Why I’ve Stopped Watching Jon Stewart

1 Oct

I can still laugh at him for being a Mets fan.

I can still laugh at him for being a Mets fan.

I used to have this ritual, or habit, or just something I did. I woke up, screamed at the world for waking up so damned early, rolled out of bed (literally, I actually had to put some pillows on the floor to make sure I didn’t bruise), went to the fridge for a piece of fruit, sat down in front of the television, watched the previous night’s Daily Show, showered, watched the Colbert Report, dressed, and off to work I went. Yes, I know, shocking – Jacob actually eats fruit.

Last February I took a much (not really) publicized hiatus from all things media. That included Stewart and Colbert. When I returned in March, I discovered I had no real interest in Colbert anymore. I admired him, respected him. Most importantly, I got him. I knew what he was doing, agreed – generally – with what he said, and therefore had always believed that watching him somehow furthered my well-being – I got smarter, knew more about the world, understood humor better. Perhaps it just made my mornings a bit brighter. Or at least that’s what I thought was happening.

But coming back to Colbert from my month long vacation, I found him grating. There was something not right with his show, something I needed a sabbatical to wake me up to. Part of it stems from Colbert’s style of humor. He trades in irony, a useful means of comedy, when done well, and by well I mean sparingly. And not just sparingly, but surprisingly. Irony, like all humor should come out of nowhere. But Colbert’s entire persona is crafted on the “I’m pretending to be a right wing buffoon who thinks he’s not” premise. His shtick, from A to Z, is pure, unadulterated irony. And while Colbert is good at irony, all irony all the time is like drinking twenty cups of coffee a day. Two or three I can handle, more than that and I want to tear my skin off.

A couple of years ago I wrote about the misuse of irony by so-called hipsters.

Irony, in a truly dramatic sense, is one of the most heartbreaking and tragic literary techniques… Irony is best when used sparingly. But the hipster culture embraces it in such a way that it – ironically – devalues the positive elements of irony. Irony for many has become not a literary device, but an artistic form in and of itself, one manifest in the endless performance art of the hipster.

Personally, I’m looking forward to The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, only so that those who fetishize him can be disappointed when he becomes less niche and more mainstream.

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Jon Stewart is less about irony and more about hypocrisy. His signature shtick is having a Congressman say something, then go back and find him saying the opposite thing. Because no one who is not a politician – or someone in the public light – ever does that, what’s that thing called again…er, um…right – no one ever lies. It’s funny watching Senator Douchenozzle blame Obama for Iraq, but of late The Daily Show also smacks of holier-than-thou one-upmanship.

Like Colbert, Stewart plays to his base – young, liberal, college educated. Basically me five years ago before I became old, conservative, and NYU rescinded my degree after they discovered I had plagiarized my thesis film I Am Curious (Chartreuse). So in many ways Stewart is a politician. He tells the people what they want to hear. He’s very good at it, but it’s still preaching to the choir. And there’s a point where you get sick of being preached to. And that’s what happened to me a couple of weeks ago.

I woke, showered, watched Stewart, and I didn’t laugh once. Here was a guy telling me that the NFL had fucked up regarding the Ray Rice domestic abuse charges. He showed a couple of clips of the Fox & Friends people joking about hitting women. Then he got super morally serious and explained that domestic abuse is a bad thing. He was right, but his righteous indignation felt more like: “Get off of my lawn!”

Yes, Jon Stewart has become an angry old man. (So am I, but I don’t have a TV show and root for a loser team like the Mets.)  He speaks with a moral gravity that a person in his position – comedian – should never employ. Comedians should never preach, to a choir or to anyone else.

I recall a few years back when Stewart and Colbert had their March to Restore Something or Another. I was psyched for it. I actually wanted to go to DC and be there for it. Instead, I watched it on TV and found it not just underwhelming but completely misguided. Here was a great comedian trying to be serious. He was screaming and ranting about common decency and dignity. It was actually, oh boy, undignified of him. Because a comedian is not about dignity, but ridicule and ridiculousness.

When Stewart is funny, he’s one of the best. When he breaks into his Dick Cheney or W or Mitch McConnell impressions, he’s hilarious. His prop comedy (something I tend to despise) is some of the best you’ll ever see. And when he actually tackles a complex issue with humor and not polemic he is at the pinnacle of his talents. Take, for example, this piece from a few months back that examines what it’s like be an American Jew when Israel is at war.

Months back there was already a movement afoot – in my own mind, that is – that Stewart had jumped a shark. Interestingly, this was not because of anything Stewart himself had done. Instead, it was the insipid tweets and Facebook status of such media outlets as Salon, Slate, and Huffington Post with headlines like “Stewart perfectly annihilates Republican talking points.” What used to be one of my favorite online news sites is TalkingPointsMemo.com. They were the ones who broke the U.S. attorneys firing scandal. Now they post videos from the previous night’s Stewart and Colbert. As if they are actually news. Stewart and Colbert are not news.

So part of my disillusion with Stewart is not so much Stewart himself, but other people’s perception of him. They treat him as if he were more important than he actually is. Answer me this – how important is David Letterman? I would go with, “Some, but not very.” Entertainment – be it a serialized crime show, a cartoon, a sitcom, or a late night show – is important in that it diverts us from reality. At worse it numbs us, at best it re-energizes us from the day’s onslaught. Stewart is no more important than Letterman or Kimmel or any of the others.

I used to think Stewart was important. I liked it when people said “I get my news from the Daily Show.” As if there were no credible news sources out there. Actually, those people were lazy and wanted their news and satire taken together, like a televised speedball. I was lazy as well. Not too lazy not to get my news elsewhere, but too lazy in my thinking. I believed Stewart was more important than he really was because he gave me what I wanted. He made me feel good to be a liberal. Watching Stewart filled me with self-contented schadenfreude. Fuck the rest of the country. Fuck the Republicans. Ooh, look – racists. I’m so much better than them. Fox News is filled with such dipshits. George Bush talks funny. Heh heh.

The Daily Show gave me what I wanted – humorous self-satisfaction – without giving me what I needed – a surprise. That’s what great comedy, art, storytelling will do. You think you’re getting one thing but they pull the old switcheroo, and suddenly it’s something else. Perhaps Stewart has merely gotten too comfortable, too complacent with his gig.

The Daily Show had some controversy a couple of weeks ago with this piece regarding the name of a certain Washington football team. I personally believe that their name should be changed. So, apparently, do those at the Daily Show. (I know, big surprise.) So why did I find the report so…boring. Unoriginal. Uninspired. You get some white people who claim that the name is not racist and shouldn’t be changed, you make fun of them. It’s obvious. And a bit cruel.

And that might be where Stewart lost me completely. There’s a meanness to him that either I never noticed before or that had never existed. Either way, when I used to watch Stewart I would laugh and feel ever so slightly better after it was over than I did before. Now, I feel like the world might be even worse off than I suspected. And the last thing a comedian should do is make me depressed. Unless he’s Louis C.K. and then I say, “Bring it on.”

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