"Satire's lone ranger"
New Jersey Star-Ledger
May 1, 2003
by Matt Zoller Seitz

 

Tweaking the news.

COMEDY and terror are cousins, and the news is where they go to compare notes.

Terrorism, war, international unrest, SARS, MSNBC dressing up like Fox News; it's all so ridiculous that you just have to laugh. The alternative -- walking around with a pinched face, muttering about idiots and traitors -- is no alternative at all.

Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" (new episodes premiere at 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday) understands this idea, and always has. The half-hour news show, ably hosted and co-written by Jon Stewart , is a spiritual cousin of the great humor weekly The Onion, a fake newspaper that satirizes news and journalism at once.

This smart-alecky media satire has gotten smarter and sharper since 9/11, and in the past few weeks, during the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, it has ratcheted its own excellence up several notches, to the point where its mix of relevance and rudeness recalls the first three seasons of "Saturday Night Live." (In comedy, as in journalism, bad news is good news.)

Stewart plays the role of anchor. He's surrounded by the most intrepid, incompetent, flipped-out bunch of correspondents on TV -- including Mo Rocca, Rob Corddry, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert . Like real journalists, the more strenuously they try to hide their biases, flaws and gut emotions, the funnier they are.

Consider Stewart's interview with Carell, in a piece that spoofs the decision by major media organizations to withdraw war reporters from Iraq's capital on the eve of the bombing campaign. Carell was supposedly stationed in Baghdad (in reality, "Daily Show" reporters usually "report" while standing in front of blue screens). Stewart asked his questions one at a time, and each time we saw Carell, he was farther away from Baghdad -- in an airport, on a plane, in a cab riding through Manhattan, then finally entering the "Daily Show" set to conclude the interview in person.

The piece was funny and relevant on many levels. It tweaked the image of supposedly danger-proof combat correspondents. It reminded viewers that a bombing campaign was a massive act of violence, not a set piece from a cool action movie; and in having Carell report via phone during the last half of the piece, it teased that dark thought we've all had while watching a TV news reporter phone something in: For all we know, he could be anywhere.

Here's Carell unwinding on the plane while continuing his "report" to Stewart on the situation in Baghdad. "Well, Jon, it's hard to tell what the damage will be to our alliances. ... But from my vantage point, tonight Europe is mostly dark with large, lit up patches that look almost like computer circuit boards, kind of like that movie 'Tron.' Hold on a second. ... Are you kidding me with this dressing? I asked for peppercorn ranch, and this is vinaigrette. And if this is a sourdough roll, I'm Walter Cronkite."

Stewart's interview with "war correspondent" Corddry, supposedly reporting live from Iraq during a sandstorm, was just as multi-layered, and just as silly. The piece spoofed American TV's hyperventilating, Go Team! war coverage, as well as its unconditional love of geeky meteorologists (at the top of his report, Corddry announced that the Saddam W. Hussein High School for the Performing Arts was taking a "sand day"). It also reminded viewers that for foreigners -- whether journalists or soldiers -- Iraq can be a fantastically unpleasant environment.

"It's orange, Jon," Corddry said. "That's not a color in any weather palette I've ever heard of."

For a vicious but much-needed critique of TV's rumor-mongering (in the form of "unconfirmed reports"), look no further than Stewart's interview with Colbert, reporting on the SARS scare from Toronto last week. Clad in a respiratory mask, Colbert didn't just repeat and enhance the latest SARS rumors to inflame public fear (and ratings); he admitted he was trying to start a separate asbestos scare.

"The Daily Show" has always been a political program -- during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, it ran the most ruthless, angry jokes about the president this side of Jay Leno. But since 9/11, it has been weaning itself of its longtime need to make fun of powerless heartland oddballs and refocusing its ire on those most in need of a proper tweaking: the folks who run our country.

On Monday, Stewart hosted a debate between presidential candidate George W. Bush and President Bush, both of whom were represented by news clips. The contrast between candidate Bush's pre-9/11 statements (no nation building!) and his recent ones (hooray, nation building!) was funny and unnerving. It was a reminder of how quickly the mind can change when survival (real or political) is at stake. "Strong words from two very different men," Stewart commented.

It's probably only a matter of time before some powerful person somewhere declares "The Daily Show" an outrage and a menace. When that day comes, the program will have achieved greatness, and its cast and crew will have to flee the country.

More praise for Stewart and company: Pack your bags.

 

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