9/11, Al Madrigal, Anti-Bullshit, Barack Obama, Bill O'Reilly, biography, Book Review, Bullshit Is Everywhere, Bush Administration, Christopher Hitchens, Daily Show Globe is Going the Wrong Way, Dan Vega, dildo, Fareed Zakaria, free speech, history, Hitch-22, Humor, Inter Library Loan, John McCain Puppet, John Oliver, Jon Stewart, Jon Stewart if you're reading this please come back we miss you, Larry Wilmore, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Olivia Munn, Perves Musharraf, Political Discourse, Politics, Satire, Senator John McCain, Stephen Colbert, television, The Daily Show, The Daily Show (The Book), The Daily SHow 9The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart the Correspondents Staff and guests
I owe John Stewart everything.
Like many people of my generation I looked to Jon Stewart to provide an insight or analysis of a problem that nobody else could offer. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the news, it’s just that many of the voices on the news were either relentlessly pedantic, or else the people reporting were trying too hard to be television personalities rather than actually trying to be journalists. PBS Evening News and BBC News seemed like the only reliable sources, but they only came on once a day and usually at the same time and usually during the evening when I needed to be doing homework. Being a night owl that usually afforded me the chance to watch some television in the evenings before bed, but of course, rather than watch Anderson Cooper 360, I switched it over to Comedy Central hoping for a few reruns of South Park or Ugly Americans. I remember watching the show sporadically at first. Sometimes every night week after week, and then I’d stop for a month or two and try to focus on learning how to play the guitar. I was going to be a rock star you see, which, for the record, never panned out. I could never learn how to do the jump kicks that David Lee Roth did which was important for rock you see. Eventually I settled back in to watching Jon Stewart and one night he hosted an interview with a man I had never met but who I instantly wanted to learn more about. He spoke with a British accent and was promoting his memoir Hitch-22. A new world opened to me as I devoured Christopher Hitchens’s writings, and when I finally sat down and read god is not Great, I was never the same.
So like I said, I owe Jon Stewart everything.
That’s why after I had one of my “Coffee with Jammer” sessions with a friend and was walking around Barnes & Noble looking at books (that great temptation) I saw The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests and I snatched it up ignoring the paltry sums of money in my pocket.
The Daily Show (The Book) doesn’t follow the pattern of previous Daily Show books such as America or Earth, where there isn’t a central narrative and the larger aesthetic goal is just to provide a series of laughs and visual comedy gags. The book is exactly what the subtitle suggests, an oral history of how The Daily Show became the institution that it is, how it changed over time, how Jon Stewart helped shape and mold the program into something relevant in the public discourse, and how it jump started the careers of dozens of individuals acting in show business today. Rather than just have Jon Stewart reciting lists and events however the book is narrated in snippets by everyone who was ever involved with the show or played some crucial role. This includes the correspondents such as Al Madrigal, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore, Olivia Munn, and Kristin Schaal just to name a few, while also including guests of the program such as Senator John McCain, Anderson Cooper, Ta Nahesi Coates, and Paul Rudd.
Before I even begin this though I can already hear some objections from my reader. The Daily Show was nothing but Liberal claptrap and Jon Stewart was just a snowflake stooge trying to push an agenda. How does this book possess any kind of real cultural merit? It sounds more like a chance for Stewart to squeeze a little more juice out of the fact that he’s a celebrity. Why should I waste my time or money on this book?
My contester is a little more political today than they usually are, and I should address the last point first. You could try checking the book out from your local library, if they don’t have it try an Inter Library Loan. That way it’s free and if you don’t like it you can simply return it. Libraries exist for a reason you know.
As for the first points I’m afraid that my contester are themselves plagued by the bias they’re suggesting of Stewart. The man himself doesn’t try to hide that his political positions tend to push towards the left, but any seasoned fan of Stewart has seen and recognized that he can be just as critical of Democrats. It’s easy to look at Stewart’s dialogues and criticisms and observe a liberal bias, but digging a little deeper the ultimate goal of the program really seemed to be about discourse.
At one point Dag Vega, a liaison of the Obama Administration, talks about the President’s interview with Stewart:
The President sat down for interviews with Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams, and Scott Pelley, and afterward I remember we compared those three interviews with Jon’s interview, and Jon’s was the most policy driven of the four. The other three were much more focused on the political news of the day. His interview was tougher than the three network news anchors’. (331).
This may not be enough for some to understand what I believe is Stewart’s gift of discourse and so an earlier passage, when he’s discussing his second interview with former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf not long after Osama Bin Laden was killed. Stewart received some criticism for hosting the man, but Stewart’s argument speaks volumes about what he wanted the Daily Show to be:
I can’t tell you how many times I was asked, “Why would you have that guy on the show?” Whether it was Musharraf or O’Reilly. My feeling is always, “Why would you not take an opportunity to find, within someone’s humanity, some understandings of why they’ve done what they’ve done, or why you want to two-dimensionalize people that have odious opinions, but maybe it’ a little more complicated than that. (285).
This quote to me stands as the ultimate reason why my reader should bother with this book. It’s become rather easy to “other” another human being, though perhaps I’m being charitable. Perhaps it’s always been easy and it only “feels” like things have changed over the course of the last decade. But that impulse to transform another person into an “other” is dangerously simple because of the world we live in. Economics and social interaction are dramatically different and now we live in a world where we can create bubbles around ourselves, and when individuals appear who seem to contradict our statements or personal philosophies we can simply cut them out. Being the kind of person I am I struggle with this system because, unless you’re a Nazi or part of the KKK, I generally try to give everybody the opportunity to explain themselves and I actually really enjoy hard conversations. Thus, stands the appeal of Stewart for me.
Jon Stewart transformed The Daily Show into something new and important because as time progressed I was always far more interested in what he was going to say about an issue, or what joke he would say about a political figure. And part of the reason for that was 9/11 and the war on terror.
The book essentially begins with the rise of the Bush Administration and Stewart gives a keen insight into that:
When we were first doing jokes about the war, the country was scared and wanted to believe what had happened on September 11 had sobered our politics and our media. And what it did was it lent a weight and consequence to criticism and dissent. Dissent was now seen as not just snarky but unpatriotic . We had never gotten death threats before. (116).
Trump being in the White House it’s hard to imagine that such hostility could have actually existed before the election season of 2016. Thinking back to this I vaguely recall the attitude toward critics of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, largely because I was around 12 years old and thought that President Bush was a wise and intelligent man. That changed. Growing up in East Texas though there was this solid rhetoric that was spun around me that if you were critical of the Bush administration that you weren’t just a terrible person, you hated America. That attitude was taken by many of my friends, fellow students, teachers, and casual acquaintances and I won’t try to assume like I held a different opinion from the masses. September 11th was scary, and the thought that this could happen again was terrifying. But as I grew, and puberty really started to kick in there was a rebellion against such a system, not just because authority said I needed to trust the government, but because I began to distrust the rhetoric.
I don’t mind someone loving their country, or being patriotic. For god’s sake I write these essays in front of a damn American Flag and I won’t shut the fuck up about “Republic! Republic!” Obviously I have no problem with patriotism, but blind devotion always leads to tragedy and problems and so in hindsight the atmosphere of the Bush administration is something I have never forgotten (though I would most certainly take it over the current administration).
This reflection though is another reminder of the lasting value of this book. While reading I suddenly remembered the names and faces of that Presidency, and reading about the staff’s mocking of the government, and the media that reported on it, it was a way of connecting to that previous atmosphere, because The Daily Show always managed to capture some of that Zeitgeist.
Stephen Colbert sums it up perfectly in a passage just beneath the previous quote:
There was a demanded uniformity of opinion in what you could write or what you could say about the war. There was a reasonable and expected honoring and elevation of the sacrifice of the troops, that turned into a shillelagh to hit anybody who dissented. We were a dumb little show and could still get under the radar at that time.
Steve Badow said it to me best, which is, “I don’t think we’re anti-Bush, I think we’re anti-Bullshit.” (116).
I recognize that there is nothing so pretentious as someone claiming their work is satire, largely because nobody ever really seems to have a good explanation for what satire actually is. To be fair I have a master’s degree in English and I still don’t have a great definition. But I pulled this quote, not just to remind the reader of Jon Stewart’s last speech Bullshit is Everywhere, but to lay out plainly what was so important to me growing up and watching The Daily Show.
Jon Stewart was funny, but watching him I became engaged with the political processes of my country. The Daily Show parodied the bullshit that was always present in the discourse in a way that no other television broadcast, or written journalism piece, ever could have. Jon managed to simplify whatever material was going on in the world, which the powers-that-be were always trying to complicate, and because he delivered a show about the torture taking place in Abu Gahraib, or efforts to slash funding to Planned Parenthood, and managed to deliver the explanation with a few well-placed cock jokes I discovered something terribly important: I played as much of a role in democracy as the President.
This was an important discovery because it meant so much more for individual civics. I suspect the reason many people fail to at least follow politics is because so much of it is delivered either in combative tones or else in language so dry and dull many would prefer to set their genitals on a power sander rather than be forced to listen to it. I realize that I’ve repeated myself several times and I’ll probably repeat myself again, but Jon Stewart and The Daily Show allowed me to stay somewhat informed as to what was happening in my world, and what the powerful were trying to do, and how the media was reporting on it. The show was silly (there was an episode using a wheel of fortune capped with a dildo for god’s sake) but that silliness and irreverence allowed the audience, allowed me, the chance to laugh at the powerful and there is nothing so great as the ability to shake off power.
Senator John McCain, who was a regular guest before he and Stewart had a fight and near falling-out, provides in my mind the ultimate summation:
Jon and I had our disagreements. But look, when we focus on that one bad interview I had with Jon—I was so grateful later when he supported me on the issue of torture. That’s far more important, frankly, than any real or imagined slight that I might’ve had from him. I was very grateful for that, because that’s a seminal issue about what America’s all about. It meant a lot to me, and he wasn’t just talking about me. Jon was explaining to these young Americans why torture was such an important issue. That’s what I really appreciated.
He is like Mark Twain or Will Rogers. He is a modern-day humorist of that genre, of that level.
Absolutely, I took the gift bag every time I was on the show. Absolutely. It was one of the nicest bribes I ever got. (293-94).
The Daily Show (The Book) is not solely about Jon Stewart, and I’ve done a rather shit job of explaining the merits of the book, but I’d like to think that my reflections here have provided enough impetus to explain why a book like this matters. People like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers owe their popularity either directly because of John Stewart or else because of the model he helped to develop. News and public discourse has been forever altered because whenever Jon Stewart would discuss a topic he would reconstruct the topic, and those who were responsible for discussing it in public were eventually forced to acknowledge Stewart in some form or fashion. There are few comedians who ever exert that kind of power and influence, and apart from medieval court jesters, there aren’t any humorists that can demonstrate such an influence upon the public consciousness.
If it hadn’t been for Jon Stewart I never would have read anything by Christopher Hitchens or Fareed Zakaria. I would have no idea who Malala Youzafzai was. I would never know or care who Travor Noah was. And of course, I probably wouldn’t have been so much of a fan of Neil Degrasse Tyson if he had never come on the show.
The Daily Show(The Book) is most assuredly the first in several books to come that explores the cultural impact of the comedy journalist. A new generation is entering the discourse with the advantage of having had someone like Jon Stewart lay the foundation for future comedy journalists who will, in their own way, inform the public about what is taking place in their world. It’s unlikely that anyone will have the same impact as Stewart did, but The Daily Show (The Book) at least offers a glimpse into the time before people had The Daily Show.
Such a book is precious, and also a great opportunity to find some wonderful cock jokes.
All passages from The Daily Show(The Book) came from the hardback, first edition Grand Central Publishing copy.
I’ve included a link to a review by the New York Times about The Daily Show (The Book). If the reader is at all interested simply follow the link below:
I didn’t get a chance to put this in, but one of my favorite passages from the book was a brief quote by Neil Degrasse Tyson:
When I came on to talk about Space Chronicles, I needed a tennis serve to send back Jon’s way if he got the better if me in an exchange. But the interview was a lovefest, and I thought, “I’ve got to bring this up anyway.” I waited until the very end, and I said, “Oh by the way, the earth in your opening credits is spinning backward” He picked up the book with both hands, slammed it on the desk, and said, “Son of a bitch!” and then it fades to black.
Oh, yeah, we laughed about it when we went to commercial. But he never did change the rotation. I’m told by the Daily Show staff that when Jon takes questions from the audience, every single time someone asks, “When are you going to switch the earth?” So it haunted him, surely, for the rest of the show. (288).