In “The Baffler”, Steve Almond wrote a long, critique of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert… he makes a lot of good points, but instead of staying on track, he meanders. Almond should hope for at best to influence Stewart to be a little more hard-hitting (let’s face it, why would Jon mess too much with success???), and especially to make Jon’s audience more aware of Jon’s failings as a cultural/media/political comic. Jon will change if his audience changes. (His critique of Colbert is so wrongheaded and so completely lacks an understanding of the power of irony that it forms another black hole in his argument.)
This is the letter I wrote to the editor about this essay:
This essay shoots itself in the foot over and over. It bemoans the fact the Daily Show and Colbert are mostly entertainment and wants them to be different. To be a massively rated Lenny Bruce hour or something. Because? Why? Is there something inherent in either man that is aching to rip-off their Clark Kent populism for a more rarified comic Super Man (i.e. in the eyes of the essayist, the brave, confronting, angry male comic.)
Does one bemoan an orange for not being an apple? Or to be fruitful in the metaphor, does one bemoan an orange for not being a cherimoya? One is common and fairly cheap. One is rare and expensive. There is reason why people eat oranges every day.
The essayist misses the point that first and foremost that they – but Stewart in particular – are replacements for the mild political humor of the Tonight Show and its progeny (Letterman, etc.). It’s all the same audience that used to watch Carson which then split off into Leno/Letterman camps and has no now splintered further in the Cable / Internet age.
If you add up all of the people watching one of these incarnations of the Tonight Show, it would roughly be that same number of people. Instead of lamenting what Stewart and Colbert aren’t, he should be lamenting that population ism’t like the essayist: smart, angry and uncompromising about those in power.
Even though I actually seem to agree with Almond’s politics, I’m being harsh with him because he deserves it. He’s like the son who’s angry with his father for not being the man he thought his father was. It’s Almond’s expectations that are at fault here, not the father for being human.
That’s not to say that the media critic / humorist Jon Stewart doesn’t deserve to critiqued as well. And here Almond is correct to point out Stewart plays false equivalencies between the right and left… he commits the same sin of “balance” in the name of civility that the main stream media does in the name of “fairness”. After all, many times, facts dictate that one doesn’t have to be fair, e.g. Creationism should not be given equal time with evolutionary theory because is one is religious thought and one is well-tested scientific thought. So taking Stewart to task for this and being a shill for whoever his guest is, are all well and good.
But Almond goes off the rails when it becomes a daddy plea of why are you what I want you to be. The critique of Stewart’s failing should always be directed to his audience. That the audience must always look at Jon with the same jaundiced eye that Jon looks at Fox News pundits. Jon is not god, but a fallible entertainer.
Almond further weakens his critique by seeming to miss just how much of a satirist that Colbert is… that irony is a potent critical weapon… that one doesn’t have to directly confront power to confront power… in other words, the essayist just doesn’t get Colbert. It’s utterly unsurprising that he ignores Colbert’s very Super Pac potent theatrics. It was quite simply the best critique and criticism of the effects of the Citizen’s United Supreme Court ruling on the political system yet leveled.
Again this is Almond’s own failing as a critic. He seems to (A) only appreciate direct, in your face, comedy, and (B) not realize that other forms of humor are both funny, viable (beyond their initial satirical role models) and an effective means of puncturing those in power.
Furthermore, Almond’s examples of the opposite of Stewart/Colbert were very weak. He was right on when he cited a deceased comic that I frankly have never heard of but from the quotes seems to have been a very funny man with a very strong, confrontational political critique of the political system. But note, that mean remained an outsider and never gained a mass following.
But the moment he approvingly named South Park and Bill Maher as corporate exceptions to the Stewart/Colbert his argument falls apart. In the first place, “South Park”, minute for minute, is essentially non-political and to praise it for the rare exceptions that it took on the powerful but also universally reviled cult /Church of Scientology is no different than when Stewart took on Republican Senators about 9/11 responders. In other words, corporate financed entertainment will have its momentary exceptions to its usual soft confrontation with power technique, but the leopard can’t drop its spots without becoming another kind of cat.
Ditto for Bill Maher. I distinctly recall how Maher became far more jingoistic immediately following his debacle with ABC corporate sponsors. The “brave” Maher” went out of his way in his next show to correct his bonafides. And let’s not forget, the man has always been a sexist. He’s learned how to protect himself… just have such a mash-up of contradictory opinions left, right and middle that you can hide under the mantle of undefinable and respected maverick . So, if you want to damn Stewart and Colbert for not being pure enough, don’t evoke someone like Maher who is even more of a corporate entertainer and a narcissistic opportunist on top of that.
Finally, Mr. Almond should remember that sometimes a cigar is a just a cigar. And enjoy the laugh. And after that, I’ll be happy to follow his example of leading the charge on the barricades… oh, I’m sorry, he isn’t a well-known liberal activist anymore than Stewart is. He’s just a cultural critic like his fallen idol.