The story of The Daily Show is interesting to fans, but it’s also relevant to understanding the evolution of political satire.
The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staffs and Guests, by Chris Smith. Grand Central Publishing, 480 pages, $30.
By Matt Hanson
Shortly after Jon Stewart took the helm of The Daily Show he began to fight a surprisingly uphill battle to change the show’s format from wisecracks about celebrity gossip to political satire. A moment came that perfectly crystallized the show’s new tone. After chasing John McCain’s 2000 campaign bus The Straight Talk Express (those were the days), new Daily Show correspondent Steve Carell managed to get some face time with the Presidential hopeful.
After a couple of laughs, Carell found himself going in for the kill with a question inspired by a Time article he’d skimmed in the car: “Senator, how do you reconcile that you were one of the most vocal critics of pork barrel politics, and yet while you were chairman of the Commerce committee, that committee set a record for unauthorized appropriations?” An awkward silence followed, McCain was speechless. Carell, a seasoned improviser at Chicago’s Second City, broke the tension. “Just kidding! I don’t even know what that means!” The relieved Senator shrugged nervously; footage of the staff hurrying McCain away from the rest of the press mob was perfect for that night’s show.
Chris Smith’s absorbing new oral history of The Daily Show is chock-full of these kinds of anecdotes, told by the show’s numerous cast and crew over Stewart’s long run as the show’s host, writer, and principle avatar. This multilayered backstage account of the program’s day-to-day workings makes for absorbing and often hilarious reading. Considering Stewart’s impressive knack for spotting and then nurturing talent, this should come as no surprise. From Steven Colbert to John Oliver and Samantha Bee, just to name a few, Daily Show alumni are currently some of the most essential voices in political satire today, if not comedy itself, including people like Rob Corddry, Larry Wilmore, SNL’s Michael Che, and Jessica Williams.
The story of The Daily Show is interesting to fans, but it’s especially relevant for understanding how the show’s history reflects the ways political satire has evolved since the beginning of the century. America’s finest comedians have always been political to varying degrees (think of Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken). But The Daily Show — above anything else in the entertainment sector — popularized the self-consciously sarcastic/sardonic language that is now helping at least half of the nation to make sense of itself. It’s not just jokey outrage at a world gone mad; as the writers explain, the show worked hard to find a crucial, tricky balance between a cynical, we’re-all-doomed tone and the giddier, we’re-all-doomed!!! brand of humor.
What Stewart and his writers brilliantly intuited, particularly during the 2000 election, was that the conventional narrative of mainstream news (which is about neatly packaging political reality) was rapidly becoming stranger than fiction. As one of the writers self-deprecatingly explains: “You could see the traditional media outlets struggling to cover this whole situation with some sort of dignity, and we weren’t bound by that. The 2000 election was so bizarre that only a comedy news show was really prepared to cover it.”
With all the hullabaloo over hanging chads, recounts, and a still-controversial Supreme Court decision that put Al Gore in the surreal position of declining to fight for the office he’d seemed to have won in the first place, what was unfolding in real time changed the role of comedy from entertainment to a necessary tool in getting the real scoop. As Hunter S Thompson once proclaimed, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” “The all-true adventures of brilliant weirdoes like Colbert and Carell — who hit their strides as writers and character actors as the show came into its own — make for exhilarating reading.”
With hindsight, we now know that election 2000 was only a prelude to the rapidly unfolding weirdness to come: the mismanaged wars, Bush’s dangerously feckless administration, the entrenchment of right wing media (memorably dubbed “Bullshit Mountain”) and the dominance just about everywhere of image over substance, culminating in spectacular fashion quite recently. Whether you were just coming into political awareness during the Bush years or were already a political junkie, The Daily Show got you through the daily serving of lies, mendacity, and lunacy by providing essential information and/or catharsis.
The book makes it clear that a combination of diligent research and scrupulous fact-checking was a crucial part of the show’s day-to-day production. The staff worked hard to pop the bubbles of pomposity wherever it found them. Ironically, a self-professed comedy show seemed to vet their sources more diligently than the big networks whose self-importance they relentlessly parodied. The bar was set higher for telling jokes than it was for reporting on current events.
Clearly, it wasn’t all fun and games — part of what made The Daily Show so special to its rapidly growing audience was the fact that beneath the show’s obvious delight in silliness and parody there was a streak of moralism at work. Who could forget Stewart’s moving post-911 monologue? His anguish and determined hope was as genuine behind the camera was it was in front of it. After he scrawled out notes for the piece on whatever paper was handy, he cried before and after delivering the monologue.
The same goes for his impulsive live dissing of the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire to their faces, which precipitated the show’s cancellation. For what it’s worth, Tucker Carlson (now on Fox News) is still a dick: his comment on The Daily Show is that “Jon Stewart never had any balls.” Some of the program’s peak moments, such as catching Jim Cramer red-handed regarding his knowing manipulation of the teetering stock market, were inspired by a respect for the truth rather than a yen for punch lines. And it wasn’t just about pandering to left-wing preferences, either. The crew took special delight in tweaking the liberal audience’s expectations during the 2008 Democratic nomination: “it feels good sometimes to say stuff to people that they don’t want to hear.”
One could fairly ask how much the show influenced actual policy. Was The Daily Show an agent for change, or just surfing the cultural tide? The cast and crew certainly pondered this question, especially when the show became an acknowledged cultural touchstone. Stewart’s ultimately quixotic 2010 Rally To Restore Sanity And/ Or Fear, though fun, really didn’t move the cultural needle very much. Neither did the fact that while the writers and the host diligently did their homework and landed one great joke after another, the powers that be went about their merry way, sometimes adding that Jon Stewart sure was funny.
As founding producer Lizz Winstead says: “When you ask yourself, ‘Why does The Daily Show not reflect the world at large?’ it’s like, the world at large doesn’t like this shit! Why do you think our country’s falling apart?”
In the sixties, LBJ knew he had lost middle America when he watched Walter Cronkite opine about the hopelessness of Vietnam on the evening news. I doubt that Stewart ever gave Bush a similar shudder, partly because in order to make the jokes he wanted to make Stewart had to underplay his own seriousness. There is a limit to how much satire can directly effect social change; even if it helps to create the language of resistance, it’s up to the audience to put the words into action.
Consider Stewart’s tireless advocacy for the Zadroga Bill, which provides coverage for 911 firefighters and first responders with health problems. Stewart wrote about it, interviewed the representatives for the bill on the show multiple times, even lobbied for it in Washington in person to ranking members of Congress. He came away with disturbing impressions of the people he talked to, including the slippery and cynical Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
It’s tempting to assume saintliness in the people you admire. When I opened the book I wondered if Stewart’s reputation would survive dozens of accounts of the people who worked for him. Reassuringly, the portrait of Stewart that emerges here is very positive. Even those with complaints to make agree — with a few minor reservations — that Stewart really is a stand-up guy: hard working, open, unpretentious, decent, and earnestly self-critical. One of the contradictions of white liberal males is that they aren’t mindful of their social blind spots. Stewart and his founding crew of comedy geeks were no exception, although it’s good to see how the show diversified the cast and crew over the years.
In many ways, American political discourse has always existed at a crossroads between two elemental narratives: consensus and dissent. Voices commenting from outside the officially sanctioned discourse, though they can be dismissed as spitball throwers, are essential if the record is to be set straight, to be the anarchistic ying pulling against the yang of conformity. In truth, democracy depends on this tug of war. The oral history of The Daily Show reminds us that now, more than ever, we need to learn new ways of making fun of the powerful, who don’t know just how lethally absurd they are.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.