A Comic Commencement Speech (And Some Observations About The Daily Show and The Colbert Report)

In video below, comedian David Feldman gives the 2009 commencement speech at Pitzer College. Pitzer is one of America’s most politically liberal colleges. For some reason the video’s picture is jerky on my computer. If it is for you as well, I recommend listening anyway and just minimizing the screen because the speech really is funny.

Ed Brayton tells me that Feldman is considered a “comic’s comic”, i.e., he is widely respected by his fellow comics even though he is far from a household name. Feldman has written for Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, and Jon Stewart, and according to him Jon Stewart is a terrible and abusive person behind the scenes. And two unverifiable pseudonymous commenters, “DJ Carlin” and “John Doh”, who have written in to Camels With Hammers claiming to be former Daily Show writers, say Feldman tells the truth.

I will say this much, since listening to and transcribing the interview Feldman gave to Ed Brayton in which he trashed Stewart, I have watched and thought about The Daily Show and realized that Feldman does hit at least one nail on the head and offers a plausible explanation for observations I had long made. His central charge against Stewart is that he deliberately ignores his writers’ offerings when putting together the show because his bitter over their unionizing. He characterizes Stewart as instead relying on “mostly mugging and shouting” and throwing in only a few well-crafted jokes. And in thinking about this as I watch the show now, this seems like a really apt observation.

Over the years the show has seemed to follow some pretty rote patterns of Stewart introducing a topic, running a clip a clip reel and then doing a spit take or making a silly face or using a silly voice and then shouting about the apparent irony in the footage presented. When one compares all of that to some of the intricately constructed and brilliantly layered scripts that follow on the Colbert Report, it really does seem like there is a drastic difference in the extents to which the two shows utilize their writers. Watching The Daily Show I had long been coming away more impressed by, and more prone to marvel at, the show’s archival research team than its writers.

Earlier in this century I do remember coming away more impressed with the number of dazzling twists and turns that a single five minutes of the teleprompter would yield on The Daily Show. Now, while still a fan of the show, it does seem more built around a fairly straightforward “gotcha” of the night which is driven by Stewart making a case about some absurdity or hypocrisy with the use of montage rather than a lot of surprising and ingenious interlocking comedic allusions and insights. With the exceptions of some memorable recent skewerings that stuff does seem mostly confined to The Colbert Report these days.

Now if this difference is real and substantial (and not just a matter of my perceptions, colored by Feldman’s claims), it is still a further question whether the cause such a difference in approach to show writing is attributable to what Feldman says it is, namely, Stewart’s desire to punish his writers for unionizing by effectively not letting them contribute to the show.

Listen to or read Feldman’s accusations for yourself for more.

Do you see any evidence for or against Feldman’s charges that Stewart is not a supporter of unions in the ways he chose to cover the failed attempt to recall Scott Walker?

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