Quick: which candidate for President wants workers to be able to invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market?
If you watched “The Daily Show,” you’d probably know.
If you’re like me, you watch “The Daily Show” because it’s funny. Of course, if you’re like me, you also debate whether the Monchichi or the Teddy Ruxpin was the Furby of the 1980s… so let’s not take this too far.
But apparently, in the midst of laughing our asses off at a purported late-night comedy show -– I mean, this is the network that brought you humor devoid of social import, like “Crank Yankers” and “Reno 911!” -– we’ve learned a thing or two about politics.
Is this right? Is this weird?
And either way, how did it happen?
First, to prove that it did happen. Because a lot of people, mostly angry right-wing types, have been lamenting the fact that people seem to be watching “The Daily Show” instead of “the news.” Jon Stewart himself has said more than once that he doesn’t consider news shows his real competition, because –- say it with me -– this is THE FAKE NEWS. It ain’t “60 Minutes.” (And thank your lucky stars for that, because you’d never see “60 Minutes” calling their debate coverage “The Squabble in Coral Gables” or their Iraq coverage “Mess O’Potamia.”)
So, given that this show is NOT REAL and all about BEING FUNNY, what’s to contest?
Ladies and Gentlemen, when Stewart appeared as a guest on his show, Bill O’Reilly:
"You know what's really frightening? You actually have an influence on this presidential election. That is scary, but it's true. You've got stoned slackers watching your dopey show every night and they can vote."
(Not as funny as when Stewart appeared as a guest for host Howard Dean and had to watch videotape of himself saying "You can't spell failed Presidential candidate without D-E-A-N," but still.)
Cuz I don’t remember rolling a …. Whaddya call those things? Right, a "joint." No, haven’t done that. Not while I was getting my masters’ or paying my taxes or directing a multi-million dollar project or meeting with the loan officer to get the mortgage on my first house.
I, of course, am just one of millions watching the show, and probably not typical. Right?
Actually, more typical than you might think.
A couple of weeks ago, the Annenberg Center for Public Policy released an interesting report.
(No, not the one that found that ninety percent of Indians do not consider the nickname of the Washington Redskins offensive. Although that's funny too, especially considering it was released the same week as the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall.)
I'm talking about this report: the one that found viewers of "The Daily Show" to be better informed on political matters than watchers of other late-night comedy shows, or people who watch no late night comedy at all.
Okay, so that's fine. People who watch Jon Stewart tested higher -- more than 10 percent higher, actually – than watchers of Letterman or Leno. Maybe it’s just because they’re younger, or live in major media markets. Maybe people who watch The Daily Show also read the newspaper or watch the news, and that’s where they got their information.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, senior analyst at the Annenberg Public Policy Center:
“People who watch The Daily Show are more interested in the presidential campaign, more educated, younger, and more liberal than the average American or than Leno or Letterman viewers. However, these factors do not example the difference in levels of campaign knowledge… In fact, Daily Show viewers have higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers, even when education, party identification, following politics, watching cable news, receiving campaign information online, age, and gender are taken into consideration.”
Let's back up. Way up.
In 1997, my friend Jon said to me, "You should really watch this Daily Show thing. It's hilarious. I don't know how they manage to be funny every day."
I didn't have Comedy Central at the time, and sort of shrugged. On occasion I would catch a glimpse of Craig Kilborn, who reminded me very very much of a smarmy but dorkily attractive young Nebraskan I once knew. Despite this, I thought Kilborn was pretty cool.
When Kilborn was replaced by Stewart, I had two thoughts:
a. Thank goodness. Now I can see Kilborn on network TV.
b. Who's this Stewart guy? Doesn't seem funny to me.
But because Kilborn's show was on later, I never did watch it. And then the Daily Show began to gain in popularity. Slowly at first. Then it got funnier and funnier -- and by that time I'd moved into a building with Starpower cable, and I could watch it for myself, and I loved it. It was sort of a pokey show, fun and dorky, with a fondness for puns in its graphics the same way "Win Ben Stein's Money" deployed hilarious punning category titles like “In Chemistry Class I Litmus Self on Fire.”
Then, starting on September 12th, 2001, the show changed dramatically.
Was it all Stewart's doing? Was it even an intentional decision? The tone of the show shifted from just funny to funny but informative. Funny but political. Instead of sending correspondents to small towns full of gullible snake-handlers, the show started to move toward bigger and smarter guests, election coverage, and a general laser-focus on the foibles of those in power instead of the stupidity of the powerless and average.
And the guests turned from third-rate movie stars, the Sharon Stones and Steve Zahns of the world, to sharper political figures like Madeleine Albright and, this year, peaking with John Kerry and Bill Clinton.
I like to think that the reason “The Daily Show” has gained in popularity is both perfectly correlated with the show’s political slant and completely separate from it.
I think that in order to understand and react to the daily madness of the world we’re living in, you need healthy doses of two things: deep skepticism and a great sense of humor.
And Stewart’s got both.
Rock on, fake newsman. We’ll be watching. And, more than likely, learning something in the process.
Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
10.4.04 @ 8:48a
I'm so glad somebody picked up on this story. I think it's telling. Absolutely nothing precludes funny from being smart -- in fact, smart funny is much funnier than stupid funny.
What I like even more is O'Reilly being put in his place.
10.4.04 @ 9:16a
The Daily Show is getting flack for taking O'Reilly's crack too seriously and running out to get the numbers to refute him. A bit thin-skinned, I guess?
People who watch Jon Stewart tested higher -- more than 10 percent higher, actually – than watchers of Letterman or Leno.
No pun intended, I'm sure.
10.4.04 @ 9:22a
I didn't see the original show, so I don't know how serious O'Reilly was. Anyone know?
10.4.04 @ 10:02a
Oh, come on. O'Reilly's always serious. The man has no sense of humor.
10.4.04 @ 10:06a
re: Why Comedy Central decided to do it, this from CNN:
'Comedy Central executives realized, and O'Reilly acknowledged, that he was poking fun. But they said they didn't want a misconception to persist.
"If the head of General Motors was watching O'Reilly's show, that could be very important to us," said Doug Herzog, Comedy Central president.
"If you listen to O'Reilly, you get the sense that it was crazy longhairs behind the show," he said. "And it's not. It's great, smart television that attracts a well-compensated audience, most of whom are voting age."
Comedy Central had no statistics on how many people watch "The Daily Show" stoned.'
10.4.04 @ 10:10a
I. Adore. Jon. Stewart.
He says exactly what the audience would if they had two big chairs on a stage.
Yes, he leans liberal, but he tries very hard (as demonstrated by Ralph Reed's appearance last week) to give all sides a chance to speak.
Some O'Reilly does not do well. At all.
I don't like Samantha Bee, though. I think she's stupid.
10.4.04 @ 10:30a
During his debate coverage, his first on-the-ground correpondent was Wesley Clark... but his second was Rudy Giuliani. He definitely brings the other side onto the show, and makes fun of both.
O'Reilly will be on The Daily Show on the 11th. This week, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Billy Bob Thornton. Wow.
10.4.04 @ 11:02a
The Daily Show is just awesome. They do an amazing job of just letting the facts state themselves.
And they run all over the other political humor shows like Dennis Miller's rants and Bill Maher's tangents.
10.4.04 @ 2:15p
Bill Maher and The Onion deliver hilarious, incisive, and occasionally brilliant political humor. I appreciate what The Daily Show is trying to do... but it's never made me laugh.
10.4.04 @ 3:20p
Why not? Where does it fall short for you?
10.4.04 @ 3:59p
Stewart is funny. O'reilly isn't and his bad joke back-fired.
Dennis Miller was obscurely funny 10 or 15 years ago.
I've never, ever heard Maher being funny, but maybe smarmy, elitest arrogance is funny and I just don't get it.
10.4.04 @ 4:23p
The Onion and Jon Stewart take the same approach: everything is open game, nothing is sacred. When Stewart and team of writers start mocking something like the lift of the assult weapons ban, or give Lewis Black his moment to shine, it's just brillance.
Maher? Doesn't like to share anything with anyone - thinks his own schtick is the best. Politically Incorrect was great 8 years ago. Real Time? Not so much. Bill Maher makes himself laugh, and that's all he really cares about.
And he's mean. Stewart isn't mean.
I used to love Dennis Miller. I think he's intelligent, very informed and insightful. But his humor level dropped after HBO dropped him, and that's just too bad.
10.4.04 @ 6:59p
I'm not purposely tooting my own horn here, but I think that humor does often educate more than just straight news.
I remember friends of mine a year or two ahead of me in college telling me that when they came back to campus, the only paper they made sure to read was the one I edited, "The Zamboni," Tufts' humor publication. I was even told on one occasion, "You guys are the only ones who have the really important stories."
And I think it's the same with the Daily Show and The Onion - whether or not they attack it with humor, their subject matter really distills the "news" down to what are the really important issues. If you only have a half-hour or 12 pages to say something, you're not going to pay attention (or much attention, anyway) to unimportant matters. You're going to attack the real news, the stories with significance.
My opinion, anyway.
10.4.04 @ 11:05p
Jael, I saw the Stewart interview on The O'Reilly Factor.
They seemed to be good natured toward one another, but O'Reilly always turns condescending toward any guest who doesn't share his viewpoint and this was no exception.
O'Reilly did use the stoned slacker comment several times. About 4 or 5 that I remember, and Stewart tried to make light of it. He was much nicer to O'Reilly than he deserved.
The Daily Show is one of the funniest programs on the air. I rarely get a chance to catch it, but it always makes me laugh.
Dennis Miller used to be funny, but his post 9/11 persona has become the Axis Annie for the right wing. Fear does interesting things to people.
Maher is good, and has some excellent guests, but it isn't in the league of the Daily Show.
10.8.04 @ 8:07p
Nothing's in the same league with the Daily Show. Absolutely nothing. I watch it twice a day on the days it's on twice. Seven and eleven. Out of curiosity I took both of the tests and got all the questions right on each one. Nobody else has a face like Jon Stewart. The shot with his eyes widened, mouth slightly agape is certainly worth a thousand words. Droll doesn't even come close to describing his "correspondents." The weeks since Hurricane Jeanne, which blew my dish off the roof, has been torture without Jon to cheer me up twice a weekday. The tech came today and put it back up, so what was on at seven? A Dangerfield film. Sigh.
10.18.04 @ 10:20p
You all know that Jon Stewart is on my top 10 fantasy bang list? He is sooooooooo dreamy. And I am not sure if the Monchichi or Teddy Ruxpin is the Furby of the 80's. I'm still thinking on it... I did not have a Teddy Ruxpin and can remember the Monchichi song with ease...
10.19.04 @ 8:59a
I only remember the chorus.
Interesting update: did anyone see Stewart on Crossfire? This is how the Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes describes what happened:
On Friday, you'll recall, the Comedy Central late-night star appeared on CNN's afternoon screamfest, ostensibly to promote "America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction."
Instead, to the surprise of hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, Stewart blasted the show and the two men personally, calling them "partisan hacks" who "have a responsibility to the public discourse" but "fail miserably."
Carlson, who also has a public policy show on PBS, responded by calling Stewart the personal "butt boy" of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. (Note to self: Call PBS chief Pat Mitchell to chat.)
Stewart, not to be outdone, called Carlson a part of the anatomy unique to men.
10.19.04 @ 12:25p
I saw it (the video is floating around the internet). It's something else. Stewart's main line was something like "You're hurting America. Stop hurting America." And he's right.
Also, when they complained that he wasn't being funny, he came out with another good one: "I'm not your monkey."
2.3.05 @ 5:50p
Been a long time since we've discussed this one, but now having read "America: The Book," I have to recommend it to, like, everyone. Laugh-out-loud funny for 12 bucks.