The Joke’s On Whom?

It was 2004 when the phenomenon hit home: to young people, humor was the new journalism.

Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather … and Jon Stewart?

Readers over 30 might scoff at Stewart’s inclusion – assuming they know who he is. For many under 30, the host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” is, improbably, a source for news.

A poll released earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 21 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cited “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” as a place where they regularly learned presidential campaign news.

By contrast, 23 percent of the young people mentioned ABC, CBS or NBC’s nightly news broadcasts as a source.

It wasn’t that Jon Stewart held himself out to be Dan Rather Tom Brokaw. He made clear that his show was comedy. But there was nothing he could do to prevent the phenomenon from happening. If young people wanted to get their news from him rather than the nightly news, what’s a comedian who wants increased viewership and more money to do?

At the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan argues that progressive comedy television “fueled the rise of Trump.”

This combination of sentiments—the excoriating, profanity-strewn, ad hominem tirade against the president (and by extension against anyone who might agree, in any small measure, with his actions), and the saintly appeal for reaching out to the other side—dominates the political discussion inside the blue bubble these days. The excoriating outweighs the reaching-out at a ratio of about 20 to 1, but the earnestly expressed desire for a more humane form of discourse is enduring.

The late-night political-comedy shows—principally Noah’s Daily Show, Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight—staked their territory during the heat of the general election: unwavering, bombastic, belittling, humiliating screeds against Donald Trump.

On the one hand, who wouldn’t prefer humor to the drudgery of day-late news. And there was always a possibility that a news anchor’s words wouldn’t validate how horrifying Trump was and how deplorable his supporters were. Samantha Bee never disappointed. Well, except for the being funny part.

Is that being unfair? Some people feel it’s hysterically funny to call Trump stupid, make fun of trivial things, flagrantly conflate issues in a slapstick, if not witty or incisive, sort of way. Did he deserve such derision? If you found Sam funny, the answer is obvious: Of course he did, because didn’t he make fun of others? Pointing out that doing what you accuse him of doing makes you the same as him. And since he wasn’t a comedian, he was under no duty to be funny about it. Samantha Bee, on the other hand, was supposed to be witty. Like a brick.

What these trusted sources of news accomplished was a nightly echo chamber of smug derision, often petty, occasionally wrong, but rarely illuminating. It created the impression among fans that they were smarter, more woke, because here they were in the company of hip TV comics who shared, and fed, their worst natures. But it was all good because Trump was so awful.

Two days before the election, every talking head on television was assuring us that Trump didn’t have a chance, because he lacked a “ground game.” After his victory, one had to wonder whether some part of his ground game had been conducted night after night after night on television, under flattering studio lights and with excellent production values and comedy writing.

The election was going to be a huge party, a vindication of everything the self-sophisticates believed to be true because everyone they loved on TV told them so. There was no way, no way at all, that this could go wrong.

Though aimed at blue-state sophisticates, these shows are an unintended but powerful form of propaganda for conservatives. When Republicans see these harsh jokes—which echo down through the morning news shows and the chattering day’s worth of viral clips, along with those of Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and Seth Meyers—they don’t just see a handful of comics mocking them. They see HBO, Comedy Central, TBS, ABC, CBS, and NBC. In other words, they see exactly what Donald Trump has taught them: that the entire media landscape loathes them, their values, their family, and their religion.

Did Sam Bee cause Trump to be elected? Did her ill-conceived joke about a Trump supporter’s hair, when it turned out he was a cancer survivor, reveal that she was not better, no smarter, than her nemesis?  Jonathan Adler makes a point:

From my perch in northeast Ohio, however, I hear this sentiment all the time: “Sure, Trump has a troubled relationship with the truth (and I wish he’d stop with the tweeting), but it’s not like we can trust the mainstream media; they lie, too, and they’re not on our side.”

When Hillary Clinton made one of the worst gaffes in political history, calling half a nation “deplorable” for not supporting her, she not only told them that she didn’t care about them, but that she despised them. And the comedians, including the publisher of the Atlantic, responded, “but they aaaarrrre.”

As a blue–state sophisticate, Jonathan’s point is well taken. Even when there is agreement that we can do better, that reform is warranted, tearing down Chesterton’s Fence, the traditions of America that served as a common bond, was not going to unite people. It wasn’t that the comics caused people to vote for Trump, but they reinforced that there was a broad swathe of Americans who the sophisticates on TV thought were so stupid, so horrifying, so deplorable, that they could witlessly ridicule them with the smug certainty that these people would soon be crushed, ameliorated, once progressives ruled the land.

Funny, right?

19 thoughts on “The Joke’s On Whom?

  1. wilbur

    Maybe the television news media – including shows like Stewart’s – doesn’t care whether the deplorable half of the country hates them. That half isn’t the demographic their advertisers want watching anyway.

    Even ESPN has made a noticeable shift to the left lately.

    1. SHG Post author

      The people who decide what should be on the tube don’t live in Iowa. When the demographics hit them in the purse, maybe they’ll change.

      1. Rick Horowitz

        More likely, given the way things often work, we’re in for a rough ride over the precipice. (I can’t help but wonder if Thomas Kuhn has application to politics. Or, maybe, hopefully, we manage to right ourselves (pun unintended, I assure you) rather than go the way of the Roman dinosaurs.)

        1. SHG Post author

          That there are TV shows that pander to advertising demographics is nothing new. What’s curious is when ESPN does it. Have you seen any social justice pickup commercials? Who are they playing to? Being a blue-state sophisticate, when you bring up some of these issues, my fellow blue-state sophisticates just show me the hand, tell me they’re all fucking nuts, and move on. They won’t discuss it, argue it, care about it.

          It’s not that we don’t share similar concerns about equality, but that the fringe nutjobs are still fringe nutjobs, unworthy of valuable time or thought. Commercials pandering to social justice will not make them buy, and the SJWs don’t have a pot to piss in.

      2. Fubar

        From my forthcoming essay: “Why we are doomed, always have been, and always will be.”

        Advert value is set by surveyors,
        Of which Nielsen’s the largest purveyors.
        Thirty-five through eighteen,
        All the ages between,
        Are main targets for ad money players.

          1. Patrick Maupin

            Fubar, a nom de plume,
            used by a writer for whom
            broad online acclaim
            led to visions of fame
            and significant royalties, we presume.

  2. JAV

    I think there is a clear difference between the way Jon Stewart worked and the diaspora that followed his retirement. Stewart found a delivery that generally found the comedy beyond the opinion. Maybe there’s no accounting for taste, but while it was clear where he stood, he could still get a laugh out of me regardless of whether I agreed or not.

    The people who followed him either won’t or can’t copy that method, so it’s smug self-righteousness all the way down. It makes them infuriating* to watch unless you’ve already had a tall glass of their particular Kool-Aid.

    *I noticed you picked on Bee specifically. Somehow her show is the worst of them.

    1. SHG Post author

      That was true for the early Stewart, but by the end, he was mostly mugging for the camera without anything substantive to offer. As for Sam Bee, I’m probably not her biggest fan.

      1. Nigel Declan

        By the end of Stewart’s tenure, he was spending more time watching and talking about Fox News than the current President Trump is accused of doing. Stewart, to paraphrase Nietzsche, spent so long staring into the eye of the political media beast that he became the very thing he relentlessly mocked in his famous take-down of the now-defunct Crossfire: a highly-partisan talking head who failing to engage anymore with anyone who didn’t agree with him and shouted them down instead.

        As an aside, the beauty of Colbert’s send-up of those on the right on his eponymous Report was that throughout its run, it demonstrated both a greater versatility and a more thorough understanding of and, as such, willingness to engage with the subject of its mockery, rather than to just call them stupid.

  3. John Barleycorn

    Are you saying that nobody is going to buy the Kissinger is Kushner t-shirts at Nascar events this summer, even if Bill O’Reilly’s new vlog advertises Risperdal inbetween  gold coin spots?

    Or are you saying that nobody will understand the joke?

  4. MonitorsMost

    Trump might kill us all. However, I unquestionably will have gotten more satisfaction out of watching Stephen Cobert/Trevor Noah/John Oliver’s histrionics and losing their shit than they will get out of the 30 seconds of “I told you so” before the nuke hits and we all die.

  5. Patrick Maupin

    Limbaugh and several of his conservative copycats were arguably on the humorous mean slanted news gravy train long before Stewart or any of these others, so if it this phenomenon really is big enough to sway elections, why does it work in favor of the conservatives?

    Is it because the liberals simply pooh-pooh Limbaugh, Beck, and O’Reilly, rather than channeling their energy into voting?

    Or is it something as simple as the cognitive dissonance between saying “those guys are mean and we all have to be nice and get along” and then being really mean?

    And if it’s the latter, did it really take the comedians to lose the election, or would it have been lost anyway once Hillary invoked both intersectionalism and the basket of deplorables?

    After all, once you leave the coasts, even most liberals have more conservative acquaintances than they do black transgendered ones.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        Did your exposure to Mencken metastasize into an inability to accept a clear, simple narrative?

  6. Matthew S Wideman

    Colbert and Stewart had a certain flair for calling out bullshit. All of their disciples now are watered down versions of their masters. Trevor Noah is unwatchable, and it appears he doesn’t really understand U.S. politics or American culture.

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