Comedy on the Offense

by Julia Bernstein | 10/21/04 5:00am

Jon Stewart isn't exactly a household name in Scotland, where I'm currently studying on the Religion FSP. Hence, I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't hear immediately about what a number of pundits are referring to as "Tuckergate." But now that I'm aware of the diatribe against "serious" political talk that constituted Jon Stewart's appearance on CNN's "Crossfire" last Friday, I can't believe I've missed this media tempest in a teapot. The resulting flurry of articles and discussion once again puts Stewart into the middle of yet another journalistic feud.

During a 15-minute interview with Republican talking head Tucker Carlson and Democratic pundit Paul Begala, Stewart ignored attempts by Begala to discuss his popular "fake news" program, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and his successful bestseller "America: The Book." Instead, Stewart blasted political news shows in general and "Crossfire" in particular, begging them to "stop hurting America." He also accused the hosts of being "partisan hacks." In response, Carlson charged Stewart with being a morally righteous lecturer who panders to the left, "sniffing John Kerry's throne" during a summer interview with the candidate. Begala's attempts to restore order failed miserably, and the overall impression was one of startling honesty not often seen on political television.

While Stewart and his fan base tend toward the left, the interview featured something for both sides, with strong insults leveled by both parties. For liberals, perhaps the best moment was when Stewart likened Carlson to a part of the male anatomy more commonly associated with our vice president. Similarly, Carlson also stooped to bodily insults when he accused Stewart of being Kerry's "butt boy" and wasting a valuable interview opportunity on softball questions. But politics and insults aside, the debate -- or diatribe -- brings to the forefront inquiries about the state of political talk in our country. It also raises questions about Stewart's ambiguous status as a fake newsman who is increasingly being seen as a legitimate political commentator.

Stewart has been a recent media darling, with his well-received campaign coverage, successful new book and a number of media interviews that could be seen as indicating that he is becoming an influential source of political opinion, if not news. However, despite all this attention, Stewart has maintained that he is a comedian and a performer. Thus, it must have thrown Carlson when he was expecting to interview Stewart the comedian and instead got Stewart the citizen, who railed against a format he thought was "helping the politicians and the corporations," not the voter. To some, this may seem an abuse of Stewart's position, an example of his growing celebrity going to his head as he dared to be something other than Carlson's "monkey" when Carlson ordered him to be funny. It could be read as growing evidence of how Stewart's firm following has led him to allow his political views to saturate his "performance," as in the easy questions he fed to Kerry. But then again, Stewart was not saying anything too original: The biases of the media and the media's tendency to be sensational in the quest for viewers and to pander in pursuit of guests is oft-discussed. What was ironic was that a career based off of fake news put Stewart in a position to preach a gospel that many consider true.

This is not Stewart's first media quarrel, and not the first instance of people objecting to the ambiguous nature of his position. During the Democratic National Convention, he and "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel, a respected network journalist, got into an argument on the convention floor. Koppel expressed his discomfort with the idea that viewers got their news from a satire show. Stewart responded with the standard argument that most of politics and its coverage is as scripted as his program. The feud between the two men culminated in a pair of interviews on the men's respective shows that proved to be entertaining. More recently, Comedy Central went out of its way to refute claims by Bill O'Reilly that "The Daily Show"'s audience is a bunch of "stoned slackers." They found that viewers of "The Daily Show" are actually on average more educated then the audience of "The O'Reilly Factor." Clearly, Stewart and his network are not afraid to tangle with the mainstream media. This seems to be the first instance, however, of Stewart using his celebrity to attack, and not defend. In this case, Stewart was on the offensive, not just giving offense.

Despite all the debate, one shouldn't forget that comedy is hard, and political comedy is one of the hardest types. At times, it seems as if our society is saturated by it -- "Saturday Night Live'"s "Weekend Update," The Onion, and the recently opened Team America, to name a few examples. It's even been attempted here at Dartmouth, with last fall's, created by the Jacko. But Stewart is the reigning king -- or court jester, as Slate's Dana Stevens labeled him, the man we expect to provide a consistently humorous perspective on the American political circus. To see Stewart step out of his role as comedian and into his disputably deserved role as political commentator disrupts many of our perceptions the role of comedy in news coverage. But whether you agree with Stewart or think he's a left-wing blowhard, one thing is undeniable: For those few minutes on Friday, it was actually fun to watch CNN.

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