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
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
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
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
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