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Monkeys and Marionettes 

Stewart vs. Crossfire and other comic battles

Thursday, Oct 21 2004
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Illustration by Peter Bennett

I told them, “Tomorrow, I’ll go back to being funny, but your show will still blow.”

—Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Monday, October 18

The striking thing about Jon Stewart’s slash-and-burn appearance on CNN’s Crossfire wasn’t that he accused the show of “hurting America,” dubbed hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson “partisan hacks,” or wound up calling Carlson a “dick” (talk about your Flaubertian mot juste). It was that the program instantly became the stuff of pop legend. The show had barely ended before friends began calling to ask if I had it on tape and bloggers started posting transcripts; by Monday, even the Los Angeles Times had noticed, devoting a story to how America’s favorite fake newsman had raised a ruckus by not being funny.

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Now, 10 or 15 years ago, nobody would have taken a comedian’s seriousness so seriously. That was a comic era ruled by the toothless irony of Letterman and Seinfeld, a free-floating snideness that, at bottom, celebrated the detached superiority of the guy making the jokes. There was, of course, political humor, but most of it was jejune — Whoopi Goldberg’s snickering smut or those Jay Leno monologues that give invertebracy a bad name. (Mort Sahl once jeered, “They think when a guy comes on a late-night show and makes a joke about Clinton and girls, that’s political satire.”) The only political comedy that mattered was on the rabid right — Rush Limbaugh’s strangulated glee conquered the radio waves — but because its slant was conservative, the mainstream media were not amused.

All this has been changed by 9/11 and four years of Bush. Far from being buried in the World Trade Center rubble, irony has been dusted off, handed a new set of choppers and dressed in left-of-center politics. In fact, today’s touchstone comics have assumed a political authority frittered away by Democratic “leaders” and quasi-liberal media outlets like The New York Times. The left’s strongest voices belong to entertainers whose official job is making people laugh: Stewart, Michael Moore, Al Franken and Bill Maher (who was apparently elbowed into liberalism by Ari Fleischer). Even Howard Stern, who once devoted his genius to the balletic rigors of the Butt Bongo Fiesta, has gotten into the act, feverishly denouncing Dubya as he saunters up the gangway to his satellite.

Many people would reflexively include Trey Parker and Matt Stone in this company. After all, the creators of South Park have merrily herded any number of sacred cows into the abattoir. (Think of this year’s classic episode “The Passion of the Jew,” with its Nazi revivalism and loony, grasping Mel Gibson.) Yet just as embracing avant-garde aesthetics doesn’t automatically make you a left-winger — I remember people being stunned that David Lynch admired Reagan — potty-mouth subversiveness implies no particular affiliation. Far from being lefties, Parker and Stone are part of today’s triumphalist conservatism. Loving poop jokes more than ideology, they give right-wing politics the frosting of naughty irreverence.

The pair’s anarcho-libertarianism shines through Team America: World Police, which begins as a laugh-a-minute send-up of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie — done with marionettes. As the team of freedom-loving puppets flies around the globe battling terrorists, destroying the Eiffel Tower and the Sphinx in the process, the movie lays on all the familiar action-picture clichés, from the various oddballs who make up Team America to the pounding rock anthem (“America, fuck yeah!”).

Nabokov remarked, “Parody is a game; satire is a lesson.” As long as Parker and Stone are parodying Bruckheimerismo, Team America is reasonably amusing. But in the second half, when things lurch toward political satire, the movie turns sour. It serves up a plot in which fatuous Hollywood stars (members of the film actor’s group F.A.G., har-har) become pawns in a plan by Kim Jong Il to blow up the world, a storyline that winds up with Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover and others having their brains splattered all over Kim’s palace. Along the way, the movie makes so many jokes about men giving blowjobs that you feel you’re witnessing some panicky psychic eruption. (Do Stone and Parker secretly fear they belong in some Republican log cabin?) By the end, this satire’s lesson is clear: While the Team America puppets may be stupid, violent and destroy everything they touch, they’re still far better than peacenik liberals, whose strings are pulled by the enemy. Dick Cheney couldn’t have said it better himself.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Team America is designed to woo potential Bush voters; on the contrary, its unforgettable Global Theory of Dicks, Pussies and Assholes would appall the God-fearing Dubya (at least publicly). Nor do I believe that right-wing satire is inherently mirthless. I laugh out loud at ultraconservative journalists like P.J. O’Rourke and Mark Steyn, and I’m second to no one in thinking Tim Robbins a putz (okay, maybe to those who’ve worked with him). The problem is that, while Stone and Parker revel in trashing liberal Hollywood, their satire is neither surreal enough to be uproarious à la Monty Python nor precise enough to be genuinely biting. Self-promoting Michael Moore as a suicide bomber? Alec Baldwin cozying up to the Eraserhead-haired Korean dictator? Such arbitrary swipes are as smug and empty-headed as the stars they’re attacking. When it comes to politics, the South Park boys mistake contempt for humor. Thank God, they don’t try to be serious.

 

I wish I could say the same of poor Dennis Miller. If the scabrous Stern is the contemporary echo of Lenny Bruce, down to the same boring obsession with his legal woes, Miller is surely the minor-league Sahl. Just as the great Mort was knocked off his comic stride by the assassination of JFK and the women’s movement — his jokes got lost among his barking obsessions — so Miller is a casualty of September 11. Having undergone a conversion experience, he’s traded in his rapier for a bludgeon and now compares America to Sinatra slapping around punks on the Vegas strip and backs Bush because the president “doesn’t over-think it. He wakes up every morning, jumps out of bed, lands on his two feet, scratches his balls and says, ‘Let’s kill some fucking terrorists!’” Except, of course, when he takes time out to scratch Dennis’ balls by cutting his taxes.

Miller clearly sees himself as a beleaguered truth teller in time of war, but as Gerald Nachman suggests in his terrific book Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, once a comic starts fancying himself as Howard Beale, the righteous anchorman from Network, he starts haranguing the audience rather than letting his ideas reveal themselves humorously. He sacrifices the source of his power.

Which brings us back to Jon Stewart, whose canonization continues — among liberals, anyway. The Daily Show just won two Emmy awards. The hilarious America: The Book isn’t merely No. 1 on the best-seller list, The New York Times Book Review said it deserves the Pulitzer for history. And out in the world, everybody is genuflecting before Stewart. Even as liberal critics label The Daily Show “an oasis of sanity, a public service” (Charles Taylor, Salon), conservative pooh-bahs like Bill (“Vibrating Factor”) O’Reilly make their haj to The Daily Show to pretend they have a sense of humor about themselves.

To his credit, Stewart seems unnerved that a fake newscaster should enjoy so much clout. But when the call came from Crossfire, the temptation to use his power for good must have been irresistible. Not only is this show the kind that Stewart detests — America: The Book conjures an imaginary talk show called Fuck You With Pat Buchanan and Bill Press — but it’s hosted by two of cable’s creepiest figures, nervous-laugh liberal Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, he of the Ted Bundy eyes, who almost makes you respect Robert Novak for not hiding his thuggishness under a veneer of preppie sophistication. (Carlson recently burnished his iconoclastic credentials by saying, “I have contempt for this idea that ‘everyone should get out there and vote.’” Gee, I wonder which party he supports.) Begala and Carlson clearly hoped Stewart’s presence would help make Crossfire seem hip. Boy, were they wrong. Even as Carlson kept urging their guest to be funny — “I’m not going to be your monkey,” Stewart replied — Mr. Bowtie’s face twisted into the expression of impotent rage the show routinely induces in guests expecting intelligent discussion. He was much less cool about being insulted than Ted Koppel was when Stewart lectured him on Nightline.

Still, while I respect Stewart for bearding this wretched Crossfire in its own cave, I’ll bet he’s smart enough to abandon his Tiresias act. Not only does it leave him open to charges of being a scold — Wonkette accused him of “auditioning for the position of assistant professor of journalism at Blue State Junior College” — but he already makes these points far more effectively on The Daily Show, the best media-criticism class in the country. Indeed, Stewart matters precisely because he jokes so brilliantly about the intersection of news, politics and popular culture — the absurd heart of contemporary America — while lesser media guys deliberately turn themselves into punch lines.

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