This fall, during media hype over the recent election, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central has kept its promise to be a "fake news organization" covering "fake news events." In the face of Bush's "sumbliminable," Gore's overuse of the word "lockbox," and the hyper-seriousness with which the mainstream media has greeted this close election, The Daily Show proclaims "Indecision 2000" and "Choose and Lose." My sentiments exactly.
I exercised my democratic rights this summer by becoming part of the great melting pot, which is The Daily Show's studio audience. On the appointed day, as I waited in line on the West Side, I found myself joined by three guys from Connecticut. They ran around the corner for some beers, which they graciously handed out, and I received my first lesson in free-ticket-line etiquette: bring something to share.
By 6 pm, we were herded into a small room. The crowd coordinator, a trim woman in a purple shirt and a no-muss hairdo told us to make sure we went to the bathroom before we entered the taping session. Which, in retrospect, would probably have been helpful advice to all those people in Florida who ended up waiting three hours in line to vote in some counties.
Jon Stewart arrived. He had dark hair and a sly expression. About to go on vacation, he also looked tired. At one point he crawled under his desk. He asked for questions. "Where do babies come from?" yelled one of the Connecticut guys. "I was warned about you," Stewart retorted. Someone asked, "What is that screen up there for?" Stewart tried to answer, and then he broke down: "I'm on television, I don't know how to make it."
But in fact, watching television being made is completely mesmerizing. I could not take my eyes off the camera crew: They move huge cameras with long, weighted extensions. They moved gracefully, like they were practicing Tai Chi. They moved as if they were invisible. And yet they are the ones who make us see.
The show's theme that night was Survivor. Jon Stewart complimented Bryant Gumbel on his role in the finale broadcast: "As a fake news man myself, kudos to CBS for their hard-hitting panel discussion after the show." There were more Survivor jokes, a report on the growing "fame gap," a report on a Santa Claus convention in Copenhagen, and "Futurrhea," a feature on new technologies. The music came back up. There was more clapping. The taping was over.
I left laughing. But have I learned? Recently, nighttime politico-comedy shows have come under attack for raising the mercury of the cynicism thermometer to an unbearable degree. Paul Brownfield, writing for the L.A. Times, complained that shows like The Daily Show make it "cool" not to care. Even Michael Moore, of The Awful Truth, has gotten into the blame game, arguing that when comedians increase cynicism they help to decrease political participation.
I agree with Moore, but I wouldn't put The Daily Show in the same category with The Tonight Show with Jay Leno or Politically Incorrect. The Daily Show is less a parody of politics, and more a parody of the news. Network news is an easy target, but The Daily Show targets it brilliantly, making me less skeptical of politics, and more skeptical of the people who interpret politics for a living.
Last week, for example, when every network reporter in America was euphoric over the first close U.S. election in more than a century, on The Daily Show it was the network newscasters, and not the politicians, that got tarred with the blackest brush. On the night after election night, Jon Stewart turned to one of his trusty correspondents and asked "what's the late-breaking news?"
Steven Colbert replied: "Well, Jon, we have just had reports that after the further study, the Civil War, which was once thought to have been won by the North, is now 'too close to call.' "
Also too close to call is my least favorite network for election coverage. Was it ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN or FOX NEWS? As The Daily Show explains, it's not who you vote for, it's who you watch. So I'm sticking with Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. The most important television show. Ever.
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