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I haven't been able to update the blog for a couple of weeks now, so it's a good time to polish and publish a post that's been hanging around for months.
The "fake news" block of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central is a great one-two punch of laughter four nights a week — spiked punch, to totally mix a metaphor. The first act of last Wednesday's Daily Show is pretty much a perfect example of Stewart and his crew at work, eviscerating the bizarrely persistent idea that our current President was not in fact born in the USA.
I've put those quotation marks around "fake news" because the shows offer "fake" reportage and commentary in much the same way that Spinal Tap is a "fake band": Guest, McKean, & Shearer really compose songs, play instruments, record albums, and even perform in concert, but as characters whose attitude and subject matter poke stone-faced fun at the whole enterprise. While parody, they also entertain as accomplished practitioners of what they're parodying. Adding satire to that mix, Report's would-be conservative pundit Stephen Colbert (alter ego of actor/comedian Stephen Colbert) and The Daily Show's smug, stentorian correspondents are insightful as they're being inciteful, with anchorman Stewart really the only person among the TDS/TCR team who isn't putting on a persona.
[Update: Not long after the above was written I discovered that Spinal Tap — Blogger won't let me add the umlaut over the n, sorry — had serendipitously been on Daily earlier that night. As a bonus, the opening segment of the episode shows that Stewart is hardly a knee-jerk apologist for Obama. That night's Colbert then featured a visit from Orly Taitz, the attorney, dentist, real-estate agent, and Obama birth-certificate disbeliever seen via the clip two paragraphs up.]
Stewart and Colbert both embrace a conspiratorial relationship with their viewers. The punchily pontificating Colbert refers often to his Nation, echoing Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, while Stewart plays off of his live studio audience and to those at home more traditionally, akin to late-night brethren David Letterman and Conan O'Brien but without the monologue. After Craig Kilborn left Daily a decade back for the après-Letterman Late Late Show (where Craig Ferguson now resides), Stewart took the show in a much more political direction with writer/producers and The Onion expatriates Ben Karlin & David Javerbaum. Stewart entered as the lone voice of reason — sometimes nebbishy, sometimes outraged, often both — in a coterie of correspondents and special contributors who (pre)tend to be either outright clueless or self-absorbedly above it all.
The clueless contingent ranges from Greg Brady lookalike Jason Jones and recently departed doofus Rob Riggle to such successful alumni as Colbert himself, The Hangover's Ed Helms, and Steve Carrell of The Office and Anchorman fame. Among the above-it-all opinionators are the too-infrequent John Hodgman, Resident Expert, and generally bemused Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore. The Daily Show's most surprising and most glaring deficiency has been its dearth of female and minority writers and performers, in fact, despite having been created by women (Lizz Winstead & Madeline Smithberg); Samantha Bee is the lone on-camera gal save for a recent handful of appearances by delightfully ditzy Kristen Schaal, and only lately have Wilmore's periodic color commentaries been supplemented by correspondent Aasif Mandvi (even more insufferable than his most unbearable actual-journalist counterparts) and now Wyatt Cenac. There's also the quite British, terribly white regular John Oliver and long-running contributor Lewis Black, Daily's angry, Jewish answer to Andy Rooney.
Stewart has belittled The Daily Show's importance in interviews and even on the show itself, believably frightened by the idea that anyone would rely on his telecast for the news. The truth is that you wouldn't get much of his or Colbert's humor if you weren't already informed, however, making even the sillier or slighter gags somewhat sophisticated in nature. Although the humor occasionally veers towards the juvenile, or at the opposite extreme Stewart often leaves guests whose position he opposes too little opportunity to respond, the show is laudable for its clever wordplay, willingness to engage real issues clearly, and humor that comes simply from lack of commentary, from observation, from connecting the dots to reveal how disingenuous or sometimes just plain dumb politicians and fellow members of the fourth estate can be.
Those who dismiss The Daily Show as just a longer version of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update are off the mark; it has more depth than that or even than the BBC's pioneering Not the Nine O'Clock News, from whose American HBO spinoff, Not Necessarily the News, this post takes its name. The half-hour Thursday editions of Update that aired during last fall's Presidential campaign were quite welcome, but Stewart does more than read jokes based on news headlines, and there are no actors doing impressions in sketches. The Colbert Report, by contrast, can be seen as one long sketch that's been going since its inception. Colbert recently did a week's worth of shows for the troops in Iraq, while Daily correspondent Jones and producer Tim Greenberg found themselves freely exploring Iran just last month; in neither case were the shows merely, severely committing to the gag by going on location.
Colbert turns in a remarkable performance, and as a bonus often supports worthy charities amidst his blowhard buffoonery, but I find Daily more essential. Stewart tackles issues with both wit and great empathy for the average citizen, frequently actually making sense out of confusing stuff. Whatever real or concocted threats we face, from war to financial crisis to attacks on civil liberties, I can't help but feel that as long as this guy and his friends are out there deflating authority and speaking, as they say, truth to power, we'll be all right. How's that for a Moment of Zen?