Jon Stewart: Funny, except when he’s not

The Daily Show / Image: WallyG, used under Flickr Creative Commons license
The Daily Show / Image: WallyG, used under Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, July 23, 2014 — Jon Stewart, or Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz. What is he? A journalist or a political comic? A Democrat or an independent? A liberal or a centrist? A thinker or merely a guy who delivers schtick from a talented group of writers?

Since Stewart’s show “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” debuted on Comedy Central in 1999, these questions have been bouncing around the ether.

Wiki describes Stewart as “an American political satirist, writer, director, television host, actor, media critic, and stand-up comedian.” Right-leaning critics find him annoying and see no humor in his schtick.

Perhaps the problem is that Stewart’s monologues, like those of colleague Stephen Colbert, are a mash up of actual news and farce. Even if it were all farce and no current events, though, stand-ups and comedy writers would still push someone’s buttons. It’s the nature of comedy, and political comedy takes no prisoners.

Stewart sometimes misses the truth by a lightyear and sometimes nails it. When he’s on, he’s really entertaining, no matter who or what he’s skewering; when he’s not, he’s “meh”.

Conservatives don’t consider The Daily Show an entertainment destination. Because they don’t, the only time Stewart ever comes onto their radar screens is when some riff is extremely ill-informed and offensive. While Stewart often takes aim at and scores hits on liberal sacred cows and Democrats, most of us never see it. But Democrats and others on the left do. The National Journal complains:

Stewart is not always a supporter of the Obama administration. In several shows, he’s gone after Democrats for apparent incompetence or hypocrisy. But with Stewart’s younger audience—a Pew poll in September 2012 found that 39 percent of The Daily Show’sviewers are under 30—this continued badgering could be problematic for the president. That same demographic, Americans ages 18-29, were split on how well the health care exchanges were working online—37 percent both saying it went well and went poorly, according to a new Pew poll.

Stewart’s unsophisticated and shallow demographic can clearly break for any political viewpoint. From the Democratic perspective, Stewart, is an equal opportunity iconoclast which devalues his stock with most of them. But when Stewart and his team of writers bend reality to make a poke at the right, we will definitely hear about it from a variety of sources.

Such was the case recently, when Stewart did a riff on the conflict in Gaza, where Israel is contending with the murderous intent of Hamas and their missiles raining down upon Israeli cities. JP Updates (Jewish Political) describes the program in question:

This past week, Stewart devoted a portion of his “news review” to mocking the “disproportionate” Israeli response, which has resulted in the slaying of myriads of Hamas terrorists, along with the unfortunate killing of Palestinian citizens (a result that is inevitable given Hamas’ propensity for placing its deadly rocket arsenals in private residences and utilizing Gaza citizens as “human shields”).

Here is the segment:

Mark Levin’s reaction to Jon Stewart is typical of conservative media voices:

“The disinformation and the propaganda he was putting out in the form of jokes was outrageous,” the radio host charged. “I would just tell Mr. Stewart it really doesn’t take a lot of courage to criticize Israel and trash Israel. It’s done all the time. I don’t think [Stewart’s] funny, I don’t think he’s smart,” he continued. “I thought this particular segment was really stupid.”

There’s no question that the narrative of this bit is slanted towards Palestine and makes the Israeli imperative for defensive action look very callous and over the top. It’s a distorted perspective. Comedy tends to take things that are multi-faceted and complex and distill them down to punchlines.

Stewart admits that, among other things, the split screen of the reporter from Tel Aviv and the other from Gaza is a ready made political cartoon. But one can’t help pausing to wonder, is the conflict in Israel and Gaza really appropriate fodder for comedy? Among those who wonder is David Horovitz of the Times of Israel:

Yeah, it misrepresents what’s going on here. But hey, it is funny, and all those millions of Americans who watched it on Monday know that it’s just satire, don’t they? Except I fear that they do not. I think they take the very funny Mr. Stewart very seriously. Which, in this case, is a bit of a problem.

Stewart is due his place in the open market of entertainment, but he’s not immune from questions about what is appropriate or responsible. Stewart’s riff about Israel’s defensive response to the missile attacks from Gaza was a cheap shot dressed up as a comedy bit. And as comedy it worked — and it didn’t. It worked for a moment, if you temporarily forgot that innocents are dying because an evil jihadist cult called Hamas deliberately puts civilians in a position to suffer the collateral human impact of bombs aimed at provocateurs. The comedy definitely doesn’t work when you apply the late legendary humorist and entertainer Steve Allen’s benchmark guidelines:

When I explained to a friend recently that the subject matter of most comedy is tragic (drunkenness, overweight, financial problems, accidents, etc.) he said, “Do you mean to tell me that the dreadful events of the day are a fit subject for humorous comment? The answer is “No, but they will be pretty soon.”

Man jokes about the things that depress him, but he usually waits till a certain amount of time has passed. It must have been a tragedy when Judge Crater disappeared, but everybody jokes about it now. I guess you can make a mathematical formula out of it. Tragedy plus time equals comedy.

Jon Stewart, take note.



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