Jon Stewart’s recent rant against—and subsequent interview with—Mad Money’s Jim Cramer was the latest incident of a comedian to initiate a thoughtful debate on a headline-grabbing issue. In this age of hybrid media, the debate now is over what role political satire should play in framing contemporary politics.
Today, when a prominent politician is ruined by scandal he is grilled by a comedian, as was the case of the immensely popular Letterman-Blagojevich face off. Such is the reality of today’s brand of political humor where personalities are so popular and their shows so influential that The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher and the late-night talk show circuit are regular visits on any publicity tour. No longer are laughs the only priority or are hosts merely comics. They’re hybrids–equal parts pundit, comedian and journalist–who engage with provocative ideas and ask the questions traditional journalists won’t. This isn’t new. Although David Frost wasn’t a comedian, he was an entertainment reporter until he joined the stage with Richard Nixon. George Carlin made a career of pointing out the hypocrisies of politics and societal excess. Chevy Chase’s characterization of Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live was perhaps the first time a joke hurt both the feelings and ratings of a president. Today, YouTube just spreads the word farther and faster. While Carlin’s rants were seen on the occasional HBO special, Jon Stewart’s commentary is seen on the nightly news and the frontpage of the Times. The Saturday Night Live characterizations du jour–Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, Amy Poehler’s Hillary Clinton–are seen live and then millions of times over when it goes viral. The biggest impact of this kind of visibility has been that politicians now make a more deliberate effort to be a part of the joke instead of just the butt of it. And it’s built a powerful pulpit for hosts like Stewart and Maher to influence national debates and advance their own agendas. The question now is whether a line should be drawn between comedy and news journalism. Without one, blurred boundaries can confuse and mislead: What’s the takeaway from a joke that simultaneously criticizes Sarah Palin for her position on global warming and her beauty queen background? To their credit, Stewart and Maher are knowledgeable and exceptionally prepared for guests, often, it seems, more than network anchormen. And it’s clear their interests are bigger than punchlines. Real Time features a diverse, three-person panel of public figures—authors, journalists, politicians and experts—who are invited into an equal forum to debate all perspectives of current events. Stewart is less inviting of ideologies with which he disagrees. While a slew of conservative personalities have come on The Daily Show, they usually serve as little more than set-ups to jokes than as respected contrarians. Yet as a jokester, he thrives. Stewart regularly offers sound bytes from his interviews that make it into the news cycle, as with the CNBC/Jim Cramer segments. Another memorable segment was an exchange in which Stewart responded to an answer by Mike Huckabee in December about gay rights:
Stewart: “I think it’s the difference between what you believe gay people are and what I do. And I live in New York city so I’m just going to make a supposition that I have more experience being around them. And I’ll tell you this: Religion is far more a choice than homosexuality.“Huckabee: “If the American people aren’t convinced that we should overturn the definition of marriage then I would say that those who support the idea of same-sex marriage have a lot of work to do to convince the rest of us.” Stewart: “You know, you talk about the pro life movement being one of the great shames of our nation. I think if you want number two, I think it’s that. I think it’s a travesty that people have forced someone who is gay to have to make their case that they deserve the same basic rights as someone else.”
Stewart thoughtfully expresses liberal outrage while keeping the debate civility and wit. Perhaps this is the key for what makes the non-journalist more effective at probing his subject—the disregard for objectivity and the steady pursuit of humor. So here’s a question: Who would big thinkers rather see interview Bernie Madoff, Jon Stewart or Mike Wallace? Both would attack a deserving villain, but only Stewart could make us giggle while he does it.