"And Your Point Is . . . ?"
Irony is the media meal of choice these days. And if you’re judging by what’s offered on the Big TV Buffet, the people in charge of putting on shows don’t think it is possible to get too much irony in your daily media diet. The menu is like a who’s who of smart-asses and wisecrackers: The Late Show With David Letterman, Dennis Miller Live, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, ESPN Sportscenter, The Man Show, Saturday Night Live, Mad TV, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and the defunct, but still important, The Tom Green Show.
Even amid this impressive group, the Emmy-winning The Daily Show with Jon Stewart steps up every weeknight on Comedy Central to claim its pedestal in the ironic pantheon. In many ways, this show is indicative of what is good and bad about big media irony. It is clever, talented, witty, silly, critical, and wide-ranging in its targets and techniques. It is also masturbatory, nearly apolitical, only barely satirical, and without larger purpose.
The premise of the show is entirely familiar: news parody. Take the familiar and formidable news format, complete with anchor and desk, mix in irony, sarcasm, parody, wit, and a dash of satire. Add some quirky camera work, repeated skit scenarios, like “Breaking News,” “This Just In,” “God Stuff,” “Man on the Street,” “Slice of Life,” “Commentary,” “Celebrity Interviews,” and “Film Reviews.” And voila, you’ve got yourself a comedy show.
And it works, to a point. The Daily Show is decidedly fun to watch. As with any show putting up a half-hour of programming per day, the laughs hit and miss, but there are comic gems available on nearly every edition. These tend to be assaults on the intelligence of George Bush, the pope, and most any celebrity who screws up. Still, and even though I like The Daily Show, it has three glaring problems I just can’t ignore: the weakness of the host, the fascination with its own processes, and the almost utter lack of deep satire.
As anchor/host, Jon Stewart is a kewpie doll. He’s cute and cuddly, and quick to back down. He laces his daily news reports with some self-deprecation, so you know he’s a “regular guy,” and above all, he makes no enemies. Which means he’s no young Dave Letterman. He’s no erudite Dennis Miller. He’s no outside-the-envelope Tom Green. And—sorry to drag up old news—but he’s no Craig Kilborn. As original host of the show, Kilborn was dripping in his own self-absorbed irony. He poured his “prettier than thou” attitude over everyone who crossed the set, whether politician or vapid celebrity looking for a cheap plug for whatever wasteland of a project being hyped that week.
Stewart, however, is a guy acting like he’s ironic. You have to have contrast to create irony, and there’s none here because Stewart is exactly like the people he interviews. He doesn’t take shots, he lobs weak spitballs and then cowers under diffidence. It’s easy to like Jon Stewart because he’s toothless.
That wouldn’t be such a problem, perhaps, if the rest of the recurring characters weren’t so damned happy with themselves for being media-savvy and New York hip. Steven Colbert gets most of the feature segments, and it’s always the same shtick: find some really stupid person, place, or thing out there in the world—like a meeting of people who have been abducted by aliens, or the owner of the world’s largest pumpkin—and ask questions such as, “When did you first know that you were insane?” while never breaking the news frame or deadpan delivery. Though the targets don’t read the irony that’s all too obvious by the time such segments get to TV, we get to laugh the laugh of the insider.
The other reporters are more of the same, with slightly different reporting styles. They’re media figures fascinated with the fact that they’ve been given permission to play with media toys. They find it funny that their subjects don’t know that they’re the joke. And they assume that the audience will also find it funny because anyone watching the show has to be in on the joke, right? The problem, however, is that watching clever actors and writers apply kitsch to the real world long ago became kitsch itself. It’s just repetitive now. Unless you’re Tom Green showing us how to deconstruct the media even as you use the media, you’re just playing the same old song.
But the most damning, and probably the least fixable, criticism of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart us that just like the other irony shows—all corporate-owned properties—it does nothing profound, provocative, or important with its ironic tools. These shows act like they take real shots at the powerful and the hypocritical, but the truth is, they do no damage. What they do isn’t satire, but satire lite.
And there’s the rub. Being clever is not enough to make The Daily Show a great show. It’s content to be clever, diverting, and amusing, which means it settles for pure entertainment rather than entertainment mixed with enlightenment. Which begs the question: does it need to do any more than this? Does irony need to do anything more than draw a crowd that likes to watch this particular sideshow in the media circus?
This is an important question to ask. Irony has always been a primary tool the under-powered use to tear at the over-powered in our culture. But now irony has become the bait that media corporations use to appeal to educated consumers. It’s like fake deer urine for yuppies, grungies, and the college grads. We come running to see someone show us a keen or different perspective on our important cultural institutions and beliefs, and all we get are decoys. It’s almost an ultimate irony that those who say they don’t like TV will sit and watch TV as long as the hosts of their favorite shows act like they don’t like TV, either.
Somewhere in this swirl of droll poses and pseudo-insights, irony itself becomes a kind of mass therapy for a politically confused culture. It offers a comfortable space where complicity doesn’t feel like complicity. It makes you feel like you are counter-cultural while never requiring you to leave the mainstream culture it has so much fun teasing. We are happy enough with this therapy that we feel no need to enact social change. We become addicted to the therapy as a soothing process, and no longer consider its results.
So, consider the following: immediately after September 11, it was popular for media pseudo-pundits to join in a mass chorus of hailing “the death of irony.” But in the weeks that followed, irony looked very undead. A few days after September 11, David Letterman cried on camera, followed, not long after, by Jon Stewart. These were telling moments, but not for the fact that these ordinarily “cynical” men were suddenly showing “real” emotion. What was telling was that neither of them had anything interesting to say about the events of September 11. All they had were very ordinary, even dull, at-a-loss-for-words type statements. They were suddenly exposed as not being counter-voices at all; they are as much a part of a corporatized media as Martha Stewart or The Rugrats. And just as unable to say anything bold, startling, instructive, or strikingly explosive. Yes, they can surely be funny, but so can a clown on a good day.
If you want to find out what happens when a truly satirical voice hosts a television show, refer to Bill Maher. But his suggestion that shooting missiles from afar was a “cowardly” act is probably the last time he’ll take real shots at real targets, because he found out immediately what happens to a counter-voice in the media: you lose advertisers and local affiliates. And he’s been back-pedaling ever since.
It’s a tough challenge, to make a living at irony. It requires you to criticize the very people who sign your paychecks. It requires that you make no allegiances, that you have no sacred cows. And it requires that you keep viewers watching even as you skewer anything and everything they may believe in. I understand when shows like The Daily Show make the choice to keep their work as light as a soufflé. It’s just that at some point, as you chuckle your way through the yummy appetizers, you have to start wondering what you might have tasted, had they ever brought the main course.