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The Joke's on You: Are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Lulling Americans Into Submission?

Over the past decade, political humor has proliferated not as a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source.

Photo Credit: Stephen Kroninger


The following article has been adapted from the Baffler. To read the piece in its entirety  check out the 

Among the hacks who staff our factories of conventional wisdom, evidence abounds that we are living in a golden age of political comedy. The  New York Times nominates Jon Stewart, beloved host of Comedy Central’s  Daily Show, as the “most trusted man in America.” His protégé, Stephen Colbert, enjoys the sort of slavish media coverage reserved for philanthropic rock stars. Bill Maher does double duty as HBO’s resident provocateur and a regular on the cable news circuit. The  Onion, once a satirical broadsheet published by starving college students, is now a mini-empire with its own news channel. Stewart and Colbert, in particular, have assumed the role of secular saints whose nightly shtick restores sanity to a world gone mad.

But their sanctification is not evidence of a world gone mad so much as an audience gone to lard morally, ignorant of the comic impulse’s more radical virtues. Over the past decade, political humor has proliferated not as a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source. Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.

Our lazy embrace of Stewart and Colbert is a testament to our own impoverished comic standards. We have come to accept coy mockery as genuine subversion and snarky mimesis as originality. It would be more accurate to describe our golden age of political comedy as the peak output of a lucrative corporate plantation whose chief export is a cheap and powerful opiate for progressive angst and rage.

Fans will find this assessment offensive. Stewart and Colbert, they will argue, are comedians, offering late-night entertainment in the vein of David Letterman or Jay Leno, but with a topical twist. To expect them to do anything more than make us laugh is unfair. Besides, Stewart and Colbert do play a vital civic role—they’re a dependable news source for their mostly young viewers, and de facto watchdogs against media hype and political hypocrisy.

Michiko Kakutani of the  New York Times offered a summation of the majority opinion in a 2008 profile of Stewart that doubled as his highbrow coronation. “Mr. Stewart describes his job as ‘throwing spitballs’ from the back of the room,” she wrote. “Still, he and his writers have energetically tackled the big issues of the day . . . in ways that straight news programs cannot: speaking truth to power in blunt, sometimes profane language, while using satire and playful looniness to ensure that their political analysis never becomes solemn or pretentious.”

Putting aside the obvious objection that poking fun at the powerful isn’t the same as bluntly confronting them, it’s important to give Stewart and Colbert their due. They are both superlative comedians with brilliant writing staffs. They represent a quantum improvement over the aphoristic pabulum of the thirties satirist Will Rogers or the musical schmaltz of Beltway balladeer Mark Russell. Stewart and Colbert have, on occasion, aimed their barbs squarely at the seats of power.

The most famous example is Colbert’s turn as the featured speaker at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Paying tribute to President George W. Bush, seated just a few feet away, Colbert vowed, “I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound—with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.” He went on to praise, in punishing detail, the media who had served as cheerleaders for the president’s factually spurious rush to war in Iraq, and his embrace of domestic surveillance and torture. The crowd, composed of A-list cheerleaders, sat in stunned silence.

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