“And Now Your Moment of Zen”: The Cultural Significance of ‘The Daily Show’

When Jon Stewart took as over as host of The Daily Show in 1999, displacing then-host Craig Kilborn, the show was little more than a modestly amusing satire program modeled loosely after SNL’s “Weekend Update” sketch: good-natured celebrity-bashing, a healthy dose of political lampooning. Today, the show is a potent cultural institution, boasting one of the largest viewerships in modern history for a cable program.

The Daily Show‘s influence over voter perceptions has been well documented — a 2006 study by East Carolina State found that Daily Show viewers, while considerably cynical of the electoral system, demonstrated a higher degree of interest in politics as a whole. Of course, Stewart, who now serves as managing editor of the program, dismisses such stats as irrelevant, arguing that the sole purpose of the program is entertainment, and as such, it has no obligation to be “fair” in the same way that real news programs do. By its own logic, The Daily Show has insulated itself from attacks of journalistic bias by virtue of the fact that it is a comedy show, and therefore free of the rhetorical constraints that underpin “serious” journalism — an entity it regards with a healthy degree of skepticism.

But Stewart’s March 12 interview with Mad Money’s Jim Cramer leads one to wonder whether or not the show’s sense of humor might be slipping, which could leave many viewers feeling alienated. Given the scope of the program’s influence, it’s not a stretch to imagine the repercussions of this extending into the political sphere.

Stewart had already made a career as a comic and had enjoyed a few stints on several short-lived MTV programs before taking Kilborn’s place, and so it was little surprise that he excelled in the capacity as host. He was quick-witted, self-deprecating, and undeniably likable. But it wasn’t until the 2000 presidential elections that the full scope of his political wit became apparent. Stewart and his team of farcical news commentators, including soon-to-be comedy icons Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert, worked diligently to highlight the inherent absurdity of the election process — exemplified in that case by the Florida ballot debacle, which provided nearly a season’s worth of material for the show’s writers. The cast’s sarcastic portrayal of themselves as “real” journalists underscored the twisted relationship between politics and media in America — the result of which, ironically, was that viewers began to regard the show as an actual news program.

By 2004, more young people (18-29) were turning to the show as their primary source for news. With a growing guest roster of authors, political analysts, and upper-echelon Washington elites, it was clear that the show was becoming something more than just a comedy program. People were no longer watching it simply because it was funny; they were watching it because it was important.

This was also the year of Stewart’s now-infamous guest appearance on CNN’s Crossfire. Presumably, hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala had hoped that having a comedian on might take some of the edge off the customarily turgid program. Instead, Stewart blistered the two men, whom he referred to as “partisan hacks,” for furthering the growing ideological divide between political parties and thus serving the interests of the Washington elite and not those of American voters. Carlson, clearly incensed by Stewart’s remarks, claimed that he thought Stewart had come on the show to be funny. “Oh, no no,” Stewart replied dryly. “I’m not your monkey.”

The show’s coverage of the 2004 presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry solidified Stewart’s reputation as a savvy cultural critic, but more importantly, it offered a clear demonstration of comedy’s efficacy as an instrument of rhetorical analysis. Says Robert J. Thompson, Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University: “Actually, when it’s done well, comedy in this country can become a counterbalance to journalism, like journalism is a counterbalance to government.”

To be sure, humor is what it is because it’s rooted in some larger complex truth. Jokes are a palatable way of examining those things about ourselves, either culturally or individually, that may otherwise not be so easy to stomach. A successful joke operates as a kind of reductio ad absurdum, highlighting the deceptively large gap between language and meaning.

Of course, by definition, a counterbalance acts in opposition to its subject, and so in order to be an effective instrument of rhetoric, comedy must often maintain a certain degree of distance between itself and ideology. This is not to say that a comic must regard all ideologies with the same degree of cynicism, but it is important to keep in mind that mistrust of one ideology or set of ideologies does not necessarily entail an endorsement of its opposite. When comedy begins endorsing particular views, it often degenerates into propaganda, as evidenced by FOX’s short-lived fake news program The ½ Hour News Hour. Arguably a response to The Daily Show, the program made no effort to hide its Republican leanings, crafting the majority of its jokes as passive-aggressive jabs at Democrats, featuring such guest commentators as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh.

Of course, anyone with a moderate understanding of irony can tell you that the reason a show like The ½ Hour News Hour doesn’t work is because, in a way, we already know the punchlines before they arrive. It makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it functions on behalf of one side of the political spectrum, and so it operates as little more than poorly-crafted political propaganda. There’s never any larger truth underpinning the gags, and thus no incentive for viewers to invest on an intellectual level.

That FOX even believed a response to The Daily Show was necessary indicates its having mistaken the show’s mistrust of conservativism as an open endorsement of liberalism. And while it is true that The Daily Show did support Barack Obama in the 2008 election, and that it tends to be more critical of Republicans than Democrats, this certainly does not mean that it fully endorses the Left. In fact, as Michiko Kakutani pointed out in her 2008 New York Times interview with Stewart, The Daily Show is largely characterized by its cynicism toward all ideologies, not just those of a Republican bent.

By this measure, it seems that The Daily Show has become its own sort of counterbalance to the major news networks, which it perceives as having forsaken the quest for truth, functioning instead as vehicles for political and corporate gain — an attitude best exemplified by the much-YouTubed skirmish between Stewart and Jim Cramer.

The tiff began back in mid-March…

The tiff began back in mid-March when CNBC’s Rick Santelli backed out of a scheduled Daily Show appearance. The show responded by running a series of clips from several CNBC programs featuring financial experts, including Cramer, offering stock predictions that would ultimately turn out to be dreadfully wrong. In the Mad Money clip, Cramer touted the merits of investment bank and brokerage firm Bear Stearns, Inc., proclaiming that it was “fine” and that investors should hold onto their stocks. A moment later, a message appeared on the screen stating that the company had gone under within six days of this proclamation.

There followed a series of soft media jabs between the two men. Cramer laughed off the notion of being criticized by a comedian, claiming that The Daily Show had taken his comments out of context, to which Stewart responded with another set of clips from several weeks earlier in which Cramer openly called on viewers to buy Bear Stearns’ stock. Stewart’s open challenge to CNBC to send one of their financial experts to The Daily Show finally led to Jim Cramer’s now infamous March 12 appearance on the program.

While the interview, which lasted most of the program, began innocently enough — with Stewart greeting Cramer with a reassuring handshake and laughingly asking, “How did we end up here?” — it quickly descended into what New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley described as “a cathartic ritual of castigation,” uncomfortably similar to the kind of one-sided bickering for which Stewart criticized Carlson and Bagela in his 2004 Crossfire appearance. But what made the interview particularly hard to watch was Cramer’s refusal — or inability — to defend himself. He came across as frightened, nervous, and fatally unprepared, particularly when Stewart played a series of clips from a 2006 video from Thestreet.com in which Cramer himself described the intricacies of hedge fund market manipulation. “I literally cannot tell you how angry that makes me,” Stewart said in reference to the clips, abandoning his customary goofball façade. “I know you want to make finance entertaining, but this isn’t a fucking game.”

Most of the major news networks proclaimed Stewart the “winner” of the debate, though it was a hollow victory: Cramer’s reluctance to put up a fight spoke either to his recognition of his complicity in the financial crisis, as Stewart claimed (to his credit, Cramer did apologize to his viewers for offering bad information), or to his network’s refusal to be drawn into a rhetorical battle that it did not consider to be worth the effort (Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC, called the interview “unfair,” and accused Stewart of scapegoating). Either way, the interview successfully articulated Americans’ growing outrage over the economic crisis, and while even Stewart conceded how unfortunate it was that Cramer had become the face of this problem, it was at least gratifying to know that the problem did finally have a face, even if it was the wrong one.

However, it’s hard not to watch the interview and wonder if The Daily Show isn’t overstepping its own self-imposed boundaries. Is it naïve to think that Jon Stewart is above such skirmishes? Arguably, most people are largely drawn to The Daily Show because they feel alienated by the networks that the program satirizes. It is an intellectual respite from the self-aggrandizing sensationalism of traditional news sources, and as such, one can’t help but cringe a little at the idea that it, too, may have begun to take itself a bit too seriously.

The fact that the general reaction to the interview was largely split along party lines — with those on the Left praising Stewart as a champion for journalistic integrity, and those on the Right labeling him a bully — should come as no surprise, given the political makeup of the show’s audience. But it does take some of the potency out of the show’s repeated criticisms of other news organizations for their polarizing tactics.

Of course, one of The Daily Show’s main selling points is its eagerness to make jokes at its own expense, and since Cramer’s appearance, the show has made several self-deprecating references to the interview, presumably in an effort to minimize any concerns that it’s become a partisan soapbox like the news it criticizes. A May 20th sketch featured faux-commentator John Oliver shouting at Stewart that he would not be “Cramered.” And it does seem that Stewart has retracted his claws for the time being, as evidenced by an interview with Newt Gingrich, who, when asked about the current controversy surrounding Speaker of the House Nanci Pelosi, calmly and casually dismantled Stewart’s own argument with an effortlessness that even a diehard liberal had to admire. Why else would Stewart go after Cramer with such vigor, but then so willingly let someone like Gingrich off the hook?

Still, if Stewart et al hoped to “solve” anything with the interview, which turned out to be the second most watched episode of the year and one of the top ten in the show’s history, it still isn’t clear what that may be. The content of the program certainly has not changed, nor have the attitudes of its fans and critics. In fact, in many ways, incidents like these raise more questions than they answer: How does The Daily Show perceive itself and its role in the cultural sphere? How accountable is it in terms of fairness? What distinguishes it from the puffed-up news outlets that it spoofs? Perhaps most importantly, what is the show’s overall mission, and how well did the interview help to achieve it?

It’s not that the show’s criticisms of men like Cramer are unwarranted or inaccurate. Truth is, the interview was something that Americans needed to see, if only to reassure themselves that someone in the media had not forgotten about them entirely. It’s just that, given the breadth of the show’s influence, it would be nice to believe that The Daily Show does have some sense of responsibility to its audience not to tangle itself in media squabbles.

It’s worth pointing out that the show’s viewers are already statistically less inclined to vote than viewers of other news programs. For a nation of viewers already jaded by the childish sensationalism of a self-serving media culture, the stakes are surprisingly high for The Daily Show not to let its ego run amok. And with that in mind, it’s troubling to wonder what might happen if the show were to devolve into another political forum where well-coifed pundits hurl petty invectives at one another. Stewart does such a wonderful job of poking fun at the Bill O’Reillys and the Keith Olbermans and the Sean Hannitys of the world, I’d hate to see him become one.