October 20, 2004
No Jokes or Spin. It's Time (Gasp) to Talk.
here is nothing more painful than watching a comedian turn self-righteous. Unless of course, the comedian is lashing out at smug and self-serving television-news personalities. Jon Stewart could not resist a last dig at CNN's "Crossfire" during his monologue on Comedy Central on Monday night . "They said I wasn't being funny," the star of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" said, rolling his eyes expressively. "And I said to them: 'I know that. But tomorrow I will go back to being funny," Mr. Stewart said, adding that their show would still be bad, although he used a more vulgar expression.
And that is why his surprise attack on the hosts of CNN's "Crossfire" was so satisfying last Friday. Exchanging his usual goofy teasing for withering contempt, he told Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson that they were partisan hacks and that their pro-wrestling approach to political discourse was "hurting America." (He also used an epithet for the male reproductive organ to describe Mr. Carlson.)
Real anger is as rare on television as real discussion. Presidential candidates no longer address each other directly in debates. Guests on the "Tonight" show or "Oprah" are scripted monologuists who pitch their latest projects and humor the host. It has been decades since talk-show guests conversed with one another, yet there was a time when famous people held long and at times legendarily hostile discussions (Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. on ABC in 1968, Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1980).
Nowadays, live television meltdowns seem to be pathological, not political - Janet Jackson baring a breast during the Super Bowl or Farrah Fawcett babbling incoherently to David Letterman.
The fuming partisan rants on Fox News or "Real Time With Bill Maher" are aimed at the converted. And celebrities, like politicians, stay on message and stick to talking points, which may help explain the popularity of "Celebrity Poker" - it gives viewers a rare, unfiltered glimpse of stars' real personalities as they handle a bad hand or a humiliating bluff.
Mr. Stewart's frankness was a cool, startling, rational version of Senator Zell Miller's loony excoriation ("Get out of my face") to Chris Matthews of MSNBC during the Republican convention.
The transcript of Friday's "Crossfire," and the blog commentary about it, popped up all over the Internet this weekend. Mr. Stewart's Howard Beal (of "Network") outburst stood out because he said what a lot of viewers feel helpless to correct: that news programs, particularly on cable, have become echo chambers for political attacks, amplifying the noise instead of parsing the misinformation. Whether the issue is Swift boat ads or Bill O'Reilly's sexual harassment suit, shows like "Crossfire" or "Hardball" provide gladiator-style infotainment as journalists clownishly seek to amuse or rile viewers, not inform them.
When Mr. Carlson took the offense, charging that Mr. Stewart had no right to complain since he had asked
All late-night talk-show hosts make jokes about politicians. What distinguishes Mr. Stewart from Jay Leno and David Letterman is that the Comedy Central star mocks the entire political process, boring in tightly on the lockstep thinking and complacency of the parties and the media as well as the candidates. More than other television analysts and commentators, he and his writers put a spotlight on the inanities and bland hypocrisies that go mostly unnoticed in the average news cycle.
Mr. Stewart is very funny, but it is the vein of "a plague on both your houses" indignation that has made his show a cult favorite: many younger voters are turning to the "The Daily Show" for their news analysis, and are better served there than on much of what purports to be real news on cable.
And of course it was fun just to see television pundits who think they are part of the same media version of the Algonquin Round Table as Mr. Stewart lose their cool when he tore off the tablecloth and shattered the plates. "Wait,'' Mr. Carlson said querulously. "I thought you were going to be funny. Come on. Be funny." Mr. Stewart was funny. And it was at their expense.