Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Jon Stewart has lost his way.

It pains me to write this, but I believe the great Jon Stewart is astride the proverbial shark and about to to clear it. I have made allowances for growth in the show's popularity and the ensuing growth in Stewart's ego. I have let the softball interviews with people out of his league slide. I've even ignored his more frequent slips into "annoying tie-straightening man character" -- not enjoying such hack-work but recognizing it as an inevitable symptom of Stewart's uncomfortable popularity. What has me searching for another nightly ritual is my belief that Jon is turning into the type of cowardly, egomaniacal blowhard he lampoons.

I'm proud to be one of those who watched the Daily Show in Jon Stewart's early days, when most people thought he was a poor substitute for Craig Kilborn. I remember when David Arquette showed up for his interview high; Jon's cool, condescending reaction remains his finest moment on television. I remember when a young flavor of the month actress made a failed attempt to mock the Backstreet Boys in her interview; Jon refused to throw her a safety net or change the subject, but let the glorious discomfort of the moment hang in the air. Andy Kaufman was somewhere smiling. I remember the brilliant Stacey Grimrock Woods (sp?), his best and least frequent correspondent, whose interview with a former disco slut about the meaning of "sexolet" is still the show's best segment ever.

Now, it's obvious he hates his interviews. Usually, he knows nothing about his guest (hasn't read the book or article they're plugging; hasn't ever watched the show they're on). He relies on his cards -- obviously written by someone else -- for the first question and fills the rest of the interview with uncomfortable banter, though not uncomfortable in a good way. When discomfort is acknowledged and revelled in, as it was with the above-mentioned guests, it is refreshing. When a sweaty, manic attempt is made to cover it up, the discomfort is absorbed by the audience, who, in my case, changes the channel. I would bet my house that someone pulled Stewart aside and told him that, to take his show to the next level, he would have to start taking the interviews seriously. The old Jon Stewart would have simply told his guest "I haven't read your book, what's it about?" or "I'm sorry, I don't watch American Idol as I'm not a 12-year-old girl, but you seem like a nice guy, Bo." (If Jon and his wife really watch, as he claimed, why didn't he congratulate Bo on his daring a' capella performance or say what all of us real Idol-heads were thinking "the finals were rigged?") Dwight Yokum (sp?) is so far the only guest I've seen make the most of the new Jon Stewart.

Still, as I mentioned before, I'm willing to let the interviews slide. What really bothers me is the show's agenda. It's hard for me to say this, because I share that agenda. I'm sure I hate Bush as much as any of the writers at the Daily Show, and a lot of times, I'm gratified by the constant stream of anti-administration material. However, gratified is not the same as entertained. To someone who's mad at world affairs, a good, cleansing laugh is far more therapeutic than a segment that merely reinforces his anger. If the biggest laugh can be found by ripping on Rumsfeld or the Christian Coalition's martyr complex, use it. But if there's something more worthy of parody in a small Iowa town, go there instead. Please. The world needs it.

Lately, he's even foregone a joke at all in favor of just preaching. This seems especially true of his bits about Evangelical Christians. His line "when is the statute of limitations up on Christian Martyrdom? You guys have been in charge since Constantine" is something you'd expect on a bumper sticker. So was his comment of the day before "we have the gay pride parade and Billy Graham's Christian Crusade: which one represents a group of people bent on converting the world to their agenda?" (Well, probably both groups, if you look at it honestly, but thanks for your views, Jon) The ubiquity of comments like these have made the Daily Show nothing more than a megaphone for the views of a very small group of New Yorkers who are baffled by a country they no longer recognize. He doesn't need to make jokes anymore, because these people don't want to laugh, they want to be reassured that someone in the media shares their views. They are weak-minded, talentless, petty, witless and spoiled (think Maureen Dowd et al.) and Jon is now their champion.

As Jon-Jon has been saying for two years, his real target is the media, and he's even gotten worse at lampooning that. His strongest segments are those that mock 24-hour news stations, but again, his preachiness comes through. I agree, Tucker Carlson is a "dick" and Bob Novak is a "douche bag" but how funny is it to hear it from Jon? Worse, when he goes head to head with these wind-bags, he doesn't fight fair. The Crossfire incident is a perfect example. When Tucker Carlson tried to fight back and mentioned Jon's softball Kerry interview Jon said "you're CNN, I follow a show about puppets making crank phone calls." Every time he's attacked, his response is to roll his eyes and say "we're a fake news show." Like a kid who taunts a bully then runs behind his daddy, Stewart appears to believe his fake news show shield is impervious.

Well, like David Spade's "Hollywood Minute" persona, Jon has pierced the satiric veil by becoming an actual player in the media game. If he weren't the critics' darling, someone would have called him on it months ago. As it is, it's only a matter of time before he falls off his little tight-rope and has to roll in the mud with the rest of the little pundits. Hopefully, he'll figure this out before it's too late.


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