The Joke's on You: Are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Lulling Americans Into Submission?
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Stewart has generated a few similar moments of frisson, most notably when he eviscerated Jim Cramer, the frothing former hedge fund manager who hosts the CNBC show Mad Money, and Betsy McCaughey, an unctuous lobbyist paid by insurance companies to flog the myth of government-run “death panels” during the debate over health care reform. Stewart also played a vital role in shaming Senate Republicans into supporting a bill to provide medical care for 9/11 first responders.
What’s notable about these episodes, though, is how uncharacteristic they are. What Stewart and Colbert do most nights is convert civic villainy into disposable laughs. They prefer Horatian satire to Juvenalian, and thus treat the ills of modern media and politics as matters of folly, not concerted evil. Rather than targeting the obscene cruelties borne of greed and fostered by apathy, they harp on a rogues’ gallery of hypocrites familiar to anyone with a TiVo or a functioning memory. Wit, exaggeration, and gentle mockery trump ridicule and invective. The goal is to mollify people, not incite them.
In Kakutani’s adoring New York Times profile, Stewart spoke of his comedic mission as though it were an upscale antidepressant: “It’s a wonderful feeling to have this toxin in your body in the morning, that little cup of sadness, and feel by 7 or 7:30 that night, you’ve released it in sweat equity and can move on to the next day.” What’s missing from this formulation is the idea that comedy might, you know, change something other than your mood.
Back in October of 2004, Stewart made a now-famous appearance on the CNN debate show Crossfire, hosted by the liberal pundit Paul Begala and his conservative counterpart Tucker Carlson. Stewart framed his visit as an act of honor. He had been mocking the contrived combat of Crossfire on his program and wanted to face his targets. The segment quickly devolved into a lecture. “Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America,” he told Carlson. “See, the thing is, we need your help. Right now, you’re helping the politicians and the corporations. And we’re left out there to mow our lawns.” The exchange went viral. Stewart was hailed as a hero: here, at last, was a man brave enough to condemn the tyranny of a middling cable shoutfest.
But who, exactly, did Stewart mean by “we”? He’s not just some poor schnook who works the assembly line at a factory then goes home to mow his lawn. He’s a media celebrity who works for Viacom, one of the largest entertainment corporations in the world. Stewart can score easy points by playing the humble populist. But he’s as comfortable on the corporate plantation as any of the buffoons he delights in humiliating.
The queasy irony here is that Stewart and Colbert are parasites of the dysfunction they mock. Without blowhards such as Carlson and shameless politicians, Stewart would be out of a job that pays him a reported $14 million per annum. Without the bigoted bluster of Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, The Colbert Report would not exist. They aren’t just invested in the status quo, but dependent on it.
Consider, in this context, Stewart’s coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. His initial segment highlighted the hypocrisy of those who portrayed the protestors in Zuccotti Park as lawless and menacing while praising Tea Party rallies as quintessentially patriotic. But Stewart was careful to include a caveat: “I mean, look, if this thing turns into throwing trash cans into Starbucks windows, nobody’s gonna be down with that,” he said, alluding to vandalism by activists during a 1999 World Trade Organization summit. Stewart then leaned toward the camera and said, in his best guilty-liberal stage whisper, “We all love Starbucks.” The audience laughed approvingly. Protests for economic justice are worthy of our praise, just so long as they don’t take aim at our luxuries. The show later sent two correspondents down to Zuccotti Park. One highlighted the various “weirdos” on display. The other played up the alleged class divisions within those occupying the park. Both segments trivialized the movement by playing to right-wing stereotypes of protestors as self-indulgent neo-hippies.