Comedy Central show dares to let foes of
invasion get on the air
For those who like to see television take anti-war
figures seriously - or at least somewhat seriously - there's really
been only one sure place to turn in recent weeks: Comedy Central's
The Daily Show.
Comedian Chris Rock said recently on the faux
news program that reporters from genuine news outlets had been
trying to trip him up on his political stance. "No, I'm not really
for the war," Rock says he replies, and then gets told - "So,
you're against the troops."
"I didn't say that," Rock explodes with
a mischievous grin, then tells Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart,
"There's this weird McCarthyism right now." Stewart, sharing his
frustration, says, "It's as though there's only two positions
you can have - you're either for the war or against the troops."
It's counterintuitive, but in their irreverent
way, Stewart and co-executive producer Ben Karlin have brought
viewers unusually extended conversations on the very human response
to war, on a program dedicated to the pursuit of laughter.
"It wasn't our agenda," says Karlin,
who, along with Stewart, is the program's head writer. "The show
is much more an organic product of our collective brain trust."
There's no dearth of humor on The Daily Show,
which airs 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Wall Street, Madison
Avenue, Washington and Hollywood make particularly appealing targets.
About 10 days after the U.S. invaded Iraq,
Stewart posed the tough questions: "Will the war be over soon?
How will a post-war Iraq be governed? When will Madonna exploit
A recent Daily Show story on a conservative
activist's anti-Hollywood campaign ended with correspondent Ed
Helms' "We Are the World"-style anthem, that instead carried the
refrain, "Shut Up, Celebrities."
Similar jokes, if less daffy ones, could have
found a home on other late-night television shows.
Yet many people are currently leery of attacking
authority figures such as President Bush, even rhetorically. A
stock political jab by Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry calling for
"regime change" in next year's president elections led to condemnations.
Many late-night television hosts have softened their barbs, finding
easy jokes in tying Iraq to former President Bill Clinton's peccadilloes.
No such apprehensions exist at The Daily Show.
Pieties are pieties, and they exist merely to be punctured.
Hence, earlier this month, Stewart described
American bombing strikes against sites in Baghdad as "the U.S.
military's whack-a-mole approach to killing Saddam Hussein."
Here's Stewart on Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld: "There is nothing like a cantankerous old man who takes
the 'Hey, kids - get off of my lawn' approach to foreign policy."
On the day that U.S.-led forces seized Baghdad,
Stewart told viewers: "It's all over but the humanitarian crisis."
"Crowds danced in the streets, cheering
on U.S. soldiers, opening gay discos," Stewart said, pausing to
acknowledge that he'd made up that last item.
When Stewart asked correspondent Stephen Colbert,
ostensibly reporting live from Baghdad, about the rebuilding process,
"We won. Rebuilding is for losers. Time
to party. And then it's off to Syria for the next invasion."
Stewart asked, in mock disbelief: "Are we invading
Colbert: "Am I still bounded by the military's
restrictions on embedded reporters?"
Colbert: "Then no."
Not much sanctimony there. Yet Stewart also
invited Susan Sarandon on his show at a time when the outspoken
actor and peace advocate has been as welcome as SARS at a convention
of hypochondriacs. And The Daily Show has not limited its roster
of guests to the famous. Those appearing include commentators
from the political left and right, including senators, ambassadors
and journalists, and, apart from some playful asides, they've
been treated essentially as serious people.
In the hall-of-mirrors world of modern television,
it is the supposedly serious cable news channels that have largely
focused on mouthy celebrities to represent anti-war concerns.
Janeane Garofalo - a friend of both Karlin and Stewart - has been
the earnest face of peace activists by default, if only because
few leading politicians have been openly critical of the Bush
administration's approach. The news channels have hired as consultants
a brigade of formers - military officers, intelligence officials,
diplomats - but they almost invariably challenge only the tactics
used, not the wisdom of the enterprise.
Earlier this month, as U.S.-led forces advanced
toward Baghdad, MSNBC anchor Lester Holt conducted a rare interview
with Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the lone Republican senator
to vote against authorizing the war. In several different ways,
Holt pushed Chafee to acknowledge his stance had been mistaken.
Chafee said he never doubted the military's
ability to prevail, but feared the repercussions of straining
alliances, to which Holt replied, "What about your language? Are
you ratcheting it down because U.S. troops now are on the line?"
The Daily Show is, if anything, ratcheting
When Fox News Channel, a frequent Stewart target,
played footage of bombs exploding over Baghdad to a backdrop of
triumphal symphonic music, The Daily Show replayed the videotape
against tacky 1970s-style funk more appropriate to a pornographic
film. "It's not a straightforward talk show - so we don't have
to be this thing that people turn to for comfort and direction,"
Karlin says. "And it's not a news show, so it doesn't have too
much of what is essentially this artifice of objectivity."
Instead, Karlin says, "It's pretty much a reflection
of how we're feeling at that time."
Stewart may have best revealed his true sentiments
when he remarked on the revelry that ensued when Hussein's capital
"No matter what side of the political
spectrum you are on, if you are incapable of feeling at least
a tiny amount of joy at watching ordinary Iraqis celebrate this,
you are lost to the ideological left. And let me also add if you
are incapable of feeling badly that we even had to use force in
the first place, you are ideologically lost to the right. And
I would implore both of those groups to leave the room now."