On Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” one of Jon Stewart’s favorite targets of ridicule is Fox News, so his appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” to be interviewed by Chris Wallace, presented the opportunity for inevitable fire-works and potentially good television. The conversation between Wallace and Stewart brought up several topics of note, including the importance of genres, the dangers of blurring them, and similar cautions for ourselves as viewers.
I find Stewart’s “The Daily Show” to be one of the funniest programs on television. Its consistent wit is particularly impressive given its multiple nights-a-week format. Comparable programs, like night-time talk shows, do not reach the same level of quality consistently. My own political views do not align with the general tenor of “The Daily Show,” but humor is one of the most effective ways to bridge—at least momentarily—many divides. I can laugh even when I disagree; such a statement is not meant as a compliment to my own thinking but to the ability of “The Daily Show” through comedy to overcome my opposing perspective.
In the “Fox News Sunday” format, we saw another side of Stewart distinct from his satire. Stewart for several years has sought a position as a sort of accountability-holder of news stations. Stewart’s position as serious guardian of real news/commentary seems to originate in his 2004 take-down of Tucker Carlson on CNN’s “Crossfire.” I found the episode ultimately embarrassing for both, though the more prevalent opinion focuses only on Carlson’s nagging and whiny performance. The encounter catapulted Stewart from merely funny commentator to almost Swiftian levels of perceived brilliance. He was more than a funny guy with a funny show making jokes about the news. His humor and his serious statements were deep commentaries on politics, often trusted more than true news outlets (not to mention becoming the only source of news for many).
Yet in Sunday’s format, certain recurring problems arose. Stewart is not nearly as good of an interviewee as he is interviewer. This is especially true outside comedic settings. Part of the issue may simply be control. When you are on “The Daily Show,” Stewart is in command. You do not try to out-funny him and few who try succeed. His statements also depend on quick wit dispensing pithy commentary. Reversing the tables, especially in a contentious format, can make a big difference. Notably here, his arguments suffered. Gone was most of the pith; in was a lot of hazy logic. His argument that Fox News is the only truly activist, agenda driven news organization while others are merely lazy and sensationalist rang pretty hollow. His answer to the status of MSNBC, which he claimed is trying to be like Fox News but somehow is not “activist” (a term he was unclear about) as Fox is, sounded like hair splitting. In general, his answers here seemed to partake of the same partisan blindness he attributed to Fox News, making what could be legitimate criticisms lose much of their force.
Another problem was Stewart’s tone. For the man who conducted a rally for civility, his testy condescension seemed out of place. In large part, his tone appeared to be the transfer of comic satire to serious discussion. What gets lost in translation is the comedy. What does not is the bite. Yet the bite without the comedy loses its charm. It instead leans toward defensiveness, arrogance, and even pettiness. His consistent declarations that what he did was so much harder, or that someone like Chris Wallace (his pandering to Wallace aside) and those at Fox were too blind to understand him while he was so easily able to peg them was presented in a manner that reflected more on the speaker than the listener.
When Stewart does struggle, as he did at times in this interview, he often resorts to the argument that he is a comedian, not a news commentator. He was confronted with this argument, with Wallace bringing up the claim that Stewart hides behind this assertion when it is convenient. Stewart’s retort was only partly satisfactory. While he can be a comedian first but not only, it seems hard to deny that he seeks and embraces a role much broader and more serious than he ascribes to himself. It is also hard to say that his main object is absurdity (as he claims) and not a comedic portrayal of a partisan agenda. Only toward the end of the interview did the conversation take some serious and interesting turns. But while hopeful, this seemed too little too late.
All of this discussion of Sunday’s interview is to say that Jon Stewart, in the final analysis, is a great comedian; “The Daily Show” is a great program. Stewart gives fine satirical commentary which, like all great comedy, reveals a legitimate and often true perspective on human society. But viewers should be careful to recognize the limits to this approach. Stewart’s humor, while occupying an important place, is no substitute for serious, civil discussion. Satire, when too dominant, becomes the tool of cynicism and the enemy of a needed gravity in public discourse. And when Stewart moves beyond humor, the results are too often as unimpressive as they are (un-comically) cynical. Unless he learns better how to distinguish the proper discourse in different formats, and do them both effectively, he should stick to “The Daily Show.”