Monday, May 16, 2011

Jon Stewart

Just clicked a Harriet link to Jon Stewart. Couldn't find the "Tone Deaf Slam Poet" episode they thought worthy to point out, but I surfed the Stewart backlog for 15 minutes and ended up viewing a 9 minute "humour" monologue on Newt Gingrich's announcement to run for U.S. president via Twitter.

At a dinner last night, I argued with friends about the relative merits of U.S. comedians, left or right dimensions. I've long held that most political chuckle-gatherers have no concern, and little talent, for humour, creative or ultra lowbrow, that they cynically target-market their audience and smarmily project their unfunny tags as a cover for the faux group hug and self-importance of simplistic political statement. It's that heady feeling of contributing to the cliche of the week, only they believe they're shaping it, and it ain't a cliche. That's why I respect -- and actually laugh with -- comics like Jay Leno (or I used to until he overstayed his welcome) who take the accepted caricatures of their targets (sex-crazed Clinton; verbal bumbler Bush Jr.) and spin a never-ending supply of jokes on the same theme. There's no attempt to swing a vote, and there's no pretense of being a respected political pundit. Maher or Miller, it doesn't matter what side of the divide they mock. But back to the Stewart episode.

His message (I'll get to the putative larynx-tighteners later) was that Gingrich should get real and forget about being hip by going the new media route, that it was pandering to the young, that anyone knows he's a "square", and "a policy wonk". Well, as his man has been in the White House for some time, dispensing charisma in moving his head side-to-side reading teleprompter scripts created by others while his country continues, and increases, the same policies engendered by Bush, one would think that a little less image and a little more policy wonking might be in order. The further irony is that Stewart is likewise pandering to the young by speaking for and to them, aligning himself as one of them. Besides, a lot of people I know, and who are as old or older as me, watch the guy, so maybe age and coolness aren't much of a factor in Stewart's show. Maybe he's "cool", maybe he isn't. But what that has to do with current big government madness escapes me. (A lot of funny gags could be creatively powered by Gingrich's philandering, but the Clinton parallels are perhaps too close to home, and/or maybe they figure in other sketches.) I guess the circle will be complete when they have a smirking, ironic presence as the chief figurehead. Oh, wait, Obama already supposedly appears on Oprah and Rosie O. Just one of the guys. Third-term senile Juan Peron became a "square"; similar policies are often conducted by different personalities.

As for humour, this episode was particularly unfunny, the laughs generated (though the punch line words were deleted online) solely by exclaiming "fuck" as adjective, noun, or verb where it was entirely superfluous. This has been a long-running staple of comedians, both political and cultural, for decades. To reference Leno again -- "where's the joke?".

The horrific take-home in this: an increasing number of citizens are now acquiring their political info -- chiefly if not entirely -- through the medium of T.V. comedy. That isn't just speculation: it's experience in talking with a range of viewers who have ready opinions and feelings on topics the media promotes at the expense of many others which for various reasons don't sell to living-room consumers.

There's nothing wrong with combining humour and political commentary. I enjoy it when done wittily and creatively. But Stewart et al fail on both counts, much like a lot of political poetry, and for the same reasons.

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