Know Your Limitations: the Great and Not So Great Jon Stewart

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.

He also made broad generalizations about Fox News as a whole, saying they were ideologues receiving marching orders, implicitly from conservatives and Republicans. Yet Stewart no sooner made it than he began to backtrack when Chris Wallace asked point-blank if Stewart thought he (Wallace) was receiving marching orders. Oh, no, Chris. Fox has you to keep some semblance of credibility. It’s everyone else at the network. (Side note: he also said in other places that he liked Brett Baier and several other Fox News personalities. This further clouds his argument).

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.”

About Adam Carrington
  • Wendy

    Just curious. Have you watched the unedited version of that interview?

  • Adam Carrington

    Wendy, I saw the interview as it was posted online Sunday evening and Monday during the day. It was that version upon which I wrote the piece. Since seeing your comment, I did find the unedited clip. I don’t think it changes my basic claim in that section that possibly legitimate criticisms lose much of their force when Stewart only applies them to Fox News.

  • Ryan Holmes

    It seemed to me that Stewart was “picking” on Fox (1) because he was at their studio so it seems natural to talk about how they do news, and (2) because Wallace’s claim, which Stewart cornered him on, is that the other news stations (i.e. MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, etc.) are liberal biased news sources which need to be countered with the “other side.” Which, if we take Wallace’s claim as being a representative view of why Fox exists, makes Fox’s slogan of “Fair and Balanced” a misrepresentation at best and a blatant lie at worst. Fox News could be described as “Fair and Balanced” if it presented both sides of an issue, though rarely is the case.

    Coupled with this problem, is Stewart’s driving notion that these “news” channels do very little (if any?) actual news reporting. Fox, MSNBC, CNBC, CNN engage in commentary about the news more often than actual news reporting. To be clear reporting the news would be reporting of the actual facts of an event. A happened, B happened, C happened. Once you sit 3 people down around a roundtable you’ve probably crossed over into commentary about those facts as you see them. And there is nothing wrong with commentary on the news – it helps us sort through the worldviews, ideologies, etc. behind any given speech or event. Stewart’s contention is that the general American public doesn’t make the differentiation between “news” and “news commentary” shows. So if Joe Public flips on Fox & Friends, Hannity, or The O’Riley Factor (to highlight only Fox shows, but all 24-hour news stations have these types of shows) he thinks he’s getting the days news. But what he’s actually getting is the days news filtered through the lens of Bill O’Riley or Sean Hannity.

    And I think Stewart makes a distinction between mainstream media outlets (like ABC, CBS, NBC, Washington Post) and 24 hour cable news networks. I believe that Stewart has a valid claim in this respect. 24 news shows gravitate toward sensationalism and extremism as it makes for better viewing and more clear delineation of a situation into simple black-and-white categories. Once you strip highly complex issues (i.e war in Afghanistan, economic issues, health care reform, immigration, etc.) down to simple this-or-that argumentation you’ve lost the ability to actually dialogue about the issue. This may be an over generalization regarding CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, etc. but it seems to be the norm for how they interact with the news.

    On the flip side of that, I think Stewart is shrouding what he does behind a veil of comedy. When Stewart says, “Here is the difference between you [Chris Wallace] and I — I’m a comedian first. My comedy is informed by an ideological background. There’s no question about that.” That should be discussed further. Because we shouldn’t let Stewart off the hook for getting stuff wrong just because he claims to be a comedian, which is commonly his defense when called to account on something. And I don’t think that Stewart should be overlooked as “just a comedian.” He is pushing his views and commentary on the news in probably the best format available for people of all ages – comedy.

  • Adam Carrington

    Ryan, I would agree with nearly everything you said, especially the sensational and line-blurring nature of 24 hour news networks (I think ESPN’s networks are getting this way, too, by the way. I wonder if I’m watching sports or a soap opera during slow sports’ news cycles). We are a nation which often exhibits no attention span to go beyond the simplicities of a soundbite. And you are absolutely right that Stewart is not a “mere” comedian. Comedy conveys a message and I think he is very good at it. When conveying a message through humor, comedy does have different rules than other forms of discourse. I’d never ask him to adhere on “The Daily Show” to the standards of logic, citation, literalness, etc. that say an article in the American Political Science Association Journal would require. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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