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?

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • The Lorax

    As a fan of The Daily Show, I gotta agree with you. The content, in terms of news clips, is astounding; they must have an amazing research team. But Stewart is, at best, a little bit of sweet icing to hide the dull, but filling, cake. He’s the punchline, not the joke.

    And whilst The Colbert Report is most definitely a gem of writing (aside from its myriad of other glowing attributes), I wonder if they’re just re-using the same joke each and every day, with a Stewart-esque punchline to remind people that Colbert is just pretending to be a Fox talking head.

    I dunno. They’re both still highly entertaining, and I guess that’s what counts.

    Off topic, I really need to hand it to The Colbert Report for breaking the molds and raising the bars. The books, the interviews, the musical guests, hell, even the trinkets on the shelves and the recursive painting. These things are brilliant, and they add so much flavor and character to the show. It’s like how Google changes their logo, a corporate taboo if ever there was one, and yet they have not only gotten away with it, it has become a trademark. Pure genius.

  • Stevarious

    I definitely agree, Stewart completely dropped the ball on covering the Walker affair.

    Don’t know anything about how he feels about unions beyond that though.


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