasion. Politics conforms to what you already wish to believe. Politics is pandering. …

Power uses politics.

Wolf Blitzer is a prop. Jon Stewart is a prop too–he plays at NOT being a prop. John Yoo is an agent of the vile machine operating our massive domination of the world’s beings

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If I am IT am I beginning to offer you ways to open the command prompt rather than expecting that you already can?

Childers:  Responsibility for our governments atrocities you mean? Or not being enlightened? Well, sorry Doug, not really. I’m not sure you’re going to have any luck convincing me that The Daily Show/Jon Stewart is part of the problem. I’m not a fan of Yoo’s work, obviously, but a sentence like “John Yoo is an agent of the vile machine operating our massive domination of the world’s beings” sounds like something out of a comic book to me. Based on that, not sure anything short of Stewart pulling out a cosmic ray gun and blasting him or freezing him in carbonate would suffice. Who’s prop is Jon Stewart, by the way? The Man’s? The Bad Guy’s? The God of Indifference?

Storm:  I suppose to attempt to convince someone of anything I might need to identify the “problem” and see if it’s something agreed on.

It’s plausible there are two very real “species-ending” issues that none of can effect: nuclear war and climate disaster. Those are real problems.

But then there is poverty and the murder of war.

Can we agree that these are real problems?

If so, the sentence regarding Yoo, if sounding hyperbolic, may not be as comical as it seems.

A man who is paid to entertain is a prop for the corporation that owns him. This, before you counter, is not equivalent to a musician playing in a bar. Stewart is accountable to corporate masters.

But, I do not lay the world’s travails at his door as he is nearly as irrelevant as you and I and why I identified Yoo as an “agent” with more meaning than Stewart.

People like Yoo actually MAKE our existence. Stewart is a jester at the court by comparison. The jester makes you feel a little better for a time…but you’re still living in a hostile environment.

Childers:  I don’t think the sentence was necessarily comical, just comic book-esque. Yoo sounds more like Magneto than just a self-serving prick who doesn’t value human beings. Musicians in bars may not be a good comparison, but musicians on major record labels are. Suggesting Stewart is accountable to corporate masters and saying he’s a prop for some monstrous puppeteer who is just using him to accomplish some specific agenda (which I still don’t have a handle on) sounds kind of paranoid to me. Seems like kind of wild conjecture to me in the same way that suggesting Spongebob Squarepants is a prop for the “gay agenda.” I mean, it’s got more thought behind it and a more reasonable tone, but it’s still based on long-shot (in my opinion) assumptions.

Storm:  Ah paranoia is an interesting diagnosis. It’s one of those things that undercut a person’s sense of the real. At any rate, I don’t come by this lightly and I don’t think it’s easily dismissed. It is not wild conjecture. Systems operate of their own volition. I am not suggesting an evil puppet-master…I’m suggesting an evil system. (Perhaps an indifferent system that promotes a self-interested detachment; a perspective that does not feel anyone else’s pain–to quote Van Morrison’s Saint Dominic’s Preview.)

Perhaps my impulse is to view satire as an art of condescension and even hate with no “spirit of love” or hope. [see the previous post’s reference to Bokonon].

Childers: I would say I agree w/ the concept of the “indifferent system” and I like the Van Morrison quote. I just disagree that Stewart is a destructive element of that system. In fact, I think he’s just the opposite. Good chance without him and Tina Fey, far more may have actually taken Sarah Palin seriously. That alone makes me want to bake him a cake. If I baked. Cakes. I see satire as more like… exhausted comedy.

Storm: Oh, he and Tina Fey (hilarious I agree) had nothing to do with the bulk of America’s impression of Sarah Palin (SNL I would guess has the same demographic as TDS): She was “ousted” by the main stream–remember Katie Couric “punked” her by asking her which newspapers she read?  The Rich White Cohort could not bear her…if she’d have made a smidgen more sense then who knows.  But McCain, what a weak sniveling opportunist, er, maverick, er politician, er war hero!


That ended the social networking for this topic.  I’ll close with this from Curtis White’s “The Spirit of Disobedience”:

The authentic social function of the imagination operating through the arts is to submit to destruction the standing assumptions of the moment but hen to redeem that destruction through a process of rebuilding and reimagining.  That’s what art does.  It destroys and redeems…

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  1. Sarah Stup October 3, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Yes, Stewart diffuses issues, but his intent was never to be an activist. If he’s going to focus his comedic efforts on something, then isn’t it better to talk about the corruptness of people, systems, government? Are you suggesting Jon Stewart should only talk about his kids, that there is no room for satire in politics?

    You mention Colbert’s true satire, and yes, what we see of Stewart on Comedy Central is filtered through the cable comedy lens, but i feel like you’re giving Stewart more credibility as a “news” source than he is. I think sometimes his comedic approach allows him to ask his guests very real questions with very real answers. Can we not parse these through comedy?

    What’s your stance on Michael Moore? Al Gore?

  2. Douglas Storm October 3, 2011 at 11:31 am

    Kenny actually sent me a link to a Media Matters post about how “well-informed” Stewart’s viewers are: http://mediamatters.org/research/200605250003

    I think my point is that television is ONE THING–media. Mediating. It is one comes between us and the thing.

    Stewart is a mediator. If you have politicians on the show as well as authors etc. it’s impossible and disingenuous to say it’s NOT a political show.

    It may not be his “job” to report news “fairly” or to investigate the truth of purported claims but I think that his presentation of events and commentary on them have a kind of “settled” quality to them. In essence, enough said once Stewart has spoken.

    And it’s this that is a falling to me. I don’t claim to know any of his intentions. But he can now almost “say something” without actually committing to any of it…Except when he speaks out against the easy targets of the other news media.

    Finally, he’s a product, and he has parameters that are not his own. In this way he is the “voice” of his media owners. In this way I feel he is a demographic “diffusion” program.

    I think Michael Moore ADVOCATES a position with comedy…he doesn’t equivocate that he’s just an entertainer. Likewise Al Gore.

  3. Sarah Stup October 3, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Maybe Stewart is comic relief for his seemingly educated audience (using data from link you provided above). Unless you disagree with what he says, diffusion can be a good thing. Yes, The Daily Show is a political program, but all media sources, television or otherwise, are mediators. The B-town Errant is a mediator. Different mediators have different goals, obviously what is offered here aims to provide a deeper current for current events, writings, etc.

    On one hand I understand the dissection of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show; if ALL we’re doing about our current situation is making fun of it, laughing at it before we go to bed, then we’re all failing as individuals with capable minds. But, on the other hand, a variety of mediators is okay. And sometimes laughing at the ludicrousness of things is, well, appropriate.

    I don’t think you can entirely devalue Jon Stewart and/or The Daily Show, but I think being a proponent of balance is well-serving. No, The Daily Show shouldn’t be anyone’s primary news source, but neither should any other individual news source. The problem isn’t The Daily Show, it’s a collective passivity in terms of analysis and action.

    1. Douglas Storm October 3, 2011 at 1:13 pm

      Comedy, on the whole, serves the status quo. We don’t often laugh at things that we don’t understand or that make us angry or that we deem REAL travesties.

      What kind of joke can we do about the Troy Davis execution? Only the most debased among us could joke about state sanctioned murder.

      But I’m sure there are jokes about George Bush and Rick Perry…both serial killers as state functionaries.

      As for mediation, the primary and real difference is that this site is an attempt to tear down the mediation. I offer an opinion, sure, but I want you and anyone else to confront these issues, topics, events, themes, policies, tyrannies, etc., with your own mind. Agree or disagree but engage.

      Television is passive and we are only little machines receiving it’s one-way message.

  4. Jim Causey October 3, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Jon Stewart is a direct advocate of that passivity. His ridiculous “rally for sanity” was all about being passive, and polite.

    1. Douglas Storm October 3, 2011 at 1:14 pm

      agreed, Jim. Thanks for coming to the Errant!

  5. focus October 3, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    I think I am in agreement with Sarah on this issue. I believe he is working the comic side of things but his focus is on the political and perhaps a better phrase would be the “current events” moniker. Satire can be projected and interpreted in many ways. What Stewart and Colbert do may seem diffusion to you but there are some people who may not follow issues on a routine basis as you do–they watch Stewart and Colbert for the comedy but receive some valuable information and insight along with the laughs. I don’t see that as a negative–obviously it is not meant to be anyone’s only source of news but if you are truly not up on current events he makes it approachable to watch and perhaps, just perhaps, piques someone’s interest enought to make them look further, research a bit, talk to someone about what they watched. And isn’t that of value in some small way? I understand your frustration with it–at times it may seem that by finding the humor or focusing on the humor they lose the immediacy of an outrage that should be building. I will not argue with that but I will say that by what he does he may reach a larger audience and that may have an effect that is greater.

    1. Douglas Storm October 4, 2011 at 7:22 am

      The world is full of absolutely ridiculous human things. I am only trying to understand how making the most important things–and really Stewart DOES make comedy out of, primarily, the externalities of those important things–things that are often harrowing and terrifying, into IRONIC comedy.

      Many folks commented on Kenny’s FB that it’s useful to laugh in dark days. Agreed. But I am only trying to say that laughing at the stupid, greedy, heartless, calculating, dominating, powerful in an IRONIC way, deflates our will to rise up with fists.

      This IS the role of the jester. The jester OFTEN gets to make fun of the King and the Court.

      That is Stewart.

      If you need laughter–SOUL laughter–irony is not the most cleansing.

      That’s my opinion and I am not telling anyone NOT to laugh at it. I’m suggesting that it may not be in your best interests to do so.

  6. Pingback: Leaning on Straws: Further Comments on Jon Stewart

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