In the lead-up to Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity and Stephen Colbert's March to Keep Fear Alive, pundits found themselves flummoxed. Is he being a comedian? Or is he being serious?
Silly pundits. Seventy-five percent of the time, comedy is serious. Comedy — even when it comes to the most banal airline-food jokes — are serious points and observation filtered through the medium of "joke."
Comedy matters. It colors our narrative. It propels points of national conversation. It brings us together or, more often, drives us apart.
With another election under our belt, it's time to grade the performance of our National Jesters.
The Rally to Restore Sanity, in many ways, was a sort of season finale for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. It was an exaltation of what they'd accomplished. It was a third aren't-we-clever celebration, a third silly comedy, and a third unvarnished plea for reasonability.
That's about the formula The Daily Show has been using for the last year. It's part of why this past year has been one of the strongest for The Daily Show.
There are other reasons, of course. Part of it is the political landscape, which is perfect for Stewart's brand of comedy. He's best when he's not too idealistic (as he was in the buildup to 2008's presidential election). And he's best when he's not too despairing (as he was when he spent some segments in 2007 simply screaming in agony after playing a George W. Bush video clip).
The most fun form of cynicism is created when an idealist — a romantic — meets reality.
He not only landed an interview with President Barack Obama, but he asked him tough questions. Not out of an attempt at balance or objectivity, but because he's frustrated. Stewart is not attempting to provide balance, after all. He's a pundit, with jokes. But occasionally, when Stewart sets his sights on ripping into the media, the jokes are weak, or even non-existent. Stewart's (often easy) critiques of the media remain his strongest segments argumentatively, but his weakest segments, comedically.
On top of that, this has been the strongest Daily Show correspondent staff since the days of Colbert and Coordry. Aasif Mandvi and Wyatt Cenac (especially in their "Team Jesus"/"Team Mohammed" point/counterpoints) are not only funny, they seem capable of creating their own comedic angles and refining their own comedic personas.
New correspondent Olivia Munn, however, is not. She gets laughs, but that's because the people writing her lines are funny, not because her delivery is. She's a far cry from the much more capable Samantha Bee.
The Colbert Report, meanwhile, hasn't been as strong as The Daily Show.
After five years of parodying Bill O'Reilly, Colbert often seems constrained by his character. The ascent of Glenn Beck provided more fodder for Colbert's parody, but Beck's hyper-earnest, extremely-emotional-school-teacher character is very different from Colbert's Limbaugh/O'Reilly shtick.
But by now, he's taken his character — and his character's ego — everywhere it can go. Heck, two years ago, he ran for president.
The Daily Show, on the other hand, can adopt Colbert's farcical reactionary views via its correspondents (who assume whatever political belief a sketch requires), but it can adopt any number of other fresh comedic angles, too. Colbert, for the most part is stuck. His show relies more on wordplay and Leno-style rimshot comedy than it should. Despite the creativity of the Colbert Report staff, the premise is beginning to show its limitations.
That said, Colbert had one of the best sketches of the entire year, in which he unveiled his rather elaborate scheme to thwart gay marriage.
The Daily Show: A-
The Colbert Report: B-