Five years ago, when I saw the first story reporting that significant numbers of college-age TV viewers cited Jon Stewart and Comedy Central’s THE DAILY SHOW as their primary news source, my response was derisive laughter (much as Stewart’s own might well have been). But that was during the heartbreaking John Kerry campaign, and five years is a game-changing span. For one thing, George W. Bush was gradually revealed to be no more adept at executive competence in government than he was in pro baseball or oil exploration, so baldly that even the “base” could see it. The earliest-sniffing conservatives were already deserting Bush’s sinking ship when his response to Hurricane Katrina made the vast reason-oriented nonpartisan middle realize, hey, these guys can’t even handle a catastrophe they know is coming. What if something surprises them again?
That seemed to mark the tipping point. FEMA, one of the best-respected and most effective of all federal agencies in the Clinton years, was now being managed by the recent Judges and Stewards Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association – who had just been forced to resign from that job. The level of deceit and incompetence which had propelled us into two horrific wars somehow wasn’t as scary when, after their successful election (you can’t really call it a “re-election”), the Bushies put away the mushroom clouds and ratcheted back the doomsday howling a notch. But part of the reason they became, in the end, subjects for ridicule, is that for year after interminable year, THE DAILY SHOW had been speaking truth to power and saying out loud, these people are so bad, it’s funny! Not only did the emperor have no clothes, he was nevertheless doing a pretty good job of pantsing himself! Once you concede that the purpose of THE DAILY SHOW and its sister broadcast, THE COLBERT REPORT, is to entertain, not to inform, it is possible to view through an ironic filter and catch up on an issue or two each day, especially when you take a forlorn look at the alternatives waiting for you at the big networks. I’m not laughing any more, except at the two shows’ brilliant writing.
Besides whip-smart writers, these shows possess two other not-so-secret weapons: superb video librarians and the agility of their “correspondents,” especially Stewart and Colbert themselves. George Allen may have been derailed in Virginia over his “macaca moment,” but he’s not the only one to mistakenly think, if I said it yesterday, it’s yesterday’s news. It’s one thing to read about a gaffe or a flip-flop, another thing entirely to see it with your own eyes. If you’re in the public view, your history lives forever on video tape, and future candidates forget this at their peril. Both Stewart and Colbert (who satirizes right-wing cable TV through a comic character, a self-important conservative windbag bearing a strong resemblance to Bill O’Reilly, whom Colbert calls “Papa Bear”) are great improvisers. In a reversal among late-night broadcasts (Monday through Thursday here), their featured guests are sometimes showbiz types, but usually authors who write on an array of subjects demanding wide-ranging and extensive prep, yet both guys can coax substance along with laughs. One of the greatest talents they share is instinctively knowing when to shut up.
You as a potential guest either get them or you don’t. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting Congressional delegate of the District of Columbia, has shrewdly used THE COLBERT REPORT to publicize the fact that nearly 600,000 Americans in the “lower 48” are not represented by a voting member of Congress, a fact of which 78% of the country was unaware, according to a survey conducted in 2005, before COLBERT went on the air. (License plates in DC read, TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION. Imagine the uproar if Norton, and the citizens of DC, happened to lean Republican!) Colbert began his years-long mock battle by attacking the delegate’s voting record: “You have not recorded a single vote since your election!” Norton, a great sport, gives as good as she gets, and this past year DC came very close to advancing a voting seat forward (Democrats offered to create a new Congressional seat somewhere very red, like Utah, to balance things out and appease the GOP). Nancy Pelosi once warned back-benchers not to appear on Colbert’s “Better Know A District” segment, in which he twists interview questions to make fun of Congress, one member at a time. But Norton knows exactly what she’s doing – and why.
The most recent non-getter is Betsy McCaughey, whom New Yorkers will remember as the ditzy lieutenant governor who remained standing during one of Gov. George Pataki’s State of the State addresses, for reasons that are still unclear. Did she not notice that everyone else in the room except the governor had taken their seats? Was she pretending that people were looking at her rather than at Pataki? Was she trying to get on his nerves? We may never know. McCaughey, who began lying about national health care plans during the Clinton administration, bounded onto the DAILY SHOW stage on August 20 carrying a thick binder full of paper, which she claimed was only half of the text of the current health care bill. One of the leading purveyors of this “death panel” bullshit, McCaughey offered to find the passage in the bill that provided for pulling the plug. Stewart, who had read the section in question, helpfully offered that the consultations, which the bill would pay for, were over life-sustaining measures, and were meant to happen long before an urgent need arose. McCaughey riffled through her binder without success. Stewart called for a commercial while she continued to look. When she came back, she brandished a page and charged that doctors’ evaluations under the plan would be affected by whether or not such discussions had taken place. This was evidently the bureaucratic molehill on which McCaughey had built her mythical Star Chamber. Stewart had said little during the two interview segments (twice as much time as most guests receive), but McCaughey was still revealed to the DAILY SHOW audience, and thousands of subsequent YouTubers, as — like they say down in Crawford — “big hat, no cattle.”
I didn’t realize how dead-on Colbert’s parody was until he and O’Reilly pulled a stunt switch one night and appeared as guests on each other’s programs. I had never watched THE O’REILLY FACTOR before. There’s a segment on Colbert’s show called “The Word,” in which he delivers a diatribe while Chyron letters at screen right comment on and undermine his point of view. This, I discovered, is inspired by a real O’Reilly segment called “Talking Points,” in which the Chyron on his screen simply repeats what he’s saying! It’s as if you’d want to read Bill’s Teleprompter while he’s talking! Instant hearing impairment! (Note: I’m not talking about closed captions. I’m talking about simultaneous transcripts.)
Colbert’s greatest moment so far, not counting his sensational recent week in Iraq, was undoubtedly the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 29, 2006. It’s unclear (i.e., doubtful) whether the Cheney/Bush machine realized that “Stephen Colbert” is a parodic character. But this night, which is annually devoted to the lighter side of politics, gave the comedian a chance to spout, in full-blowhard regalia, directly at the President of the United States, who was seated only a few feet away:
“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, that she will always rebound – with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”
“We’re not so different, he and I. We go straight from the gut, right, sir? That’s where the truth is, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say, ‘I did look it up, and that’s not true.’ That‘s because you looked it up in a book.”
“So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, ‘Oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’ First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!”
The first reports from the dinner were that Colbert had bombed. The president hadn’t seemed amused in the slightest. The keynote speaker just hadn’t been funny. Then we noticed that the first reports had tended to come from media and commentators more sympathetic to Bush. When we finally got to read a transcript or see the speech on YouTube, we realized that Colbert – with the REPORT barely a year old — had been able to surprise a room full of journalists and speak directly to George W. Bush in a way that had probably never been done before.
That’ll never happen again, the surprise. Stewart and Colbert are well-marked locations on the cultural map, with Emmys and Peabodys cramming their mantels (in Colbert’s case, a mantel that’s actually shown on the air, in keeping with his character’s narcissistic persona). But it’s no longer a ludicrous idea, the ability to infer actual news through the prism of satire. A few times during the Bush years, it seemed like THE DAILY SHOW was all we had. That’s because in the depths of the Iraq war, when even the front page of the New York Times consisted of administration stenography, it just about was. But it’s not so lonesome out there any more. Welcome to the MSM, Jon and Stephen. Now don’t screw this up.
EDIT, 9/16/09: Never let it be said that we stifle opposing views. Here’s Christopher Hitchens from this month’s Atlantic.
4/10/14: Today we learned that Stephen Colbert will succeed David Letterman, who announced his retirement last week, as the CBS late-night host. So in a few months the phony conservative blowhard character will be retired, but not Colbert’s prodigious improvisational skills.