Have Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert failed America? That’s what Steve Almond argues in a new Baffler article. “Wit, exaggeration, and gentle mockery trump ridicule and invective,” Almond laments. “The goal [for Stewart and Colbert] is to mollify people, not incite them.” And that’s an abnegation of the role of the comedian in society, he says. Incite us already! Their popularity is “not evidence of a world gone mad so much as an audience gone to lard morally, ignorant of the comic impulse’s more radical virtues.”
According to Almond, “comedy’s highest calling is to confront the moral complacency of your audience — and the sponsors.” (He cites Bill Hicks as someone who did just that.) But Stewart isn’t heeding that calling. “What’s missing from [Stewart’s] formulation is the idea that comedy might, you know, change something other than your mood.” Comedy is supposed to “traffic in radical ideas,” he says, not just lob softball questions at Condoleezza Rice when she comes on the show.
What Stewart and Colbert do most nights is convert civic villainy into disposable laughs. They prefer Horatian satire to Juvenalian, and thus treat the ills of modern media and politics as matters of folly, not concerted evil. Rather than targeting the obscene cruelties borne of greed and fostered by apathy, they harp on a rogues’ gallery of hypocrites familiar to anyone with a TiVo or a functioning memory. […]
The queasy irony here is that Stewart and Colbert are parasites of the dysfunction they mock. Without blowhards such as Carlson and shameless politicians, Stewart would be out of a job that pays him a reported $14 million per annum. Without the bigoted bluster of Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, The Colbert Report would not exist. They aren’t just invested in the status quo, but dependent on it.
And that’s not all!
In Stewart’s daffy formulation, pundits and politicians are the ones who prey on an otherwise noble citizenry. But it’s us citizens who watch those pundits and elect those politicians. We’ve chosen to degrade our discourse. Stewart and Colbert make their nut by catering to those citizens who choose to laugh at the results rather than work to change them.
The reason our discourse has grown vicious, and has drifted away from matters of actual policy and their moral consequence, isn’t because of some misunderstanding between cultural factions. It is the desired result of a sustained campaign waged by corporations, lobbyists, politicians, and demagogues who have placed private gain over the common good.
Almond indicts Stewart’s first show after 9/11, complaining that Stewart thinks “in times of national crisis, the proper role of the comedian is not to challenge the prevailing jingoistic hysteria, but to induce smiles.” There’s more than one “proper role” for comedians, though, which Almond does not acknowledge. Society needs someone on the smile-induction beat, and if it’s not comedians, I’m not sure who it is. Of course there’s more to comedy than just the tickling of funny bones, but the premise or purpose of good comedy, enduring comedy, worthy comedy, interesting and provocative comedy isn’t just to challenge right-wing ideology. (That’s a terrific bonus.)
It seems like we have some version of this conversation every few years: Is Jon Stewart too easy on some of his guests? Yes. Do we live in a time when people are extremely reluctant to criticize members of the American military? We do. But is it really the role of all comedy, even political and media-centric comedy, to radicalize a population? Comedy can absolutely introduce political agitation. Must it, though? Are Stewart and Colbert asleep at the wheel because they’re not more like Bill Hicks?