Comedy is Activism: The Daily Show and Its Duty to Be Funny

Posted on January 21, 2015

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Jon StewartWhen I think of The Daily Show, I am often reminded of an old gag, which I must have seen in a cartoon or sitcom.

When a volunteer is asked to step forward for a ridiculously dangerous and hopeless mission, everyone but a hapless rube takes one big step back. The rube, who now appears to have taken one step forward, has been forced by circumstance to volunteer valiantly.

The Daily Show is that hapless rube, and the big players in the modern American media landscape are the jerks who took one step back — waaay back.

Jon Stewart likes to insist that he is only a comedian, and The Daily Show is only a fake news comedy, goddamn it. Unfortunately, for him, the other players in the field are so far very behind, to any discerning viewer, The Daily Show is not only very funny, but very often it is a much more credible news source.

Except when it isn’t, to some critics on the left.

In their new book, Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny take Jon Stewart and The Daily Show team to task for their coverage of the Occupy movement, and the rather underwhelming Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. They suggest that Stewart’s politics are not only dead wrong, and a violation of the trust he has earned over the years; they even go so far as to imply he is part of a corporatist agenda to ridicule public protest and activism.

I think their observations miss the mark. The Daily Show’s take on the Occupy movement, like the Rally itself, was underwhelming — not because they failed to live up to some measure of political purity — but because neither were particularly funny.

Good comedy is hard. It takes passion, commitment, and, when it’s about current affairs, a lot of research. You need to care a whole lot to be very funny.

My sense is that the team wasn’t terribly outraged by the Occupy Movement and, for whatever reason, they settled on a desperately unfunny premise for the Rally. They didn’t fail because of their politics. They failed to honour their one and only duty to be funny.

The Daily Show team, in my opinion, are at their best — their funniest — when they are palpably outraged, and have done the hard work to find the best and most cutting gag, jibe, or spit take. Sometimes, the ubiquity of a news story requires them to “cover it,” even if they aren’t that much outraged by it, and they phone it in, with Stewart mugging for the camera. When they care, however, they can knock it out of the park.

So, contrary to both Stewart and his critics on the left, The Daily Show, I think, will always be much more than a fake news comedy — so long as the team cares enough to be outraged to the point of hilarity. Even if the media landscape in America were to suddenly transform and correct itself tomorrow, The Daily Show, at its best, would remain an essential and critical voice in America.

Whether Stewart wants to admit or not, for as long as there have been jesters poking fun at kings, the best comedy has always been a form of activism. Yes, The Daily Show’s one and only duty is to be funny, but , for that very reason, so long as they do their best work, The Daily Show team will be activists on the behalf of all of us who are frustrated by the hypocrisy and incoherence of power, and who also understand that pointing and laughing is often the best way to undercut that power.

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Posted in: Arts and Culture